Climate crisis, the deindustrialization imperative and the jobs vs. environment dilemma

Since the 1990s, climate scientists have been telling us that unless we suppress the rise of carbon dioxide emissions, we run the risk of crossing critical tipping points that could unleash runaway global warming, and precipitate the collapse of civilization and perhaps even our own extinction. To suppress those growing emissions, climate scientists and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have called on industrialized nations to slash their carbon dioxide emissions by 80 to 90 percent by 2050. (1)

Despite ever more dire warnings from the most conservative scientific, economic and institutional authorities, and despite record heat and drought, superstorms and floods, and melting ice caps and vanishing glaciers, “business as usual” prevails.

But instead of falling, carbon dioxide emissions have been soaring, even accelerating, breaking records year after year. In May 2013, carbon dioxide concentrations topped the 400 parts per million mark prompting climate scientists to warn that we’re “running out of time,” that we face a “climate emergency” and that unless we take “radical measures” to suppress emissions very soon, we’re headed for a 4-degree or even 6-degree Celsius rise before the end of the century. And not just climate scientists have made warnings, but also mainstream authorities, including the World Bank, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others. In 2012, the IEA warned that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if we hope to prevent global warming from exceeding more than 2 degrees Centigrade.” (2) In September 2014, the global accounting and consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers warned that

For the sixth year running, the global economy has missed the decarbonisation target needed to limit global warming to 2˚C . . . To avoid two degrees of warming, the global economy now needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100. On our current burn rate we blow our carbon budget by 2034, sixty-six years ahead of schedule. This trajectory, based on IPCC data, takes us to four degrees of warming by the end of the century. (3)

Yet despite ever more dire warnings from the most conservative scientific, economic and institutional authorities, and despite record heat and drought, superstorms and floods, and melting ice caps and vanishing glaciers, “business as usual” prevails. Worse, every government on the planet is pulling out all the stops to maximize growth and consumption in the effort to hold on to the fragile recovery. (4)

Extreme Extraction, Extreme Consumption and the “Great Acceleration”

Around the world, governments are pushing “extreme extraction” – fracking, horizontal drilling, deep-ocean drilling and so on. In the United States, President Obama congratulates himself for suppressing coal emissions and boosting auto mileage. But what do these trivial gains matter, really, when he’s approved drilling under the Arctic Sea, reopened the Eastern seaboard from Florida to Delaware (closed since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill), approved new and deeper drilling in the Gulf of Mexico even after the BP blowout and brags that he’s “added more oil pipeline than any president in history, enough to circle the earth and then some”? (5)

“Saudi America” has once again, after a 40-year hiatus, become an oil exporter.

In fact, Obama has approved so much new oil and gas extraction that even Americans can’t consume it all, so “Saudi America” has once again, after a 40-year hiatus, become an oil exporter. Canadians are doing their bit to cook the planet faster by extracting tar sands bitumen, the dirtiest of the dirtiest. China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are scrambling to suck out the oil under the South China Sea. Even Ecuador is opening its previously off-limits Yasuni Biosphere Reserve to drilling by Chinese oil companies. Around the world, we’re consuming oil like there’s no tomorrow. And not just oil, everything. Industrialized and industrializing nations are ravenously looting the planet’s last resources – minerals, forests, fish, fresh water, everything – in what Michael Klare calls “the race for what’s left” in his eponymous book. (6)

Extreme extraction is driven by extreme production and consumption. Around the world, resource consumption is growing at several multiples the rate of population increase, driven by the capitalist engines of insidious commodification, incessant invention of new “needs,” daily destruction of existing values by rendering more and more of what we’ve already bought disposable and replaceable, and, of course, by the insatiable appetites of the global 1%. Today, the global rich and the middle classes are devouring the planet in a kind of après-moi-le-déluge orgy of gluttony. Russian oligarchs party on yachts the size of naval cruisers. Mideast oligarchs build refrigerated cities in the middle of baking deserts. China’s newly rich consume not the usual baubles only, but also the world’s last tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, bears, pangolins and other rare exotic creatures, along with the last tropical forests – on an industrial scale. (7) Consumption by the global rich is beyond obscene, but given its size, global middle-class consumption has vastly more impact on the planet’s environment. For every Rolls Royce, there are thousands of Mercedes Benz cars. For every Learjet, hundreds of Boeing 777s.

Just look at China: Once China joined the capitalist world market, it has had to generate steady growth, at least 8 percent per year, just to keep up with its population which is still growing by around 7 million people per year, the equivalent of adding another Hong Kong every year. Further, given seething public anger and open, often violent protest against corrupt, crony capitalist Communist Party officials, the government has desperately sought to push growth and consumption to placate the opposition and to coddle middle-class supporters. So it has built entire completely unnecessary industries, including the world’s largest automobile industry that China has no oil to fuel, which only adds layers to the country’s gasping pollution, and which has brought transportation to a standstill in China’s cities. In the 1980s, Beijing had a few thousand (rather vintage) cars, trucks and buses, but one could bicycle across the whole city in half an hour and not have to wear a gas mask. Today, with 5 million cars on the city’s streets, that journey can take hours by car, while on many days attempting that cross-town ride on your bicycle will put you in the hospital. (8)

Americans are said to use more electricity just for air conditioning than the entire continent of Africa uses for all purposes.

China is now consuming half the world’s coal, more than half the world’s steel, cement, copper and vast quantities of other resources, to build unnecessary industries, unnecessary and dangerous dams, forests of useless vanity skyscrapers, to blanket the country with nearly empty high-speed rail networks and empty national expressways systems. (9) It has built millions of empty apartment blocks, even entire cities complete with shopping malls, universities, hospitals and museums – but no people. By one estimate, China’s builders have put up more than 64 million surplus apartments, enough new flats to house more than half the US population, and they’re adding millions more every year. (10)

It’s not so different here. In the United States, no one even talks about resource conservation anymore. That’s so quaint, so 1970s. So “small is beautiful” and all that. Since the Reagan revolution it’s been all about the “me” generation, about ever more consumption, about “living very large” as The Wall Street Journal puts it. American houses today are more than twice the size on average of houses built in the 1950s – even as families are shrinking. Most come with central air, flat-screen TVs in every room and walk-in closets the size of 1950s spare bedrooms. And those are just average houses. McMansions offer breathtaking extravagance and waste: swimming pools in the basement next to the bowling alleys next to the home theater next to the gym, the bar lounge and game rooms. And those are just the basements. Upstairs there are the Elle Décor floors and furnishings of tropical hardwoods, Architectural Digest kitchens in marble and stainless steel, Waterworks bathrooms, “bedroom suites” the size of small houses, lighting and audio “systems” and on and on. (11)

Americans are said to use more electricity just for air conditioning than the entire continent of Africa uses for all purposes. Middle-class Americans don’t even drive “cars” much anymore. They drive behemoth gas-hog SUVs and luxury trucks with names to match: giant Sequoias, mountainous Denalis and Sierras, vast Yukons, Tundras, Ticonderogas and Armadas. Many of these are more than twice the weight of US cars and pickup trucks in the 1950s. There goes Obama’s plan to reduce US global warming emissions by boosting fuel economy. (12) Americans used to vacation at the nation’s incomparable national parks and seashores. Now, increasingly, they jet off to far corners of the globe, or drift about the seas on 20-story high cruise ships bashing coral reefs.

Globalization and the advent of “The China Price” has also enabled industrialists to boost consumption by dramatically lowering the cost of light-industrial consumer goods production, so much so that they could finally annihilate most remaining “durable” goods categories – from refrigerators to shoes, and substitute cheaper, throwaway replacements. (13) Thus, “fast fashion” (or “trashion fashion”) from H&M, Target, Zara and others now rules the women’s apparel market with clothes so cheap it’s not worth the cost of dry-cleaning them.

“While population has risen fourfold in the last century, water use has gone up sevenfold.”

As fashion industry insider Elizabeth Kline relates in her recent book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, (14) “seasonal shopping patterns have given way to continuous consumption.” Zara delivers new lines twice a week to its stores. H&M and Forever 21 stock new styles every day. In Kline’s words: “Buying so much clothing and treating it as if it is disposable, is putting a huge added weight on the environment and is simply unsustainable.” To say the least. The US cotton crop requires the application of 22 billion pounds of toxic weed killers, every year. Most fiber is dyed or bleached, treated in toxic chemical baths to make it brighter, softer, more fade resistant, water proof or less prone to wrinkles. Upholstery fabrics and children’s pajamas are treated with ghastly chemicals to make them stain resistant or fireproof. These toxic baths consume immense quantities of chemicals and water and it goes without saying that in China, the chemicals are routinely just dumped in rivers and lakes, untreated. Then after all the chemical treatments, the fabrics have to be dried under heat lamps. These processes consume enormous quantities of energy.

The textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and it’s growing exponentially. In 1950, when there were around 2.5 billion people on earth, they consumed around 10 million tons of fabric for all uses. Today, we are 7 billion, but we consume more than 70 million tons of fabric annually, nearly three times as much per person as we consumed in the 1950s (hence those walk-in closets). Producing 70 million tons of fabric consumes astounding quantities of resources, including more than 145 million tons of coal and between 1.5 and 2 trillion gallons of fresh water, every year. Synthetic fibers like polyester and such (now 60 percent of the market) are the worst: They consume between 10 and 25 times as much energy to produce as natural fibers. (15) In short, “fast fashion” is speeding the disposal of planet earth. And that’s just one disposables industry.

Shortly after the great People’s Climate March in September, the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) issued its latest Living Planet Index detailing how human demands on the planet are extinguishing life on earth. According to the report, the world has lost more than half of its vertebrate wildlife in just the last 40 years – 52 percent of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mammals. Read that again: HALF THE WORLD’S VERTEBRATE WILDLIFE HAS BEEN LOST IN JUST THE LAST 40 YEARS. “The decline was seen everywhere – in rivers, on land and in the seas – and is mainly the result of increased habitat destruction, commercial fishing and hunting,” according to the report. The fastest decline among animal populations were found in freshwater ecosystems, where numbers have plummeted by 75 percent since 1970. “Rivers are the bottom of the system,” said Dave Tickner, WWF’s chief freshwater adviser. “Whatever happens on land, it all ends up in the rivers.” Besides pollution, human overconsumption for industrial purposes is massively straining the world’s freshwater systems: “While population has risen fourfold in the last century, water use has gone up sevenfold.” (16) All these trends are driving what scientists are calling “The Great Acceleration” of consumption that took off after World War II and has sharply picked up speed in the last three decades as China industrialized. Like some kind of final planetary going out of business sale, we’re consuming the world’s last readily accessible natural resources in a generation or two, in a geological blink of an eye….more

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission