People have “emitted more industrial carbon since 1988 than in all of prior human history, utterly failing to flatten the curve

June 05, 2020 by Vandana Shiva in Common Dreams The Path Beyond Extinction and Escape: Return to Earth, Regenerate and Share

The game billionaires play is not worthy of being called economy, either as care for the home, or as the art of living. It is extractive, naked money making, at war with life and creativity. 

On 31st May, while people were dying during the Corona Pandemic, while millions had lost their livelihoods and were going hungry during the “lockdown,” while millions were marching in city after city in the USA to protest against police brutality and police violence after the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, billionaire Elon Musk launched Space X.

For me this was a brutal display of the hubris, indifference and power of the 1% who have pushed ecosystems, communities, countries and humanity to the brink. There is no Planet B, that the Earth is our only living planet, she is Gaia, she is alive. The billionaires who have violated Planetary boundaries and contributed to the destruction of the earth and injustice and inequality in society, seem to want to “escape” from their humanity and the threat of extinction they helped create. As members of the earth community they have the responsibility to care for the earth, not exploit her and when the damage is done, decide to abandon her to colonise other planets.

The sixth mass extinction is a manmade phenomenon:  It is driven by the limitless greed of the few. When the rich and powerful destroyed the binding Climate Change treaty in Copenhagen in 2009, Evo Morales  addressed the Conference of Parties, reminding everyone  that governments were supposed to be negotiating ways to protect Mother Earth, not the rights of polluters.  As a countermeasure, he announced he would call a people’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. I was honoured to work with the group created by the Government of Bolivia to prepare a draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.

As Earth Citizens we have a choice—to either follow the market’s laws of greed and unlimited profit or the laws of the Earth.

As we make shifts to a post Covid economy, we need to take into account the full ecological, social, and political costs of what is being offered and what choices we make. Rendering invisible the real costs to the earth and people is how the mega corporate world accumulates its wealth, polarizing society further, denying millions their fundamental rights, undermining democracy, and increasing their ecological footprint, leaving these costs to be born by the earth and vulnerable communities.

As always, colonisers leave the places and spaces they have destroyed and polluted, and find new colonies to occupy and extract from, touting them as the next step of progress, as solutions to the ecological and poverty crises they have contributed to, finding other places and other people to dominate and plunder.

Cecil Rhodes who colonized Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) stated frankly “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.”

This is still the model of the economy of the 1%. The tools of extraction, and the colonies might change but the patterns of colonization remain unchanged—grab and steal what belongs to others, make it your own property, collect rents from the original owners, transform the displaced  into cheap slave labour to provide cheap raw materials, and turn them into consumers for your industrial products.

For Elon Musk, the colonies are both other planets like Mars and countries rich in lithium.  For Bill Gates and Big Tech, the new colonies are our bodies and minds—as spelled out in WIPO’s patent no. WO2020/06060 which the billionaire has just been granted at the peak of the Corona virus and in the midst of lockdown at the end of March. This Is the next step in the tech giants’ plan for the digitalization of the world where people and their work are being rendered “useless” and are being reduced to “users” of the “machines.”

A digital dictatorship  based on the premise that 90% of humanity is disposable has no obligation to social justice and human rights.  A digital dictatorship is not a life generating and livelihood supporting economy. It can work through extraction of data from our minds and bodies for a few years as “surveillance capitalism”, but because it does not create the generative conditions that support life in nature’s economy and the sustenance economy of people, because it does not nourish our health, our bodies and minds, or our creativity, our freedom or our earth being—it will destroy the ecological and social base of the economy and our future as a species.

Denial of ecological processes that support the economy, and externalising social and ecological costs, creates conditions for ecological collapse.

Economy and Ecology are both derived from the same word “oikos” our home, both our planetary home as well as the particular places we call home. Yet what is called economy today is destroying our common home.

Aristotle defined “oikonomia” as the “art of living.” He differentiated it from the “art of money making” which he referred to as “chrematistics.”

The game billionaires play is not worthy of being called economy, either as care for the home, or as the art of living. It is exractive, naked money making, at war with life and creativity.

The Digital Giants are misleadingly creating the language of “dematerialization,” as if the digital economy will run on thin air, with no resources, no energy. However, a digital economy is very energy intensive and has a very heavy social and ecological footprint. Digital technologies now emit 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and its energy consumption is increasing by 9% a year. Data traffic is responsible for more than half of digital technology’s global impact, with 55% of its annual energy consumption. Every byte transferred or stored requires large scale and energy-greedy terminals and infrastructures (data centers, networks). This traffic is currently increasing by more than 25% a year. How long will it take before the ecological load of the digitalisation of every aspect of our life will push the remaining ecosystems to collapse, driving the surviving species to extinction?

All democratic societies and citizens need to assess these costs, and ensure that the “precautionary principle” and “polluters pays principle” are applied to the digital economy. That polluters do not “escape” their ecological and democratic responsibilities, and dictators do not impose their “surveillance capitalism.”

There are options beyond colonization, beyond extinction, which first pushed other species and other cultures to extinction—and is now threatening the extinction of the entire human species.

Instead of the rich ignoring and fleeing  from the Earth, the path as humanity we should be following is to Return to Earth, in our minds, our hearts, and in our lives—as one Earth Community with a potential to cocreate, coproduce, and regenerate and allow the earth to provide for all.  This is the path to reclaiming our creative powers to shape our economies and democracies from the bottom up. This is the practice of Earth Democracy.

The assumption of superiority of humans over other species, and some humans over others of a different colour, gender, or religion is at the root of violence against women, blacks, and indigenous people.

We need to shift from Anthropocentrism to the recognition that all humans and all beings are members of one Earth Family. The assumption of superiority of humans over other species, and some humans over others of a different colour, gender, or religion is at the root of violence against women, blacks, and indigenous people. It has justified extermination of species and cultures. It is what led to the brutal killing of George Floyd, and many others before him.  And this assumption of anthropocentrism is at the root of the extinction crisis.

We need to shift from the assumption that violating planetary boundaries, ecosystem boundaries, species boundaries, and human rights is a measure of progress and superiority—to creating economies based on respecting ecological laws and ecological limits, and respecting the rights of the last person, the last child.

We need to shift from seeing money and technology as masters in a new religion of money making, “chrematistics,” to recognizing they are mere means that must be governed and regulated democratically for higher ecological and human ends.

We need to shift from extractivism as the basis of the economy to solidarity and giving as the basis of circular, solidarity economies of permanence.

We need to shift from enclosure of the commons by the 1% to recovery of the commons for the common good and well being of all.

Humanity must opt for staying alive by caring for our common home, the Earth and each other, rejuvenating the Planet, and through it sowing the seeds of our common future.

“Only as one earth community and one humanity, united in our diversities, can we hold ourselves together and step away from the precipice, and escape the destructive, ecocidal, genocidal rule of the 1% and the hallucinations of the mechanical mind. The 1% have brought us to this point, like sheep to slaughter. But we can turn around and walk away, to our freedom. To live free. To think free. To breathe free. To eat free. Seeding the Future is in our minds, our hearts, our hands.”

(Oneness vs 1%—Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom, Women Unlimited, New Internationalist, Il pianeta di tutti—Come il capitalismo ha colonizzato la Terra, Fetrinelli, El Planeta es de todos: Unidad contra el 1%, Editorial Popular, 1 %—Reprendre le pouvoir face à la toute-puissance des riches, Rue de l’échiquier)

Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist and eco feminist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology. She is author of numerous books including, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate CrisisStolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food SupplyEarth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace; and Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Shiva has also served as an adviser to governments in India and abroad as well as NGOs, including the International Forum on Globalization, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization and the Third World Network. She has received numerous awards, including 1993 Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize.

Excerpt from Grist, May 2020

Bill McKibben, for example, writing for the New Yorker, notes that people have “emitted more industrial carbon since 1988 than in all of prior human history, utterly failing to flatten the curve. (In fact, we call the diagram that outlines our dilemma the Keeling Curve, and it just keeps rising.)”

A chart showing increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 between 2010 and 2020. In May 2020, the concentration stood at 414 ppm.
Clayton Aldern / Grist

And climate scientists have already told the world what we must do to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the point at which we’ll begin to see the worst climate change has to offer: We must adhere to a carbon budget.

The science doesn’t really care how we keep ourselves from exceeding that budget. Electrify everything. Bury your carbon. Put trees on blimps. Just keep the cumulative global sum of carbon dioxide emissions to 1,290 gigatons between 2018 and 2100, and we’ll have a two-thirds chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C. Those are the rules.

Robbie Andrew, a researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, has been tracing future emissions curves that are consistent with this budget. In 2014, he and his colleagues published a paper in Nature Climate Change contemplating how to fairly divide up the remaining carbon emissions. Tucked away in the paper’s supplemental material was a mathematical illustration of the pain that would be brought on society by delaying climate action. When you’re constrained by a budget, every passing year of over-emitting requires a sharper curtailing of pollution in the years to come. Taking action lowers the peak and makes for a more gentle decline over the rest of the century.

An animation showing carbon dioxide emissions, in gigatons, required to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, if climate action were taken starting in 2000–2026. Starting later implies steeper mitigation trajectories.
Clayton Aldern / Grist

The bad news: The world has probably already blown past the period when we could have drawn down our emissions at a leisurely rate. If global emissions had peaked a little after the turn of the millennium, we could have gotten by with reductions of around 2 percent annually. But they didn’t. They’re still rising, and the annual reduction required now is closer to 7 or 8 percent — on par with the decrease in emissions we’re seeing with the world on coronavirus lockdown.

In each mitigation case, the area under the future-emissions curve is the same. (That’s the carbon budget.) But climate procrastination requires back-to-back all-nighters to catch up.

Now say we wanted to limit global warming to a 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7-degree Fahrenheit) world — at which point we’ll still see more coastal flooding, stronger storms, and longer droughts. The curve is even more intimidating. To keep from crossing this more conservative threshold, the U.N. climate panel calculated the 1,290-gigaton budget dropped all the way down to 463 gigatons. Last year, we burned through another tenth of that allotment, leaving the current balance around 419 gigatons. With a few more years of inaction, an already steep descent morphs into a cliff.

An animation showing carbon dioxide emissions, in gigatons, required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, if climate action were taken starting in 2000–2026. Starting later implies steeper mitigation trajectories.
Clayton Aldern / Grist

The beauty of the coronavirus curve, if there is any beauty to be found in it, is that the chart captures what happens over time due to policy responses, but it’s agnostic to the specific policies themselves. The point is: If communities limit the spread of the virus and distribute its incidence over time, hospitals won’t be overwhelmed. Mitigation curves tell a similar story, but the story here is about more than health systems. The steeper curve generated by delaying climate action overwhelms whole economies — and imaginations — as we struggle to wrap our heads around (and implement) what it would take to cut emissions by, say, 20 percent every year.

Since we can’t go back in time, it’s tempting to imagine alternatives to flattening the climate curve that don’t rely on rapid action. The scenarios outlined in the accompanying graphs here, for example, show the world leveling out at net-zero emissions. But there’s no reason we’d need to stop at zero.

To achieve emissions reductions at the rates required to avoid breaking the carbon bank, we’ll likely need to roll out technologies that vacuum up, capture, or otherwise sequester carbon dioxide, whether from the atmosphere or as it’s emitted in the first place. The more quickly we scale up these technologies, the more time we’ll buy ourselves to bring down our actual emissions.

And why stop there? If our curve of net emissions dips below the zero line, we’ll have longer yet to transition to economies that emit less carbon. (Each of the main emissions trajectories laid out in the U.N. climate panel’s October 2018 report on 1.5 degrees C of warming relies on periods of net-negative emissions after about 2050 to keep global temperatures hovering around that threshold long-term.)

According to Andrew, however, counting on negative-emissions technologies might be dangerous. For one thing, you’re not flattening the mitigation curve: You’re just broadening it. It’s like a variable-rate loan for subprime borrowers: You’re allowed a low rate for now, but at some point, your rate is going to skyrocket. In all cases, we’re going to have to figure out how to slash net emissions precipitously at some point to avoid surpassing the carbon budget.

The high-negative-emissions scenario “also quite likely results in overshoot — that temperatures will exceed our ‘target’ and then come down again,” Andrew told Grist. “In the language of flattening the curve, this is precisely the opposite of what we want. Overshoot of temperatures is directly equivalent to overwhelmed hospitals.”

True flattening, then, only ever translates to a lower, earlier emissions peak — another case for acting now as opposed to waiting for breakthrough innovations to fix the world’s climate woes. “It is partly this hope in future technologies — technological optimism — that delays action,” Andrew writes on his website.

In other words, while some might feel like we’re driving toward a solution, we’re also coming up on the edge of a cliff. And it’s a long way down.