Industrial civilisation is trashing the environment. Should we try to reform it or just watch it go down?
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th May 2010
Those who defend economic growth often argue that only rich countries can afford to protect the environment. The bigger the economy, the more money will be available for stopping pollution, investing in new forms of energy, preserving wilderness. Only the wealthy can live sustainably.
Anyone who has watched the emerging horror in the Gulf of Mexico in the past few days has cause to doubt this. The world’s richest country decided not to impose the rules that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that these would impede the pursuit of greater wealth(1). Economic growth, and the demand for oil it propelled, drove companies to drill in difficult and risky places.
But we needn’t rely on this event to dismiss the cornucopians’ thesis as self-serving nonsense. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculates deforestation rates between 2000 and 2005 in the countries with the largest areas of forest cover(2). The nation with the lowest rate was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The nation with the highest, caused by a combination of logging and fire, was the United States. Loss of forest cover there (6% in five years) was almost twice as fast as in Indonesia and ten times as fast as in the DRC. Why? Because those poorer countries have less money to invest in opening up remote places and felling trees.
The wealthy nations are plundering not only their own resources. The environmental disasters caused by the oil industry in Ecuador and Nigeria are not driven by Ecuadorian or Nigerian demand, but by the thirst for oil in richer nations. Deforestation in Indonesia is driven by the rich world’s demand for palm oil and timber, in Brazil by our hunger for timber and animal feed.
The Guardian’s carbon calculator reveals that the UK has greatly underestimated the climate impacts of our consumption of stuff(3). The reason is that official figures don’t count outsourced emissions: the greenhouse gases produced by other countries manufacturing goods for our markets. Another recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the UK imports a net 253 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, embodied in the goods it buys(4). When this is taken into account, we find that far from cutting emissions since 1990, as the last government claimed, we have increased them(5). Money wrecks the environment.
So the Dark Mountain project, whose ideas are spreading rapidly through the environment movement, is worth examining. It contends that “capitalism has absorbed the greens”(6). Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on “sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right.”(7)
Today’s greens, it charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet, demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new ones – wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines – that wreck even more of the world’s wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature, reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They’ve forgotten that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are trying to save industrial civilisation.
That task, Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of Dark Mountain, believes, is futile: “the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it.”(8) Nor can we bargain with it, as “the economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon … growth in order to function.” Instead of trying to reduce the impacts of our civilisation, we should “start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse … our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, whilst creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place.”(9)
Though a fair bit of this takes aim at my writing and the ideas I champion, I recognise the truth in it. Something has been lost along the way. Among the charts and tables and technofixes, in the desperate search for green solutions that can work politically and economically, we have tended to forget the love of nature that drew us into all this.
But I cannot make the leap that Dark Mountain demands. The first problem with its vision is that industrial civilisation is much more resilient than it proposes. In the opening essay of the movement’s first book, to be published this week, John Michael Greer proposes that conventional oil supplies peaked in 2005, that gas will peak by 2030 and coal by 2040(10).
While I’m prepared to believe that oil supplies might decline in the next few years, his coal prediction is hogwash. Energy companies in the UK, as the latest ENDS report shows, are now beginning to deploy a technology which will greatly increase available reserves(11). Government figures suggest that underground coal gasification – injecting oxygen into coal seams and extracting the hydrogen and methane they release – can boost the UK’s land-based coal reserves 70-fold(12,13); and it opens up even more under the seabed. There are vast untapped reserves of other fossil fuels – bitumen, oil shale, methane clathrates – that energy companies will turn to if the price is right.
Like all cultures, industrial civilisation will collapse at some point. Resource depletion and climate change are likely causes. But I don’t believe it will happen soon: not in this century, perhaps not even in the next. If it continues to rely on economic growth, if it doesn’t reduce its reliance on primary resources, our civilisation will tank the biosphere before it goes down. To sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation’s imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.
Nor do I accept their undiscriminating attack on industrial technologies. There is a world of difference between the impact of windfarms and the impact of mining tar sands or drilling for oil: the turbines might spoil the view but, as the latest disaster shows, the effects of oil seep into the planet’s every pore. And unless environmentalists also seek to sustain the achievements of industrial civilisation – health, education, sanitation, nutrition – the field will be left to those who rightly wish to preserve them, but don’t give a stuff about the impacts.
We can accept these benefits while rejecting perpetual growth. We can embrace engineering, while rejecting many of the uses to which it is put. We can defend healthcare, while attacking useless consumption. This approach is boring, unromantic, uncertain of success, but a lot less ugly than the alternatives.
For all that, the debate this project has begun is worth having, which is why I’ll be going to the Dark Mountain festival this month(14). There are no easy answers to the fix we’re in. But there are no easy non-answers either.
1. Even now the US has failed to tighten up the regulations – http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/09/oil-spill-ecological-review-environment
2. Matthew C. Hansen, Stephen V. Stehman and Peter V. Potapov, 26th April 2010. Quantification of global gross forest cover loss. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0912668107.
4. Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira, 23rd March 2010. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906974107.
You can read the abstract here: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/12/5687.abstract
But I had to pay $10 for the full paper.
6. The Dark Mountain Project, 2009. Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto. Hard copy.
7. Paul Kingsnorth, 2010. Confessions of a recovering
Environmentalist. Dark Mountain, Volume 1. Proof copy. The Dark Mountain Project.
8. Paul Kingsnorth, 18th August 2009. Should We Seek to Save Industrial Civilisation?: debate with George Monbiot. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/18/should-we-seek-to-save-industrial-civilisation/
10. John Michael Greer, 2010. The falling years: an Inhumanist vision. Dark Mountain, Volume 1. Proof copy. The Dark Mountain Project.
11. Environmental Data Services, April 2010. Interest grows in ‘clean’ sub-sea coal gasification.
Unfortunately you need a subscription to read it.
12. Recoverable coal reserves, 2003: 243 million short tons.
US Energy Information Administration, May 2006. Country analysis brief –
United Kingdom. http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/United_Kingdom/Background.html
13. Coal recoverable by UCG, 2004:
“UK coal resources suitable for deep seam UCG on land are estimated at 17 billion tonnes (300 years’ supply at current consumption) and this excludes at least a similar tonnage where the coal is unverifiable for UCG.”
Department of Trade and Industry, October 2004. Review of the Feasibility of Underground Coal Gasification in the UK. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/tna/+/http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file19143.pdf