What could be done practically and comprehensively about reducing CO2 emissions, global warming, climate change, ocean acidification, and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy – while also addressing Limits to Growth, peak resources, the tangible realities and interactive earth system dynamics of “sources and sinks”, the various kinds of environmental degradation and destruction, and the overshooting of the carrying capacity of the planet? In other words, how can the frog radically transform the pot that it is slowly starting to boil within?
And is suggesting how to do this further below “An Incredibly Unreal Reality, a “Real Unreality”, or just something “Surreal”?
(a two part post - by Max Iacono)
My writing of this post was inspired by a number of ideas. The first was the reality (or realization) that there is really nowhere for the frog to jump out to. Now and for the foreseeable future we are stuck here on Planet Earth. This leaves the frog (us) few options. We can either: i) try to adapt to the ever hotter waters we find ourselves in and hope not to boil and somehow survive; ii) we can do nothing and sooner or later will end up being cooked; iii) we can hope and delude ourselves that in fact “there is no problem” (a synthesis of various denialist positions) or that technology or some other clever and highly creative solutions “will eventually emerge” and come to our rescue; or iv) we can try to put out the fire which is heating the pot, or otherwise deliberately try to transform the pot and/or its “internal contents and external context”.
But what are the “contents and context” of “the pot”? They are nothing less than the interactive political, economic, social, and cultural systems (or paradigms) of present human society on planet earth and their various institutions and supporting ideologies. Something perhaps “not that easy” to transform? And so is it “unreal” or “surreal” to hope to do so?
Other ideas that have inspired or conditioned my thinking about the contents of this post were as follows: The recurring notion of “An Incredibly Unreal Reality” which is in the process of unfolding (the title I first had thought of giving to the post) and which somehow reminded me of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”:
“Being” in space and in time is an ephemeral and evanescent and arduous proposition and task in any age. Kundera described aspects of it in an age and social context when communism of a certain type and its local sociology (in Prague) was alive but seemingly (at least to some) embarking on its ending. Are we now in an age where (ubiquitous) capitalism of a certain type is also alive but seemingly (at least to some) coming to end ? Is history an eternal recurrence of events (Nietzsche) or does each person (and period of history) have only one life to live and that which occurs in life, (individual or collective) occurs only once and never again?
Or are we instead perhaps in a brand new age more like Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
and its Reaganite-Thatcherite correlate “TINA” (there is no alternative) to economic liberalism; free markets, free trade, and capitalist globalization which are –presumably- the best and only ways for modern societies to now live and develop further?:
But in fact the “history” of human society on earth could well come to an untimely end for biophysical reasons if the social (and economic and political and cultural) history of the planet stays on the same (TINA) course.
Or perhaps we need to adopt or take into consideration at least certain aspects of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (the reasonably well known Italian film director and intellectual of a few decades ago) highly critical (and iconoclastic in the broadest sense) thinking from his essays “Scritti Corsari” which he wrote in the mid 1970’s? In those essays Pasolini saw certain political and sociological realities in Italy as being physical evidence of stories and myths presaging the end of the world and the irreversible and violent end of a secular history.
Italian readers can read about this at the following link:
and English speaking readers can instead read this one:
And I DO hope that the readers of this post will not to be too disappointed by my own meager “rationalistic ramblings” which now follow below which are not at all at the level of any of my philosophical sources of inspiration and “contextualization” above. But I hope they will at least provoke some further thoughts on the issue of the “unreal reality of the frog jumping out” that I describe and perhaps take us all marginally closer to a “real reality” of actually doing so.
Part I: Humanity’s current predicament and what could be done
Readers also should note that a PART II to this post “Can current human society be transformed to improve its chances of longer-term survival, and how?” follows further below.
…So basically in this two part post I will try to “jump out and ahead” (leap-frog) one of the key founding assumptions of our “frog blog”. And although it is NOT an “answer” to my other recent post “More Questions than Answers” which can be found here:
..it does at least try to provide the beginnings of an answer. (why ask questions if an answer is not going to at least be attempted?)
The objective or task of our frog-blog if I had understood its underlying premises or purposes correctly is that we (and other like-minded climate change and environmental activists) need to communicate much better and more effectively (to those yet to be persuaded or convinced) about climate change (about its scientific causes, practical effects and impacts, and the sensible human responses to these and the various respective ongoing dynamics and interactions) in order to develop and arrive at a wider “public consensus” about the need to act, and act meaningfully and promptly.
Such a broad public consensus would then encourage and enable a more adequate overall “response” by humanity (by governments, the worldwide private sector, and worldwide civil society at various levels, all using a variety of policies, strategies and measures) to start to solve the actual problem more seriously than has been done to date (through the implementation of various much more appropriate and effective policies, programs, or other kinds of measures and changes, (to laws, regulatory frameworks and all the like) all actually to be implemented by the most suitable appropriate actors, and all accomplished within the time frames required).
“Required” to not go above some particular level of PPM’s of CO2 in the atmosphere and some level of increase of average earth temperature over pre-industrial levels. Readers also should note that although Earth’s average temperature has thus far increased “only” by about 0.8 degrees, regions such as the Arctic have already seen much higher average temperature increases. For some of the possible runaway effects we may be facing please see the following two quite recent articles:
This average increase in temperature could be 1.5 degrees, or 2 degrees, or 4 degrees or even more depending on what planetary conditions the current cohort of humanity were willing to “live with” (or die with) and what sort of planet “we” (the current human cohort of 7 billion happy denizens) wish to leave to our posterity. Also bearing in mind that although global warming and climate change due to CO2 emissions is a very BIG problem there also are other environmental problems which are nearly as serious stemming from Limits to Growth considerations. Such as depletion of non-renewable and renewable resources, serious degradation and destruction of various facets of the biosphere and various kinds of micro and macro pollution (e.g. huge continent-sized swaths of floating garbage in the northwest Pacific Ocean) and toxicity all deriving from already having gone well beyond the “carrying capacity of the planet”, and being on track for going much further beyond it.
I tried to summarize all this by providing an overview of what seems to be happening, in two earlier posts of mine by the titles: “Our Warming World: Temperature Trends, Indicators: Part of the future is already here, more is to come” and its post scriptum that accompanies it by the title: “Post Scriptum to “Our Warming World: A Broader Analytic Framework for Consideration” , which respectively can be found here:
Without now going into the question of whether a wide popular or public world consensus is actually necessary or needed (or not) to begin to take the appropriate kinds of actions (many kinds of policies and measures often are implemented by policy makers and top decision makers without prior public consensus or consent) (note the many wars started and sustained mostly without public consent) let us assume that such a public consensus were indeed necessary, and could be achieved, and that we could thereafter finally get down to the actual business of wholeheartedly implementing the necessary changes and programs. What would these changes be, who would lead and participate in their implementation effort, and what end -states of the “worldwide transformation” process would be attempted?
I think it would be very useful to envision and consider not only various “end-scenarios” to whatever overall transformation process humanity would decide to embark upon (either before or after adequate “consensus” were achieved) but also how the respective end-states practically could be achieved and by whom.
Various such “end-states” have been either explicitly discussed or tacitly assumed in what I have read over the past few years:
1. Human population might rise to about 9-10 billion people and we would continue to live in the current globalized market economy system (of criss-crossing complex supply and value chains and the whole lot that we are already quite familiar with in every economic, social and political sector of the globalized system) but make changes to our energy systems and consumption patterns so that the future society presumably would be “sustainable”. This is basically the business as usual (BAU) scenario with a bit of tinkering which I personally don’t think can work and eventually would lead to societal collapse. (though precisely how and with what sequence of interactive calamities occurring first, second or third and etc., would remain to be seen) (a partial collapse of the food system at some fairly early point is, for instance, “not beyond the pale”)
2. We try to stabilize or gradually bring down human population (significantly) and we also accept a much lower world GDP and average GDP per capita and also redistribute wealth far better and more equitably. Going to something of the order of 40-50% of current world GDP. We try to reduce the amount of fossil fuels (in particular petroleum and coal) being used (after all we are right now using a staggering 90 million barrels of oil every single day, so for how long can that go on?) and we also ramp up renewables but retain globalization and the globalized system of production and consumption and the shipping of goods and services. In other words everyone tightens their belt quite significantly, we try to become (far?) fewer over time, and we also try to become far more efficient and waste a great deal less in every sector.
3. We try to transition away from the current globalized system which we gradually have created and try to develop (or re-establish) new and much more “localized” and self-sufficient systems of production, distribution and consumption where many or most goods and services are produced locally by local communities and/or by individual nations, instead of somewhere else across the world.
4. I won’t list or try to specify more such “end-states” to the world economic transformation that is needed (to jump out of, or to transform, the now close-to- boiling, or at least "rapidly heating", frog-pot) but clearly many other ones can be envisioned and worked towards either by borrowing elements from the three above and combining them in various ways and “phases”, or by spelling out entirely other ones.
5. Which end states (and “end” state is probably not a good term to use because the world would not “end” once such “end states” were achieved but would continue to evolve or develop though differently than is happening at present) we select and try to work towards, depends in great measure on whether we wish to give priority to the present human cohort or to future human cohorts. What kind of planet do we actually wish to leave to future generations? Do we care if there will be any future generations or not? Do we care or not if a collapse of human civilization occurs over the next 50 to 100 years? Does it matter if the 7 billion people now alive die at the end of their natural lives or die sooner because of a big collapse? Or a series of smaller ones? Does it matter if the future planet will be livable or completely inhospitable to human and other forms of life and the current biosphere will be wrecked? (and for a very long time to come) All these questions require careful and (above all) truthful and honest analysis and collective answers so that we then can decide what to do and how to do it. It seems to me that this is the sort of “consensus” we now urgently need to achieve rather than achieving only a consensus about the fact that we are indeed in BIG trouble or that climate change and limits to growth are real things requiring (prompt) action. (though the latter of course may be pre-requisites for the actions to come later)
So let me “leap frog” out ahead to a point in the future (hopefully not very far away) when humanity has managed to reach a strong consensus not only about the problem we face (about the science, the effects and etc.) but also about the new desired end-state of societal transformation, and therefore can begin to try to work towards it practically and seriously.
Naturally who specifically and how various global, national and local actors and stakeholders of various kinds (public, private, and civic) at various levels and in various places would start to work to achieve the desired end state (and using what kinds of policy instruments and reform programs) will very much depend on the end state selected as the goal.
Let me arbitrarily select one and then say something very general about what, who and how could go about achieving it. Other approaches and modalities would apply to other end states.
Let’s say that we decide to give priority to preserving the planet for future generations and want to stop or reverse economic growth, (to respect limits to growth) undo much of globalization and the globalized economy and begin to live in more modest ways locally (while retaining “modernity” and development) and also with a much better re-distribution of the wealth created by the productive systems in order to also improve social equity and justice (which also are not doing particularly well at the moment) as well as “survivability and sustainability” and while also achieving a reasonable and widespread degree of prosperity. (parts of the industrial globalized economy could be retained but we mostly would produce and consume locally; and this too of course would need to be studied carefully and decided and then carefully phased in step by step)
But what should be clear is that this (or any other similar such so called “end scenario”) will NOT come about on its own based on “or evolving directly and seamlessly” from the current BAU. In fact it will be extremely difficult to achieve it without major changes, disruptions, instabilities and even collapse if we are not careful and quite proactive. (and the same is true for almost any other scenario we might envisage if we do not try to organize and lead and manage the transition to it properly and proactively) And there also (inevitably) will be fierce resistance from the current political system, the current political economic and social privileged classes and elites, and the vested political and economic interests on whose behalf political and economic systems now in fact mostly operate.
To assume that such transitions will begin to occur almost automatically once a public understanding and consensus were to be achieved that we in fact face a very BIG problem is, I think, mistaken. But let’s say instead that a consensus about the desired end state were indeed (somehow) achieved and we could then proceed to try to organize to work towards it. Who and how? Let me start to try to tackle this vast topic with what I think is an interesting anecdote:
In a recent “The Guardian” article about world population and a related video i.e.
…both of which were posted to our blog list recently, the well known health and population and statistics expert Dr. Hans Rosling made one particular point that I thought was good and found rather "amusing", namely this one: "That unit [at the World Bank] which assists countries, trains the staff, and helps them to compile [poverty] data,…. how many persons are working there? Four, half-time. For the world. It's a joke. They're very competent, they're very good. But it's not serious"
And I might add that this statement happens to be true for a World Bank which has been saying for quite some time that its top priority is now world poverty and its reduction and that it follows Comprehensive Strategies for Poverty Reduction. But how can poverty be tackled properly if world population and its distribution, characteristics and dynamics is not studied and understood accurately, specifically and in sufficient depth?
And in this respect it is also interesting to note that the World Bank has proceeded from an earlier period of promoting and implementing (together with the IMF and other international institutions such as the ADB, (Asian Development Bank) the AfDB, (African Development Bank) the IADB (Inter-American Development Bank) and others and with the various UN specialized agencies playing an adjunct role) the so-called “Washington Consensus” -which in short is worldwide globalized neoliberal market capitalism, structural adjustment of national economies and widespread privatization, deregulation and liberalization of the key social, economic and infrastructure sectors of nations, and a general shift from State to Market- …and then later moved into its current period of Poverty Reduction and a pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. (and only presumably, since in fact W.B. policies and lending programs have in many respects remained fairly similar to what they were during its earlier “Washington Consensus” period or regime or paradigm.)
Here are some of the things the World Bank has been doing, or contemplating doing, very recently:
So (considering for a moment just the World Bank as a possible institutional actor to work towards the new agreed upon end-state) what the W.B. would need to do (once a new "non-Washington" political consensus for the new end-state took firm shape at the top of all key nations- and which regrettably I don't think is going to happen) (since the OECD countries and the BRIC countries all would have to agree to it and support it not just in words but also in deeds i.e. the G-20) … would be for the W.B. to then re-orient and re-focus itself to work first and foremost for Survivability and Sustainability (that is, no longer work for the Washington Consensus –but rather, gradually undo its results- and not work only for Poverty Reduction either, and particularly if this is done only half seriously and instead begin to reform and restructure (after reforming itself internally) the entire globalized world economy and that of every single nation-state from top to bottom and sector by sector to try to achieve overall “Survivability and Authentic Longer Term Sustainability”. (a quite different overarching goal from anything it -or anyone else- had attempted before)
The World Bank probably has the basic initial know-how needed to begin to attempt to undertake this gargantuan task (the rest can be “learned by doing” and by bringing aboard more and more partners until “an avalanche” starts to develop) but I don't think it ever will actually do so because the right pre-requisite top level consensus and political leadership is not likely to emerge and materialize or come about. At least not until things get FAR WORSE and by then it probably will be too late to get anything underway that could end up working.
In fact it is not that difficult to imagine that the worldwide transformation of present human society on planet earth which would be required to achieve the new end-state (as a rational collective human response to Limits to Growth and to Climate Change and also to “Peak Oil” and to peak other resources and whether non-renewable or renewable (e.g. uranium, or copper, or forests, or arable land or fish stocks) could be led and facilitated / implemented by a "network" of the major Western-controlled so-called “development” banks (the WB, the ADB the Latin American Development Bank, the African Development Bank) acting in concert and together with the development and commercial banks of China and those of some other developing or recently “emerged” nations now also very active in Africa and Latin America........and also with the participation of mainstream large financial institutions (such as Deutsche Bank, Barclays, J.P. Morgan Chase, B of A, BNP Paribas, UBS, and etc.) . Why? Because the resource mobilization needs of the world transformation that is actually required would be immense.
And assuming that the huge sums of finance capital needed were actually made available (for real, and sustainably over time) (the past record for amounts “pledged” by countries at assorted development conferences and then never delivered is not exactly stellar) … would the absorptive and implementation capacities of countries and of their state and non-state institutions and the plethora of actors (both national and sub-national and local) be sufficient and capable of achieving the needed restructurings and reforms in the window of time that remains? And how would such a comprehensive program be organized, designed, led, phased, facilitated and implemented? And as importantly how could the aforementioned current bastions of current neo-liberal market capitalism play a constructive role in achieving the desired new end-state of “Survivability and Sustainability” (which would be quite different from what they are used to doing) one could legitimately also ask? By being completely reformed and re-oriented first once a strong political consensus emerged among the key nations of the world? (or –more accurately- among the various interests that actually control them, and with the support and demand of the peoples of those nations and of world society more broadly?)
Together these financial and development institutions could at least in theory mobilize the finance capital and the external know-how that would be required to start to reform and restructure the 20 or 30 social and economic and infrastructure sectors of every nation on earth...
(away from globalization, supply chains and “economic growth forever” and towards more locally self-sufficient economies, a far smaller world population and a transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels; and let us also not forget once again that the current world economy is consuming roughly 90 million barrels of oil every single day, so whether we are at or past peak oil or not -and we are- sooner or later we'll run out; and then what? the even worse coal? but airplanes -just as a for instance- cannot run on coal, nor on electricity)
... and (these institutions) would be able to mobilize the 196 national public, private and civil society sectors of the world’s nations (i.e. both state and non-state actors) (at international, national and local levels) to implement the massive needed reforms. The World Bank in particular is well accustomed to working in a range of nations and looking at and dealing with the “big picture” and with “comprehensive policy frameworks” (for all sectors) both nationally, regionally and globally. Something which even the best environmental NGOs are simply NOT equipped to do and have little actual experience in doing.
BUT… the above could be done IF (and only if) the consensus and the political will at the top first materialized. Will that ever happen? Personally, unfortunately, I really do not think so. Hence my “humorous” title for this post: “An Unreal Reality or a Real Unreality”. And given that, again unfortunately, I also think that a great deal of the current piecemeal rest (carbon taxes and credits here and there, and all the other half measures -often also contradictory- often being talked about and proposed) are even less credible.
But as I said, this is only a suggestive think piece and it definitely is not intended to be a prescription for what to do. That would have to emerge from a more collective and far more thorough international multidisciplinary effort and consensus. But let me continue my own personal train of thought just to try to develop these “unrealistic” notions and scenarios a bit further since they may at least shed some light on what probably at least “ought to happen" and also perhaps help develop a better sense of the actual scope of the challenge we face.
A great deal of international experience by the IFI’s (International Financial Institutions) exists in how to design and implement policy reforms and sector restructuring for the various economic and social and infrastructure i.e. the transport and water and power and etc. sectors of developing countries’ economies. This was developed and accumulated during the long Washington Consensus period/regime/ paradigm and also during the Poverty Reduction period, but on a process level there still can be many lessons which also would be applicable to the next period/regime/paradigm. Namely what I am calling (though in fact the term was introduced by Tapio Kanninen in his book which I will refer to later on in Part II of this post) the “Survivability”/Sustainability Period/Regime/Paradigm. Please have a look at the four links below which are only a sample but provide a preliminary introduction to the kinds of reforms and reform processes for which internal capacity and know-how has been gradually developed and built-up within the IFI’s:
1) The IMF, World Bank and Policy Reform:
2) Public Sector Reform: What works and why:
3) Power Sector Reform:
4) Renewable Energy:
The above links deal only with: 1) the overall issue and processes and general contents of sector-level or economy-wide reforms; 2) specific experience with how to reform a few sectors. (but moving the power sector from coal-fired power plants to solar energy on a significant scale in some key countries through a series of suitable sector-level projects, certainly would be a big accomplishment)
But similar links and international experience on how to design and implement reforms also exist for all other economic, social, financial and also governmental /administrative / political infrastructure sectors (including also how to try to create improved national and local territorial governance through improved accountability, transparency, anti-corruption measures, improved public information, civil society participation, and etc.) and namely for:
1) The reform of the social infrastructure sectors i.e. the population sector, the health sector and the education sector. (for instance how and through what programs or projects could world population gradually be managed down reasonably, equitably and democratically? And how should primary, secondary and tertiary education systems be reformed to prepare the humans who will live in and be responsible and creative citizens of the future society?)
2) The reform of the economic infrastructure sectors of energy, power, transport and water;
3) The reform and re-regulation of the financial infrastructure sectors i.e. banking and finance (these in particular need prompt and deep and effective reforms)
4) The reform of the main so-called productive sectors of economies and each of their main sub-sectors and industries within the broad areas of: a) agriculture; b) industry and c) services (there are at least twenty of these which are significant)
5) The reform of the political and governance “sectors” i.e. public administration and civil service reform, the improvement and streamlining of territorial governance (both centralized and decentralized) and the improvement of its key variables, (accountability, transparency, anti-corruption, valid electoral processes, democracy and etc.) and also improving the relationship and partnerships and synergies between the private sector, the public sector and the civil society sector -i.e. “public-private-partnerships” that can be formed between state and non-state actors- for better implementing these various reforms, changes and transformations nationally, regionally and locally. (and also internationally and at the level of regions in the sense of continents e.g. Europe, as well)
The World Bank in particular has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience (and lessons of experience regarding both its successes and its many failures) in how to effect such policy and sector reforms over the past 30 years. Its country and regional departments and its relatively more independent Operations Evaluation Department have built up a wealth of assessments and lessons of experience and of best practice and worst practice.
Regrettably, as already mentioned, a great deal of this experience has been accumulated while implementing the Washington Consensus and the Poverty Reduction paradigm that followed it. Both depend on continuing economic growth and globalization. And both rely on economic models and theories based on classical economics or at best on aspects of the new (though now rather old) “institutional economics” and of how this applies to developing countries in particular.
But nonetheless a great deal of “process and how-to generic experience” also has been accumulated. And this experience can be put to good use in the service of the “third period” in the World Bank Group’s history which would be the “Survivability and Authentic Sustainability” period of policy packages and whichever new (non – solely Washington) Consensus might be achieved at the level of the G-20 or the U.N. that could drive it forward politically. And also sustain it once “the going got tough” which would be likely to occur very soon indeed, at least from a political point of view.
At this point I ask readers to keep in mind (so as to not totally destroy my own probably already severely waning credibility) that: i) I do not believe the World Bank Group alone could implement and manage the transition that is needed or that would be agreed upon. ii) I also do not believe the New Consensus that I think is necessary is very likely to emerge before various far greater disasters occur, and if ever at all. All I wish to say in this think piece (which as I already mentioned, is not a prescription) is that a comprehensive transition away from a globalized and economic-growth- forever and fossil-fuel based world economy IS in fact perhaps possible and that a network of financial and development institutions could probably facilitate it and implement it together with national governments and private sectors and civil society actors using policy tools they already have at their disposal, though duly adapted to the new task. What is clearly missing is the political will to act in the face of the strong opposition put forward by current (and very likely also future) political and economic vested interests. (and probably also by popular inertia) Will more widespread popular consensus and conviction be able to overcome these kinds of obstacles? Maybe, but time is rapidly running out.
And this concludes PART I of this post. Part II will follow soon.