This is the last reflection of 2022 and it’s a doozy. More than 2,000 words filled with insights from analyzing the last year of sustainability trends. Take your time with it, perhaps ingesting it slowly while sipping a cup of hot cocoa. And if you haven’t already taken a moment to support these reflections and would like to, I invite you to do so before the year comes to a close.
Have a great New Year!
Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries try to get some free press by declaring a word of the year.1 This year, I found the results especially interesting as Collins Dictionary chose “permacrisis” as its word of the year.
Permacrisis is the joining of the prefix perma- (which means a fixed state) and crisis, resulting in a word that means ‘a state of permanent crisis’ (or according to Collins Dictionary “an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events.”) Of course, extended is a mushy word, and could mean a year or forever—kind of like permafrost, perhaps it’ll stay frozen for another million years or then again maybe runaway global warming will thaw it out in a horrific decade or two of rapid and nightmarish ecological change.
But it’s fitting that just five months after coming back from a polycrisis conference, where leading researchers openly talked about the converging crises that could feed off each other and bring about societal collapse, a new word describing that transitional state from polycrisis to all-out collapse would make the news.
So is that where we’re heading? Or not?
Everything’s Roses Again
In 2017, the essayist David Wallace-Wells wrote an essay in New York Magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth,” where he painted a picture of what the world will be like if average temperatures increase 4-5 degrees Celsius due to climate change. It was a horrific vision and captured the public’s attention because it was so much more honest than the watered down descriptions in IPCC reports. However, this fall, Wallace-Wells wrote an update in The New York Times in which he now has moderated his tune, arguing that our rapid shift to renewables means we’ll probably keep the temperature rise to 2-3°C, which is still filled with horrors (as this accompanying graphic walks one through) but is ‘manageable.’ Humans are proving that they’re up to the challenge to make the great renewable energy transition, green cities, restore nature, and somehow adapt to the changes that are coming.
There’s a lot to unpack there. It’d be great if he’s right. Of course, 2 to 3 degrees is still bad—and will mean many terrible climatic tipping points passed—but much less bad than many imagined. Though in reality, those tipping points could push us way beyond 2-3°C—whether the massive release from permafrost (which could release ten times the US’s annual emissions by 2100 in the worst case), the loss of forests, or the loss of Arctic sea ice (just to name a few).
And climate change is just one of the ecological crises we face. Nature is still being razed and biodiversity erased. An article in Bloomberg after Lula’s reelection in Brazil showed that Lula winning will mean less deforestation than under Bolsonaro, but not the salvation of the Amazon rainforest (during the campaign, Lula’s running mate was dispatched to “build bridges” with ranchers and agribusiness, and during his first tenure, there was still lots of deforestation going on).2 And coral reefs are still probably lost in this ‘moderate’ warming scenario and all the beautiful life that populates these ocean oases. Coastal mangroves and coastlines in general too will be battered or submerged.
Open Season on Gaia
Of course, it’s not Wallace-Wells’s fault that he’s gotten unrealistically rosy. International report after report (such as this one from UNEP) explain that if countries stick to their climate pledges, we’ll keep temperature rises to just 2.4-2.6°C by 2100. But here’s what really scares me—to get to this less-negative scenario means open season on Gaia. Lands will be ripped up, deserts and coastlines paved over with energy infrastructure, and remaining natural lands will be commodified—turned into profitable “Nature-based solutions,” which is the new buzzword for finding ways to profit from managing natural capital. (This isn’t really a new concept—Robert Costanza and others estimated the value of ecological services (back in 1997) and urged us to see their value in sustaining our economies—perhaps this is the fruit borne of that conceptual insight.)
In today’s business climate, corporations need to show they’re being responsible stewards—and finding ways to invest in nature in a way that makes them look good and is still profitable definitely sounds like a win-win (for the companies and their reputations, though perhaps not for nature). One example from the recent news: the investment company Nuveen is selling stakes in a sustainable timberland investment that offers a 5-7% return from selling timber, carbon offsets, and conservation easements. Of course, it’s not clear whether the integrity of the forest will be sustained or if these will be tree farms, or, if there are any people living there, what will happen to them. Nor is it mentioned what happens if/when these lands are eventually sold. We’ve seen this all before, with conservation organizations pushing those pesky Indigenous stewards out of the way to ‘conserve’ the land. Will it really be different this time when the motive is profit rather than just ‘saving the planet?’
But truthfully, we’re smart enough, and corporations’ self-preservation instincts strong enough that we could figure that out. A new report by Earth Security found that the 979 dams in cloud forests around the world (which generate billions of dollars) are dependent on the trees that make the rain that make the rivers that power the dams (duh). And yet these aren’t protected. So, the report asks, why not create a new revenue stream for the forests by protecting those trees (by monetizing their carbon sequestration benefit), which will in turn protect the continued profits of the hydroelectric industry? Sounds good, if we don’t stop to ask about why 979 dams were built in these key ecosystems in the first place (or why there are another 684 dams currently in development that also depend on water from cloud forests).
But Wait, There’s More
As bad as the commodification of nature sounds, I think this is what frightens me most: Axios included a graph of how many minerals we’ll need to make this transition after the IEA’s World Energy Outlook came out at the end of October. To get to Net Zero by 2050 (which many, many companies and countries are pledging to do) we’ll need to utilize seven times the minerals we used in 2021—up from 4.4 million metric tons to 30.9 million. Even if we pursue the less ambitious paths currently pledged by governments, that’ll still mean 4.5 times more minerals than our current production.
That brings up six significant concerns:
First, as already mentioned, we’re gonna rip up Earth seeking minerals to make our renewable energy-driven future come true. When the dust settles, we’ll be living in a pocked and cratered desert-scape (with even the deep oceans left unspared), but at least we’ll be able to watch TikToks and Tweet our latest updates, like: “Day 3 of intense flooding: please tweet @me if you have found my boy Ramon.”
Second: Whose land is it anyway? A recent Nature Sustainability study looked at 5,097 current and future mining operations for ETMs (energy-transition metals and minerals) and found that more than half are on or near “the lands of Indigenous and peasant peoples.” Will we just abuse and dislocate marginalized peoples again to obtain critical materials? With this much profit at stake, the answer is absolutely, undeniably yes (and probably from many ecologically important areas to boot, which often overlap).3
Third: typically new mines take 16.5 years to go from exploration and planning to first production. Are we saying this process, which is set to tear up significant parts of the planet, will be faster? If we are, what gives way in that expedited timeline? Community input? Environmental impact assessments? Effective planning on how to safely process and dispose of tailings and other threats? If not, how will we achieve 2030 goals of seven times the minerals when these mines, on average, won’t be opening until 2038?
Fourth: all this aspirational accounting also relies on the magic of carbon capture and sequestration, which currently is a joke (with the majority of carbon capture being used to extract more oil and those that actually store CO2 accounting for 0.001% of current annual CO2 emissions). And while there are dozens of new projects being developed (with tens of billions in subsidized government assistance), these still bring the total potential to just 0.6% of emissions). Worse, these are capital and resource intensive and no one has talked about how long sequestration projects will sequester the CO2—will they leak? Explode? Or remain in service for millennia or even millions of years? (While I hope someone is studying this, this might be an example of ‘gift horse syndrome.’)3 And it’s not just carbon capture in deep wells that we’re talking about. A new report found that government climate pledges relied on 1.2 billion hectares of land to sequester carbon—that’s the size of the world’s food-producing base. Obviously we’re not being honest about what’s possible versus what sounds good on paper.
And fifth, while Lula won, making democracy safe for another day in Brazil (and the forests somewhat less threatened), the ripples of the polycrisis could disrupt wise governance at any time, causing us to deal with interstate or civil wars, or simply a breakdown in the ability to govern, rather than the smooth climate transition we’re imagining is possible when calculating the 2-3°C scenarios.
Sixth, and this is an important one, new climate data by Climate TRACE suggests we’ve been undercounting greenhouse gas emissions by a significant percentage. So we may be way further along in the ecological shift than we realized, making concerns one through five moot.
Oh, and a bonus seventh concern, one that underlies all the other. We continue to pursue growth, and imagine that we can grow, invest, and profit our way to a sustainable future. Of course we can’t. We’re just too numerous, and too embedded in the consumer culture paradigm (and held there by billions of dollars of marketing expenditures and cultural momentum). Perhaps if we came together, recognizing this was a crisis that transcended all other interests, and sacrificed the comforts of modernity, the unjust distribution that has become normalized, then we might be able to change course. But we want to eat our cake and have it too, even though eight billion cakes are just too much for the Earth to take.
I hope I’m proven wrong: I hope the Earth’s current climatic state is more resilient than I think, that renewables will do more than I expect and that we keep temperatures to 2-3°C. However, I think those rosy projections depend on lots of cards being played just right, the card table remaining unflipped, and the card players remaining quietly seated at the table rather than trying to shoot their opponents (whether because they’re cheating, stealing chips, or simply looking at them wrong). And even if they do, the tavern in which they’re playing is going to look like hell when the game is over.
Of course, instead, we could all stand up from the table and go off and play a different game—perhaps a cooperative game of how we can best curb consumerism, humanely bring down the human population to a quarter of its current size, and shift away from a growth-based economic system. But that game doesn’t sound nearly as fun—or profitable—as the first, and that’s why we’ll most likely march joyfully toward a 4-5°C future, pretending we’re making progress all the while we go.
1) Which I have to admit I find far more interesting than the “color of the year,” which this year is, ick, Viva Magenta.
2) Bloomberg is also where on the left column of any article’s page you can see a counter showing the number of soccer pitches of forest lost this hour.
3) Further, no one seems to be studying what would happen if we took those billions and instead invested them in encouraging people to be happy with less, bike more, have fewer kids or many other ecologically beneficial behaviors that would surely do more than pumping CO2 into the ground for a century or two.
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