Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, June 21, 2015

on sustainability

Makoko neighborhood, Lagos Lagoon

Ross Douthat writes:

It’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes “the present world system ... certainly unsustainable,” as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps “radical change” can, in fact, be persistently postponed.

Indeed, perhaps our immediate future fits neither the dynamist nor the catastrophist framework.

We might have entered a kind of stagnationist position, a sustainable decadence, in which the issues Pope Francis identifies percolate without reaching a world-altering boil.

In that case, the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in “Laudato Si’” will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.

I think this is a very powerful response, but one that needs unpacking. The key terms are “sustainable” and “manageable,” and the key questions are “Sustainable for whom?” and “Manageable by whom?”

(Please note that what follows is written under the assumption that the standard predictions are right: that anthropogenic climate change exists and will continue, that temperatures and sea levels will rise, etc. If those predictions are wrong and the climate does not alter significantly, then “the present world system” will continue to function — unless rendered unsustainable for wholly other reasons.)

To write as Ross does here is to take a government’s-eye view of the matter — or perhaps a still higher-level view. One example: Rising sea levels will be neither sustainable nor manageable for poor people whose homes are drowned, and who will have to move inland, perhaps in some cases into refugee camps. But it is unlikely that these people will be able to stage a successful rebellion against the very political order that has left them in poverty. Resources will need to be diverted to manage them; but in the developed world that will probably be possible.

In poorer countries with less extensive political infrastructures, chaos could ensue. But those countries are typically not essential to the functioning of “the present world system,” and indeed, the people who run that system may find the resources of such countries easier to exploit when they become politically incoherent. Thus it’s not hard to imagine, as a long-term consequence of climate change, multinational corporations becoming ever more important and influential — a scenario imagined in some detail by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars Trilogy. In such an environment, “the present world system” might actually become more rather than less secure.

In light of these thoughts, it might be worthwhile to look at the whole paragraph in which the Pope deems the current order “unsustainable”:

On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”.

The key phrase here is “from a number of points of view.” It might be that national governments remain stable, that the worldwide economic order continues in its present form, and yet the whole enterprise genuinely is unsustainable in ecological and moral terms — in terms of what damage to the earth and to human well-being the system inflicts. Devastation to the created order, of which humanity is a part, may prove to be politically sustainable, but it will be devastation nonetheless.


  • "poor people whose homes are drowned, and who will have to move inland, perhaps in some cases into refugee camps" —
    grudging hospitality, and even inhospitality, to refugees in the Mediterranean, and Myanmar/Malaysia/SE Asia, are a worrying hint about what's ahead under conditions of business as usual.

  • Very good point, John.

  • “... the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion.”

    Sounds a little mealy-mouthed to me. So does Douthat. When experts (scientists, clergy, journalists, intergovernment agencies [the IPCC!], or merely opinion holders like me) write about a future that has not yet unfolded fully, it’s quite simple to accept for the purpose of argument that all or most imaginable scenarios are possible. However, on sober and sustained examination, most scenarios are already foreclosed, and some are guaranteed; we’re more constrained than not. We’re also not especially well equipped psychologically to recognize or admit world-ending threats, so instead the rhetorical response includes a series of “what ifs?” and skirting of issues that purportedly fall outside the narrow scope of, say, the Vatican. I object for two simple reasons: exponential curves and concern for our mortal souls.

    The first is what science is really good at discovering and describing. Two such curves are energy consumption and population growth, which are correlated. Whether measured in joules, BTUs, or calories, human appropriation of limited available energy simply cannot continue to rise exponentially. That possibility is foreclosed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. When calories are no longer available in abundance, population declines, sometimes dramatically.

    Second, the Church and Pope ought to recognize that a looming famine (distributed unevenly over the globe) is well within their scope of concern as spiritual leaders. Plenty of reason to have definitive opinion. When finding the proper level of alarm, erring on the side of “we need to take things very seriously” is far preferable to “maybe something else will happen, we just don’t know yet.” Our course toward catastrophe is plotted pretty clearly; why would anyone expect a different destination when we keep steering straight at it?

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