Alternatives to Political SystemsConsumerismEconomicsGlobal DimmingGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeSociety

Our Moral Dilemma: Because We Don’t Live on an Inflatable Earth

The Group of Eight members have just decreed we should limit global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above what they were in the year 1900. Is it enough? And, more importantly, do we really care?

If only it was this easy…

If the G8’s decision were made in 2002 it would have been cause for great celebration. But, this is 2009. The time lag of political response to impending catastrophe is almost as long, or so it feels at least, as the time lag of climate change itself (see also here, here, here and here if you’re not familiar with the ‘long tail’ of greenhouse gas emissions). This latter time lag – which tells us we have yet to feel the full effects of emissions we’ve released over the last few decades – should strongly impact (i.e. shorten) the former time lag, in that politicians should be feeling the heat by way of a fire lit under their buttocks.

Scientists and even national leaders (in Europe in particular) were pushing for a 2°C target several years ago. In the meantime emissions have continued to rise (in point of fact, they’ve been rising faster than ever), and, significantly, science has also moved on apace since then. The latest science warns us that aiming at 450 parts per million of CO2 to atmosphere – the figure associated with a 2°C rise – is far beyond the 350ppm level that began the dramatic melting of arctic sea ice, and that, even if all people were to vanish today, we may already be committed to a +2°C temperature rise regardless .

Their 2°C target essentially sets the scene for the geo-engineering industry, where we’ll attempt to recalibrate earth to suit our way of life.

How deep does the rabbit hole go?

Over the last century, global average temperatures have increased less than 0.8°C. This increase alone is already changing climate, impacting ecosystems and undermining the natural food/water support systems we depend on – and, as the links in the first paragraph of this post show, we’re committed to higher temperatures yet. Indeed, there is a whole level of pent up temperature increase waiting to pounce on us if only the skies cleared. Because of this, the words ‘tipping point’ have come into vogue as the implications of melting methane-rich permafrost, ocean CO2 saturation and acidification and other feedback loops threaten to take centre stage.

What a +2°C world would look like is unpleasant to contemplate, even though we must.

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier. – RealClimate

But, as if the melting arctic ice itself was directly cooling and soothing their troubled brows, the captains of our entrenched and extractive consumption-based economies have very little to show for the time they’ve spent recently in Italy deliberating over what to do with the consequences of the same. The scary part is it’s highly likely that even their 2°C target will never be met. And one aspect that will certainly work to ensure this is the case is their reluctance to set emissions reduction targets before 2050.

The developing countries want the G8 nations to sign up to a 40% cut by 2020, but that figure is off the radar of the EU and, given the unwieldy legislation laboriously passing through the senate, not a possibility for the US. – Guardian

Because of the ‘long tail’ embodied in today’s greenhouse gas emissions, the sooner we act the greater impact we will have on minimising the damage. (Note: the word ‘minimising’ is used here, as ‘avoiding’ can no longer be used in this context.) Otherwise we’re working with the law of diminishing returns.

The old proverb, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ comes to mind.

Mr Ban said Wednesday’s agreement was welcome, but the leaders needed to establish a strong and ambitious mid-term target for emissions cuts by 2020.

"This is politically and morally imperative and a historic responsibility for the leaders… for the future of humanity, even for the future of Planet Earth," …. – BBC

Instead, we’re still playing the child’s game of "I will if you will".

The monster we’ve created

The world is in recession, so prospects look bleak in more that one quarter. Politicians and economists have the quandary of quandaries – how to kick start the economy, while simultaneously reversing the damage that economy has made. They promise to restore growth, yet seek to virtually eliminate its impact. It sounds like witchcraft. Admittedly, the data sheets these guys are grappling with are beyond unwieldy. And yet, they feign dexterity and competence. Is it rhetoric, or nescience?

Maybe both, while internally recognising that they’ve deftly postponed any substantive change until after their respective terms in office.

It’s a horror story, perhaps well exemplified, if you’ll allow me, by the tale of Frankenstein’s monster. The fictitious character, Victor Frankenstein, brought something larger than life, to life. The unnamed monster ultimately sought vengeance against its creator, destroying all that Victor held dear – killing his loved ones and ruining his life. This monster could easily be a symbol of the industrialisation of humankind. As masters of our universe, our leaders, or their predecessors in particular, have created a creature that we no longer know how to control and that wreaks havoc all around us.

The sad reality is that industrialisation really didn’t need to ‘turn violent’, to turn upon us. Technology and cleverness could have been subservient to wisdom and restraint. Imagine if we lived in a world where all energy and inventions were harnessed only for good. Imagine, for example, if we’d spent the last fifty years using fossil fuels, sparingly, and to action world-changing ‘technologies’ like water harvesting earthworks – creating food forests and abundance – and creating passive solar housing, etc. Imagine, when we were tinkering with the building blocks of fossil fuels, if we considered the half life of a plastic bag or bottle, and chose to take a renewable route instead. What if common sense and care were prioritised before greed, pride, profit or short term convenience?

But, industrialisation didn’t rush upon us alone.

Frankenstein’s monster pleaded with his creator to create a companion for him – a monster bride. Frankenstein considered but ultimately rejected this request, fearing the consequences if he obliged. But where the fictional scientist, finally, exercised prudence, we’ve gone and forged ahead instead. In my theatrical parallel, the monster’s bride represents our consumption-based economies. Industrialisation was partnered with an economic system that knew no limits.

The roots of climate change, and change

In other words, industrialisation, combined with unrelenting consumption, is the marriage from hell. Unrestrained capitalism has taken the industrial monster and lead it to do what it couldn’t have done on its own. And yet, capitalism and freedom, capitalism and democracy, are sister concepts. Or so we’re told. Our leaders describe them as two sides of the same coin. I would put forth that they have the potential to be, but only if capitalism is coupled with morality. Gandhi listed "commerce without morality" as one of the seven deadly social sins.

In other words, capitalism has the potential to be democratic and to foster sustainable prosperity, even if the practical reality is quite different.

So, capitalism hasn’t failed us. Rather, we’ve failed capitalism – through our collective lack of integrity. This is true whether we look at the inventor considering the impact of his product, the consumer considering the consequences of his purchase, or anyone between.

And democracy?

The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. – Edward Dowling

The 18th century scottish lawyer and writer, Alexander Tytler, has been credited with creating the following chart – representing the realities of democracy as a self-defeating cycle:

Are we not now nestled somewhere between ‘apathy and ‘bondage’, with the largest chunk of our morality lost – dropped unnoticed while ambling between ‘abundance’ and ‘selfishness’ way back in the middle of last century?

Weakness of character leads democracy and capitalism to effectively destroy each other. A dumbed down citizenry will seek to vote in those that promise to fulfil the populace’s selfish ambitions rather than those that seek true greatness and equality, whilst industry occupies itself with capitalising on society’s hedonistic tendencies. The ‘system’ thus becomes a race to the bottom – extracting what we can, all the way down.

The cycle charted above begins and ends in totalitarianism. Freedom gives way to centralisation. In our current cycle, unlike prior generations, we have no new virgin territory to flee to, no Mayflower to hop aboard. Population growth, climate change, almost universal soil and water depletion, etc., are for the first time in history ensuring that we must either change, fast, or suffer the direct consequences, with little to no chance of escape.

To hell in a handbasket?

Are we riding to hell in a hand basket? Do I see hope here? If I’m to be brutally honest, I personally suspect that we will, as a society, despite the noble unselfish efforts of remarkable individuals scattered around the world, wait until the waters are lapping on our doorstep (which means we’ll be committed to them later flooding through our second floor windows) before we get truly serious, truly mobilised, about what’s occurring. It seems that as long as western society continues to function sufficiently for us in the north to retain some degree of comfort, the needed determination will never quite arrive. Thirty years of Permaculture activity are a case in point. We live with one foot in our feel-good gardens, the other in the supermarket. On the one hand we’re feebly preparing for the future, with the other we’re bringing it upon ourselves much sooner than we otherwise might. We still live as if we’re standing on an inflatable planet, continually postponing the systemic change that needs to occur.

While I’m being painfully honest, I need you to know that if we do, somehow, conjure up the collective will to give up this dream of affluence and leisure, and find the leaders to take it forward, we probably won’t see a positive response from the climate system in our lifetimes. This fact has implications for motivation.

… even if the regulatory program succeeds at eliminating the human activity causing the harm (perhaps at great cost), the harm will continue to persist for an extended period of time because of the delay. This gap between regulatory action and environmental performance may inspire a backlash against the regulatory system… – The Sting of the Long Tail: Climate Change, Backlash and the Problem of Delayed Harm

Only an inner conviction, an irresistible moral compulsion, can drive an entire populace to make such choices, and to stick with them. Someone once said that "opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognise them." Are we blind to the opportunities, the work, before us? Can we find the inner determination, and soon? This is the question that remains.

Humanity is in for a nasty ride as the ecological fabric of being is deeply frayed. Yet the Earth and her humanity possess amazing regenerative and adaptive capabilities. We must trust in our ability to define and implement sufficient policies to pull back from the brink of destruction; starting with rigorous policies to reduce human population, end use of coal and other fossil fuels, preserve and restore ancient terrestrial ecosystems, and return to the land for a life of rich voluntary simplicity. – Climate Ark

True democracy and an economy based on freedom – sustainable capitalism, that recognises and gives precedence to natural capital – are largely unknown today, even more unknown than true examples of voluntary low-carbon self-sufficiency. Although they are opportunities lost, privileges abused, they are also all waiting to be seized and reclaimed.

Further Reading:



  1. Our mistake, I submit, is that we view the tipping point as the future conjunction of facts in environmental science instead of it having been a sociological event that we passed decades ago. As stated in Limits to Growth, never mind the additional impact of global heating, “Because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long.”

    How will we deal with billions of deaths, millions of refugees, hugely increased demands for palliative care, cannibalism, and worse (whatever that might be!).

  2. I’d have to agree with you Chris. The earth’s response is certainly preceded by an earlier socio-political response to things we could have, should have known already. As a race, foresight seems an underdeveloped attribute.

  3. As a secondary school teacher in the UK, I privately weep that sustainable living is not introduced into the National Curriculum.
    We have not only missed opportunity after opportunity through the lack of political will and leadership to do something via legisaltion or public information, but there seems to be a condemnation by silence of our children.

  4. “…it is all perfect”. How would you explain that to all the people that are suffering and dying without food and/or water today? And I would like to hear your response when this situation arrives to your family.

    No matter what way I look at it, it is in no way perfect.

  5. Profound, elegant, compelling, convincing. Puts my thoughts for the past decade into words better than I have seen elsewhere and I search continually for insight on the topic.

    Read: “Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train” by Brian Czech. His website is at:
    Brian and Herman Daly have been working together to being us to the realization that we need a new model for a sustainable
    economy. Jack Davis Linden, VA

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