“There is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation”. These are the words of one of the leading scientists on climate change, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
The reason for Schellnhuber’s alarm is that a number of tipping points that could lead to runaway climate change are fast approaching or have already begun. These include: melting permafrost in the Arctic releasing vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide; the disappearing Amazon forest carbon sink; melting glaciers and ice sheets decreasing the global reflection of sunlight; and ocean acidification as carbon dioxide absorption approaches saturation point.
Even if carbon emissions were halted immediately, it will already be impossible to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The reason, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is that CO2 particles linger in the atmosphere for centuries. More starkly, if carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory, global temperatures would rise by 4–6°C by 2100, when compared to pre-industrial levels.
Because tipping points are being reached and/or approached, if Earth’s atmosphere becomes 2°C warmer, the likelihood is that it would rapidly rise to 4°C warmer.
At that temperature, it would be impossible to grow food on large parts of the planet, much of the world would be desert, and many places would be uninhabitable. This would mean, according to Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Earth would only be in a position to, at best, support between 500 million and 1 billion people.
The convulsions caused by most of the human population dying within a relatively short space of time would probably make complex societies almost impossible to sustain and conflict over scarce resources would probably be vicious and rife.
Compounding our problems, and despite what Elon Musk and his ilk believe, the vast majority of humans cannot escape climate change by moving to another planet.
The nearest possible habitable planet is at least 4.2 light years away. To put that into perspective, using the fastest object humans have ever put in space, the Parker Solar Probe – which will eventually reach a top speed in excess of 630,000 kilometres per hour ‒ it would still take more than 6300 years to get there.
Mars is not the future for the majority of us, either (only the super-rich would be going, if it happens) and could not sustainably support significant populations of humans and other species. Life would be precarious on Mars, one crop failure or the failure of vital equipment would put an end to any colony, even if one could be established.
How on Earth did we get here?
It is a popular belief that the destruction being wrought on the planet, and resulting climate change, is due to the innate nature of all humans to unsustainably extract from the environment and to exhaust resources. The reality, however, is more complex.
For the vast majority of the modern human species’ 200,000–300,000 years of existence, people have largely lived subsistence and egalitarian lifestyles. Humans did not profoundly alter the ecology, nor destroy entire habitats, nor did they exploit other human beings. It was only 7000 years go with the rise of class systems, states, patriarchy and the extraction of surplus value that the destruction began (first on relatively small scales, later globally).
The rule of an elite; the states they created to enforce this rule; the surplus value needed to support the rulers’ lifestyles and the costs of maintaining states; and the exploitation of the majority of humans and the ecology to obtain surplus values, is where ecological destruction began. In some cases, this even led to such ecological damage at a local level that civilisations collapsed, for example the Mayan and Sumerian.
The oppression and exploitation of humans by humans, and the destruction of nature by an elite to obtain wealth, set the foundations for destroying the ecology, initially at a relatively localised level.
Yet, even these civilisations did not cause a global ecological crisis ‒ their scope was too limited and even they did not have the mentality of endless growth. It has only been with the global reach of modern capitalism and its drive for endless growth that global destruction started.
Capitalism amplifies the worst tendencies of past societies that featured ruling classes and states to exploit humans and nature. It is no accident, and no one can deny the fact, that the rapid climate change we are seeing globally began with the advent of capitalism.
At the heart of capitalism is the drive for endless growth ‒ with the wealth created from this growth funnelled up the class system and the by-products, in terms of pollution, socialised onto the ecology of which humans are part. Without endless growth, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, capitalism enters a crisis.
Endless growth and a planet with finite resources, and a delicately balanced ecosystem, cannot co-exist, and the fallout will be horrifying when the ecosystem truly convulses under the abuse of capitalism.
We are the last generation that can change this
While we are fast running out of time to radically change our society and avoid catastrophe, it is not too late.
Nonetheless, if we want to avoid a total catastrophe we will have to ditch capitalism and its mantra of endless growth. For most of those that benefit from capitalism, this is unthinkable, and many will resist.
For this reason and in all likelihood, if change is going to happen it will probably be driven by those that have the least to lose from capitalism’s demise, and the most to gain: low-paid workers, small-scale farmers (peasants) and the unemployed, who are the vast majority of humanity.
This does not negate the possibility of sections of the middle classes and individuals of an elite joining an egalitarian movement to end capitalism, especially if they do not want their children to experience the very real probability of between 6.5–7 billion people dying.
But, it is not just capitalism that will have to be ended. It is also class rule and states.
The mentality that views humans (the lower classes and in particular women of lower classes) and nature as resources to be exploited are linked. States were built by elites to undertake and enforce this exploitation.
To end class rule and the states that enforce it, democracy will have to be expanded, a system of a confederated direct democracy built, and a rational way of producing for the basic needs of all formulated.
It’s not an impossible task
Amidst the ecological crisis and civil war in Syria, four million people within North-East Syria, known popularly as Rojava, are attempting to build a new society, without the state, without capitalism and without patriarchy, and to try and do so on a basis that is ecologically sustainable.
While these goals are still a long way off from being fully achieved; a start has been made. Importantly, underpinning this experiment is the realisation that systems of class rule, patriarchy, racism and the state have left us all deeply damaged, individualistic and disconnected.
Therefore, to change and build a new society we also have to individually and collectively heal ourselves from the trauma caused by various forms of oppression and exploitation. Only then can we truly but simultaneously begin to correct the monstrous damage capitalism has done to the broader ecology.
Movements like Extinction Rebellion also hold hope. But they would have to become far larger and tackle issues that, so far, they have not fully tackled, such as imperialism, racism, patriarchy and, in particular, class rule. Such movements would also need to develop a vision of an alternative economy and practice of prefigurative politics, to inspire more people to join, by showing another ecologically sustainable society could be possible and desirable.
We also need to recognise that it is the ruling classes that use most of the resources and benefit most from the costs of pollution being externalised under capitalism.
The 100 largest corporations in the world are responsible for omitting 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The working-class globally does not actually use many resources. The poorest 50% of the global population only emits 7% of greenhouse gases.
If inequality was addressed and the conspicuous consumption of the ruling class was thereby ended, this would greatly aid in the change to a more sustainable economy that could benefit entire human population, not just an elite.
There is still hope we can save society and limit climate change. This struggle has to be fought and movements built as the stakes are higher than they have ever been.
While we are on a trajectory to see the end of complex societies and the extinction of most species if carbon continues to be pumped into the atmosphere, we are not there yet. It can still be avoided and a new society created, which is based on seeing humans as part of the ecology, radically democratic, egalitarian and caring.
Either way, it will indeed be the end of the world as we know it.
[Shawn Hattingh works for the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town, South Africa.]