False Hopes

Someone who needs hope sent me this video from the Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell folks. The videos produced by these people are generally slick-production info-tainment, generally STEM focused, generally enjoyable and uplifting… but also often just plain wrong. Or perhaps a better descriptor would be to say that the producers present a limited narrative in any given complex story.

Now sometimes narrowly defined focus is acceptable. If one wants to tell the story of black holes, for example, it’s best to shuffle all of what we don’t know off to the side until the core of what we do know is understood sufficiently to enable us to cope with all that crazy other stuff. However, with this video, that narrow focus is deeply misleading and gets a little too cozy with outright lies for my comfort.

I think we all need hope. That is what this scribbling project is all about. We need something to hold on to or we’ll all just lay down and give up. That is, in fact, a logical response to the mess we’ve made of the planet. And that is the reason, I think, that this video was made — because many thoughtful people are so deep in despair they can see no reason to do anything. Nothing they do will matter anyway. Unfortunately, this is largely true when the scope of action remains bounded by our current ways of living. There is nothing you can do within the system that made the mess to actually clean up the mess, and too few people can get outside the messy system even within their own minds. So my project is to try to help people get out. I think this video tries to give hope but does so by going in the opposite direction, chasing after the false hope that the system will fix itself and everything else it has messed up.

I think we all need hope, but I think we all can agree that false hope is worse than none at all. False hope will always spectacularly crash up against reality in the end, but the bigger problem is that false hope hides and defeats true hope. Believing in untruth prevents us from seeing the truth. We put our faith in this fantasy and live our lives according to it, and in so doing we destroy our ability to think or act in ways that are more true to reality. We go down paths that often create more problems, and we miss chances to go in helpful directions. We don’t have the energy or resources to pursue all paths. If we put all our efforts into one, we certainly can’t go in the opposite direction. And this video wants us to stay on one specific path, the one that is very likely the opposite of where we need to go — because it is the one we are currently traveling, the one that is causing all these hopeless problems.

This video plainly wants people to stay on the path of neoliberal growth economics. This is its hopeful narrative. The hope it peddles is that technology and human ingenuity will make that path wholesome… somehow… In fact, this video seems to be saying that we are already on that wholesome path and we don’t have to worry about any others. This is just not true, and for many people to put hope in this lie would have devastating consequences. If we all believe this lie, we aren’t doing anything to fix things and our unsolved problems will explode in our faces eventually. Probably quite soon.

There are all sorts of degrees of lies, and the narrative of techno salvation uses all of them. One devious technique, meant to reassure people who believe in Science, is to cite numbers and studies, often a large number of numbers and repeated citations of studies, but almost always without context. When one looks closer at these citations it becomes clear that the studies and numbers are coming from very specific and narrow sources, usually with the express purpose of supporting the data they “find”.

This video has many citations popping up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. This seems reassuring. The message is that the statements in the video are things that smart people have proven. This is what is known. Except it’s not. The citations are mainly from the IPCC which is not a research body. The IPCC has generally ethical aims, but only within the context of the system that created it. But more importantly, it only knows what that system knows. It does not go out on its own seeking out information in the real world, in investigation and experience. It is another organization engaged in citing numbers and studies from others, and the numbers and studies it chooses are those that support its own ideas. Moreover, as this video makes plain, it often suppresses investigation and experience that do not support its own ideas.

This video opens with a tale of darkness, one that is true though not nearly as dark as reality actually is (we’ll get back to that later). It talks of the carbon emissions that we are generating and the climate disruption that results from these emissions, showing scenes of storms and sea level rise and desertification. It talks about the despair that is creeping into the minds of young people in particular. There seems to be an especial horror of the idea of choosing not to bring children into this world. (The cynic in me tends to think that the horror is that white people are making this choice…) The montage finishes up with images of fire and blood-red landscapes in which nothing can grow. And over this final image the narrator is saying that those who practice subsistence ways of living will — in particular within all this chaos — see their lives destroyed. (I almost turned the video off at that point.)

This is a common trope in the techno salvation narrative. It must be. For the technocrats to exist, we all must be dependent on this system that supports technocrats. Subsistence does not do that. It supports the people and communities who do the work. It supports people very well, meeting needs and creating abundant lives (the word means to “stand strong”, after all), but it supports very little else. For that reason, technocrats have an existential fear of subsistence. But, being who they are, they do not confront this fear and reason with it. They dismiss it entirely from their view of reality. This blithe assertion that subsistence farmers will be the first to go — you can plainly hear the parentheses in the narrator’s voice — is a lie that covers up technocrat fears. 

Subsistence is by definition a lifestyle that will meet needs. In historical experience and in today’s world, those who take care of themselves in this way are always the survivors. When the capitalist system stops poisoning their world and stealing their livelihoods, they will not only survive, they will thrive, abundantly — as they, we, have for millennia. This is how humans, indeed, all life forms live. We directly meet our needs. But it turns out that humans don’t actually have that many needs that can be met by Science or technocrats. (For a hilarious, but spot-on illustration, read this from Lucy Ellmann).

More importantly, meeting needs generally doesn’t create the enormous surpluses necessary to support technocrats and other parasites. And so the technocrats must disparage and dismiss this way of life, even though this is one clear and fairly easy path to survival and hope. Within the first few minutes (seconds?) of this video, it has casually dismissed the one reliably genuine hope we have for a livable future so that it can get to the “real message”… which is apparently that we’re doing just fine. Not to worry! Keep having babies! More precisely, keep feeding economic growth and everything will be hunky-dory.

If this were true, then why make a video at all…

(But that’s a logical question… and technocrats hate hard logic…)

Obviously, this message that we can keep making stuff (green or otherwise) and growing wealth (for whom?) on a finite planet is just socially and biophysically wrong. There is a tell in the middle of the video. The narrator is gleefully citing studies that show that a few regions of the planet have managed to reduce the growth of emissions and yet increase GDP, that these places have “decoupled” emissions from economic growth. I have not traced the studies cited sufficiently to dismiss them as complete bunk. However, I am a geologist and an ecologist, and I know that there is no action on this planet that is decoupled from anything else. But I also have read enough economics to be deeply suspicious of these “studies” that show any degree of decoupling. It’s very easy to manipulate numbers… even the narrator admits as much… And the fact is that thus far there has been no unbiased evidence for decoupling no matter how hard interested parties keep trying to find it. Notably, when the narrator switches from his cherry-picked countries (all of which are deindustrialized nations that import everything from electronica to food) to try to make the case for generalized global decoupling, there are no citations at all. He baldly makes the audacious claim that the world is seeing economic growth independent of emissions with nary a scrap of supporting “evidence”. Not even an IPCC study…

So this is a message of false hope from start to finish. But it is even worse than that. I received a link to this video from someone who is truly suffering from despair. I don’t want to take away anything that might give him hope. But not only is the basic message of this video wrong, the opposite path of what might be hopeful, but it is not even wrong enough.

The message in this video is that we need to get carbon emissions under control and everything will work out fine. However, not only is the path presented in this video no way to get to reduced carbon emissions, but reducing carbon emissions by itself is not going to make a survivable world. It’s not enough to clean the carbon from the sky. (And, yes, the video trots out the tired fantasies of carbon capture technology that doesn’t exist and reduced costs of renewables somehow meaning that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels…) Reducing atmospheric carbon does not clean up all the messes we’ve generated. It is not even the most important mess. It is, however, the only mess that can be discussed in economic terms.

The biggest mess that we face is well outside any economic solutions. It may be unsolvable, but it is definitely not going to be solved by doing the things that are causing it. And capitalism is the direct cause of the most dire threat to our future — biophysical collapse. Capitalism is causing extinction. Capitalism, and especially this globally toxic extractive neoliberalism, is inimical to life. It is creating the death of the biosphere. There is no path to infinitely increasing resource plunder on a finite planet that allows sufficient space and resources for life to continue.

We are in the middle of the fastest extinction event the planet has ever experienced. It is on track to be the largest as well. This means it will eliminate all but a small portion, maybe as little as 2%, of all life-forms — especially within the oceans. We will not survive this. We can’t engineer our way out of this. We have not yet managed to terraform even a glass bubble in the midst of a congenial climate, never mind keep an entire planet of life going. We don’t even know what is needed to do that. Because we do not understand what life is! And we are certainly not one of the more important players in that game.

Our bodies can do exactly nothing to directly produce food and air. We are utterly dependent on a functioning biosphere for everything. Even to dismantle our dead bodies. Even to digest the food that we manage to acquire. In fact, it is increasingly clear that we can’t even think without a healthy but foreign microbial ecosystem in our bellies — all of which are imperiled by rising toxicity from our economic systems.

Emissions are only a part of the pollution we have created, perhaps only a small part (though in a wholly interdependent system nothing is small and all effects have the potential to be enormous regardless of the magnitude of the cause). But we have poisoned water, we have poisoned soil, we have poisoned air with far more than carbon. We eat poison. We dig it up and concentrate it into ever more powerful levels of toxicity and then — intentionally! — we spread it everywhere. This is how we produce food. This is how we produce clothing and shelter and warmth. This is how we produce the energy needed to move all this stuff around and to keep doing more of this stuff. This is certainly how we produce these technological gadgets that allow me to type about all this mess and allow technocrats to make cheerfully lying videos.

How can any logical person believe that this can continue indefinitely and expect that life will somehow magically not succumb to all this increasing poison!

So we face biospheric collapse if we keep doing this. But we also face societal collapse — which will of course frustrate any efforts to mitigate any of our other problems — and this too is caused directly by the form of capitalism that is killing the biosphere… the one that this video seems to think will save us from ourselves…

When functioning properly, when it is doing what it is designed to do, this economy will take resources and labor from wherever they exist and turn those into wealth for a vanishingly small number of humans. Capitalism, by design, concentrates wealth into ever fewer hands. In these days of late capitalism, it’s not even material wealth. Just money. In fact, money beyond the Earth’s capacity to be traded for material wealth. So, empty promises… that is what neoliberal capitalism makes. But in the process of generating these monetary lies, it destroys lives. It destroys the biosphere, but it also destroys human communities and any social capital those communities have built — including their ability to depend upon each other and to take care of themselves. Capitalism can not function without a large number of people kept mostly in isolation so that they must rely upon it to meet their needs. It is dependent upon a dependent population. So we all must be helpless consuming mouths and relentlessly laboring hands to maintain this system that is killing us.

Again, how can any logical person believe that this system will suddenly begin to do the inverse of what it is designed to do?

Well, it can’t. But it also won’t be able to keep going, in any case. The third big mess ignored by this video, and technocrats generally, is that we are running out of stuff. And space. But mostly stuff. And all of the stuff that can be turned into big profits has already been used up. These days we are left with the stuff that costs quite a lot to churn into money, so you don’t get as much money out of it. Increasingly, many forms of economic activity cost more than any potential for revenue. This is why we need to bail out businesses with our tax monies and give subsidies to industry. They are not profitable. (Well, they might be, maybe, barely, if there were not corporate greed taking huge compensation packages, but still…)

But it’s even worse than that because we are pushing against limits not merely in profitability but in physical reality. Take renewable energy. Yes, it would be great to produce heat and power without burning things. Yes, I wholly advocate putting up small wind and water generators and personal solar panels (more for heating than generating electricity that usually needs to be turned into heat…). But there is no evidence that we can replace fossil fuels with all the renewables put together — not even including the unprofitable and toxic ones like nuclear energy. It is not merely that it is uneconomical. There is not enough physical matter to make these things. What’s worse is we need an enormous surge in fossil fuel burning to produce, transport and install these things. And we are running out of cheap fossil fuels as well — even if we could keep burning them without increasing atmospheric carbon. 

And then… if we could get over that massive installation hump, renewables still couldn’t replicate the types of energy produced by fossil fuels. We can’t power cross country truck-fulls of stuff on batteries charged by the sun and wind. At best, we’ll be powering short trips hauling mostly those cumbersome batteries (which are currently mostly charged by burning fossil fuels). We’ll never be able to produce concrete or steel or glass within the low temperatures generated by electricity. And all these things are needed to make and maintain renewables. Along with a large number of rather toxic and increasingly rare resources. Rare in both absolute terms and in terms of geopolitical distribution. Just like fossil fuels… and all dependent upon fossil fuels for extraction and transport!

And just like fossil fuels there is toxicity in that resource extraction and in the manufacture of these renewables. Lives are damaged and ended so that we can have this green power. But most importantly, just like fossil fuels, there is no path to hope in renewables as long as the system that causes all these damages remains in place. As long as we are focused on economic growth — or even simply economic activity as it is currently practiced — we are creating the pollution and the destruction that is destabilizing our planet. 

Unfortunately, it is no kind of hope to know that the system will collapse because of resource depletion and pollution concentration. Probably well before human extinction. But probably not before the extinction of much more of the biosphere and most human cultures. Which will, of course, feed back into systemic collapse…

We need to put our hope in creating something that works. That has worked. That will work again. That can meet human needs and minimize harm. We need to get out of the entire system that is doing the opposite of all that. We need to remove the sneering parentheses from any discussion of meeting our own needs in a mostly subsistence economy. One that is grounded in local material and human resources. One that promotes life, not empty ideas of wealth. One that technocrats are absolutely horrified by… because it is unlikely that they are going to be able to sneer at the real work of living when we all are doing it… They’re going to have to get used to the idea that life is in charge, not them.

We need real hope, a much more tangible hope than is possible within the techno salvation narrative. Because real hope lies in taking care of ourselves directly… and letting the world take care of itself — and us within it.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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