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Point/Counterpoint: Despair, Complacency, and Hard Work
Amanda Reed, 14 May 10

On Monday, George Monbiot wrote this article in The Guardian: I Share Their Despair, But I'm Not Quite Ready to Climb the Dark Mountain (sub-title: To sit back and wait for the collapse of industrial civilisation is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens value). Today, The Guardian posted a response from Simon Lewis: Yes, We Can Change Society Before Global Crises Overwhelm Us (sub-title: We should be neither too pessimistic nor complacent about environmental collapse). Taken together these two articles are an interesting read on environmental destruction and appropriate responses.

Monbiot opens his article by showing that "wealth wrecks the environment":and that the path to a sustainable future should not be put in economic growth, where rich countries are expected to protect the environment, since they can "afford" it. Using the recent oil spill disaster and global comparisons of deforestation as examples, Monbiot illustrates that rich countries (i.e. the United States and the United Kingdom) are the ones plundering their own resources and others the fastest. How then should "we" - those of us in rich countries - respond? The Dark Mountain Project is one response, whose ideas, Monbiat says, are spreading rapidly through the environmental movement:

It contends that "capitalism has absorbed the greens". Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on "sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world's rich people – us – feel is their right".

Today's greens, it charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet, demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new ones – wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines – that wreck even more of the world's wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature, reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They've forgotten that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are trying to save industrial civilisation.

That task, Paul Kingsnorth – a co-founder of Dark Mountain – believes, is futile: "The civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it." Nor can we bargain with it, as "the economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon … growth in order to function". Instead of trying to reduce the impacts of our civilisation, we should "start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse … Our task is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can, whilst creating new myths which put humanity in its proper place".


Ultimately, Monbiat agrees with Dark Mountain's premise that many environmentalists and activists have forgotten the love of nature that originally inspired their passion and work for the planet, but he criticizes Dark Mountain's approach to change, which, as he sees it, misses the resiliency of industrial society, and perhaps worse, advocates for a withdrawal from society, an action that itself "conspires in the destruction" of civilization.

Lewis, a scientist, challenges both Monbiat and Dark Mountain's fundamental premises of industrial and environmental collapse:

Is the end of the world as we know it imminent? George Monbiot asserts that industrial civilisation, while ravaging the biosphere, will continue for at least a century or two, and criticises the Dark Mountain project group for stating that collapse is upon us. As a scientist analysing the available data, coupled as it must be with some critical assumptions about future human behaviour, I believe both analyses are incorrect.

The core problem is that the current modus operandi of global society is the production of goods and services sold for profit, with these profits subsequently reinvested in further production. Such limitless expansion, on a planet of finite material that can be transformed into usable resources, alongside limits to the processing of waste materials, is clearly impossible in the long term.


Lewis continues in a somewhat positive vein:
...there is relatively little scientific evidence that biophysical environmental limits have already been breached to an extent that societal collapse is inevitable. Recently scientists proposed a "safe operating space for humanity", analysing nine possible limits, three of which have perhaps been breached (climate change, biodiversity loss, interference with the nitrogen cycle). However, none were in the "too late" category. The Dark Mountain group are wrong. In 2010, humanity is still largely in control of its destiny.

But also cautions against complacent acceptance of future collapse, and warns that hard work is ahead:
...Monbiot's belief that collapse will be a 22nd-century concern is complacent. Certainly, capitalism is both resilient and dynamic. Dogmatic opposition to political intervention in the economy did, for example, rapidly transform into multibillion-pound bank bailouts. However, globally interconnected economic crises, pervasive poverty, increasingly cheap long-distance transport and instantaneous global communications, coupled with rapid environmental changes and geopolitical tensions over access to resources, is a recipe for mass migration, civil unrest and armed conflict. It is not far-fetched to envisage chronic simultaneous crises, with deteriorating environmental conditions at the core, overwhelming political systems in multiple countries this century.
[...]
Hard science and the even harder political choices (including critical global equity questions, as Monbiot rightly identifies) will be at the core of managing the Anthropocene Earth to allow large numbers of people to thrive.

Neither Monbiat or Lewis claims to know the final answer on how best to respond to complex climate issues, but their conversation is worth a read and offers some interesting insights into the complexity of the problems humanity is facing.

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