25 months ago, Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), warned that there are only 100 months to save the planet. Writing in the Guardian today, he reminds us that there are only 75 months of his deadline remaining…
To minimise the danger of alarmism, but without hiding from the facts, we set our parameters to assume that humanity would be on the lucky end of the spectrum of environmental risk. We were optimistic, perhaps too much so, about the speed and likelihood with which ecological dominoes might fall in a warming world. Nevertheless, what we found was startling. One hundred months on from August 2008 we were set to cross an atmospheric threshold.
Simms tells us nothing new, of course. The story is merely in the significance we attach to each month as though it were a meaningful period — a quantum of progress towards doom — such as with the date of a wedding anniversary, birthday, or moment of historical importance like an independence day. But each of these forms of significant dates ask us to remember something that happened while Simms’ miserable little countdown asks us to remember something that he promises will happen. Its significance depends rather on what you think will happen. Dates of historical importance become ways of reflecting on shared values, and perspectives. As we’ve pointed out before, political environmentalism struggles to give itself historical importance, and so borrows significance from events and heroes from the early-mid 20th Century to compare itself to them — World War II, moon landings, the Suffragettes. Or it simply creates a mythology from scratch: natural order; tipping-points; balance; biodiversity; and sustainability.
And the eco-mythology in Simms’s prose is stark. He claims that he intended to ‘minimise the danger of alarmism’, yet if you visit the site set up by him and the NEF at http://www.onehundredmonths.org you will even find a calander counting down to the deadline, clicking with each passing second. Each tick…tick…tick a notch closer to… what, if not alarm? And as for ‘ecological dominoes’… The natural world is no doubt full of interdependent systems, but Simms’s allusion to them depending on each other like so many carefully arranged slabs here is simply crass. Without such crass imagery and mythology, the ‘new economics’ — i.e. ‘new politics’ — that Simms and the NEF want to argue for, really do collapse. The NEF’s arguments for poltical and economic change really are precariously arranged, such that the moment their alarmism topples over, so to do the arguments for what they call ‘progress’. Simms sees fragility in the world. But he projects his own insecurity onto it.
The accumulation and concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would make it more likely that global average temperatures would rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. That point was significant because 2 degrees is generally thought to be the temperature around which a number of complex environmental changes start to feed off each other, making their dynamics harder to predict and harder to control.
Let us understand Simms correctly… 2 degrees is significant because it is ‘generally thought’ to be significant. But 2 degrees too, is an arbitrary figure. Why not 1.9,1.95, or 1.975? What is it that causes 2 degrees to be the significant figure, such that the arrangement of ‘ecological dominoes’ is vulnerable to this degree of change? The answer is not something as definitive as the boiling point of water, or melting point of wax — something which causes a qualitative transformation of substance or mode. Instead it’s a political target that has been later given through some superficially empirical reasoning. It’s just convenient, just like ‘100 months’ is convenient. 2 and 100 are numbers which lend themselves easily to campaign efforts, like slogans. They give superficial parameters, or goals, but don’t actually have any foundation in science.
And what will the future look like? The severe droughts during August in Russia, and the huge floods in Pakistan may not be directly, causally related to current patterns in warming (although their scale and severity might well have been influenced by it).
But these are the kind of extreme events set to become more common in a warming world. High and volatile food prices are another intimation of the weakening security we all face.
Simms would never let a good crises go unexploited. But there is no reason why the ‘kind of extreme events’ seen in Russia and Pakistan this summer could be entirely eliminated. The world could have easily produced a surplus of grain, and Pakistan’s civil infrastructure could have been developed, such that people could be at least protected from so much moving water. It’s what didn’t happen which cause these problems, not what nature threw at the world. It’s worth pointing out that problems of drought are fundamentally problems of relying on natural processes for sustenance – which the NEF want us to do more of. But increasing our dependence on natural processes necessarily means risking more to the whims and changes of nature, making us more vulnerable to what happened in Russia, not less. In the case of Pakistan, once again it has been shown that it is those who live ‘sustainable’, ‘low-impact’ lifestyles — advocated by the NEF — who are most vulnerable to nature. It’s poor people who live under those ‘ecological dominoes’, not the policy directors of self-regarding ‘think’ tanks.