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June 23 marked the 30th year anniversary of NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s presentation on global warming to the U.S. Congress. In his address Hansen argued that climate change – long predicted by scientists, was now here, and that it would get steadily worse.
Since Hansen’s testimony, study after study has proven that climate change has become an imminent threat to our biosphere – leading to accelerated loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice, rising water levels, and the toxic acidification of our oceans.
However, the sobering truth is that global warming is only one threat among many. Everywhere we look science is affirming that the ecosystems we depend on for survival are breaking down. In the face of these mounting challenges, some scientists argue that the collapse of industrial society is not only possible, but even likely.
On the surface, the causes of ecological crisis may seem clear. Burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests increase greenhouse gas concentrations, which contributes to both atmospheric warming and ocean acidification. Large-scale factory farming critically depletes fresh water and topsoil. Overfishing is crashing the world’s fish stocks.
However, focusing on the immediate causes of global warming and other ecological challenges can obscure a more fundamental driver of industrial civilization’s crisis. Upon closer examination, it is our society’s decision-making processes that are ultimately speeding us toward collapse. Unless we enact radical changes to these processes, no amount of awareness-raising, alterations to individual behaviour, or technological innovation will be enough to avert catastrophe.
Societies as Decision-Making Systems
In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or to Succeed, geographer Jared Diamond argued that many past civilizations have collapsed due to their inability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats. Diamond drew on the work of archaeologist Joseph Tainter, who in his 1998 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, argued that civilizations fail due to a constellation of factors.
To Tainter, the ultimate mistake failed civilizations make is to continually solve problems by adding social complexity, and as a result, increasing the society’s energy needs. Eventually, Tainter argued that civilizations encounter a “thermodynamic crisis” in which they are unable to sustain an energy-intensive level of complexity. The result is collapse – ecological devastation, political upheaval, and mass population die-off.
The tendency for societies to collapse under excessive energy demands is an important insight. However, what Tainter and Diamond failed to appreciate is how oligarchy – control over societal decision-making by a numerically small, self-interested elite – is an even more fundamental cause of civilization collapse.
Oligarchic control compromises a society’s ability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats. This explains a seeming paradox in which past civilizations have collapsed despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand the source of the threat or the way to avert it. The problem was that societal elites benefitted from the system’s dysfunctions, and prevented available solutions.
Global Warming: A Modern Existential Threat
Global warming is a perfect example of this ancient dynamic. The science behind climate change is not new, with the role of the atmosphere in maintaining global temperatures first proposed by French scientist Joseph Fourier in the 1820s. In 1889 Swedish scientist Svante Arenhuis coined what he termed the “greenhouse effect”, and argued that human-produced CO2 emissions acted to warm the global climate.
Thus, for nearly a half-century modern science has been aware of human-caused global warming and its potentially world-changing impact on sea levels. In this time, there have been countless technological advances that could quickly and reliably move us away from a fossil-fuel economy, and toward one powered on clean, renewable energy. Despite this, today we remain deeply mired in a carbon-intensive economy, and the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses continues its precipitous rise.
Why haven’t we been able to implement sustainable alternatives and to change our society’s course?
The Fossil Fuel Oligarchy
In the 1970s the United States was facing an energy crisis. Domestic production of crude oil had peaked, and an embargo by OPEC interrupted the supply of Middle-Eastern oil. In response to the crisis, the Carter administration launched a national strategy of conservation and renewable energy research and development. Had this concerted effort been sustained, we might already be living in a post-carbon world.
Tragically, what instead transpired is that oil and gas corporations, their wealthy investors, and the military-industrial complex, colluded to hijack U.S. foreign policy. Together, the cabal doubled-down on plans to control Middle-Eastern and Latin American oil resources through military force. This move was intended to ensure the United States’ energy security, and to prevent the “energy supremacy” of national competitors Russia and China.
With the oiligarchs in charge of national energy policy, incentives to develop renewable energy were quickly abandoned, and the North American economy became increasingly dependent on fossil fuels.
Since the 1980s, the controlling influence of oil oligarchs has become a consistent feature of American politics. Under their influence, Ronald Reagan rolled back renewable energy incentives enacted by Jimmy Carter. The presidencies of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush went even further, and saw the oil industry take full control of the Whitehouse. The result was two horrendously destructive wars against Iraq, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, covert war against oil-rich Venezuela, and escalating tensions with Iran.
With the Obama administration, not much changed. The elite control over national energy, security and financial policy adopted a more humane facade, but for all intents and purposes, it was business as usual. Under Obama, the Libyan government was destabilized and Muamar Ghadafi overthrown. The reformist government of Manuel Zelayas was also overthrown in Honduras – an operation overseen by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. An illegal and horrendously costly war was fomented against the sovereign state of Syria, and attempts to crush people’s government in Venezuela intensified.
The consistency of destructive government policy reveals that the recurring electoral contest between Democratic and Republican parties is largely empty theatre. While the Republicans have arguably been the more destructive in terms of domestic policy and civil rights, on questions of energy and foreign policy, the “bi-partisan consensus” prevails. Oligarchs quite effectively pull the strings of both parties, preventing the United States from embracing a growing global consensus on the need for a post-carbon economy.
Today, the Trump administration has succeeded in ramping up this disastrous political trend, as his billionaire-dominated cabinet seeks to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, to question climate science, and to pursue a policy of “American energy dominance” that will dramatically expand production of fossil fuels.
Apart from controlling foreign policy, U.S. energy companies are also having a profound impact on domestic energy policy by accelerating the development of hard-to-access fuel sources through hydraulic fracturing, deep-sea oil drilling, and mountain-top removal coal mining. At the same time, fossil fuel oligarchs are working overtime to dismantle green energy initiatives, such as the Koch brothers’ war on the solar industry in Florida, and in other cities across the continent.
As a final insurance policy, mountains of fossil fuel money are also being spent to combat legitimate climate science and discredit global warming. The report Dealing in Doubt, produced by GreenPeace USA, details the efforts of ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and a network of right wing think-tanks to attack and suppress climate science. This disinformation campaign has succeeded in greatly slowing the pace of climate change awareness and policy in the United States.
In Canada, often thought of as more progressive than its southern neighbor, the situation hasn’t been much different. Under prime minister Stephen Harper’s two terms, the Canadian state became an unapologetic cheerleader for extracting some of the world’s dirtiest oil –Tar Sands bitumen. Harper accelerated Tar Sands production, leading to the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of boreal forest, the diversion of millions of gallons of freshwater, and the creation of miles of toxic tailings ponds, filled with water contaminated by the extraction process.
Like the Trump administration, the Harper government silenced federal climate scientists. The government also targeted environmental charities and non-profits, using the funding cuts and the threat of audits to undermine climate advocacy. When a movement of national outrage swept Harper from power in 2015, Canadians were hopeful that climate change would once more be taken seriously. However, the new government of Justin Trudeau, while embracing the international discourse on global warming, has shown his continued allegiance to the fossil-fuel oligarchy by committing over $7 billion in federal funds to purchase the failing Kinder-Morgan pipeline.
The ability of vested political and economic interests to control climate policy in the United States and Canada reveals an uncomfortable truth – that beneath the façade of North American democracy, there lies a decidedly oligarchic core. While many Americans and Canadians think of themselves as the very embodiment of a democratic society, the reality is that both states are largely controlled by the dictates of wealth and power. Few outside the wealthiest 1% have any impact on political decision-making, and while this situation holds, there is little hope of successfully confronting global climate change or any other of our planet’s looming ecological crises.
Confronting the Oligarchs
To create a sustainable future, we must first learn the lessons of the past, and what archaeological research shows is that throughout history, civilizations that have been captive to the interests of an oligarchic elite have all collapsed. Today’s industrial, capitalist civilization is trapped in this same deadly cycle.
As long as a self-interested elite controls decision-making in modern states, we will be far too late to avoid the effects of steadily contracting ecological limits. In addition, we will be unable to avert the downward spiral of economic crisis, conflict, and warfare that will result as oligarchs scramble to maintain their wealth and power in the face of dwindling resources and mounting crisis.
Breaking free from this destructive pattern will require us to take political and economic power back from the 1% and return it to the hands of citizens. This means that advocates for climate justice must move far beyond individual actions, lobbying, or reform of existing political and economic institutions. If we are to have a chance, we must confront, and eventually dismantle the system of oligarchic power.
To ensure that humane and sustainable alternatives are actually implemented, we will need to enable the voices of scientists, marginal communities, and activists to be clearly heard in the political arena. This means taking corporate money out of elections, enacting proportional voting, and creating directly democratic decision-making structures at the local level. It also means creating a de-militarized economy based on the principles of equity, inclusion, and zero-growth.
Toward a Sustainable Future
Radically transforming industrial, capitalist civilization won’t be easy. It will require movements for environmental sustainability, peace, social justice, and economic fairness to come together, and to realize their common interest in overthrowing the system of oligarchy and building a democratic, eco-socialist society. This “movement of movements” must put aside sectarian squabbles, and finally realize that the goals of economic justice, civil rights, and ecological sustainability are all intrinsically linked.
Successful transformation will also require committed resistance movements, like the inspiring Water Protectors of Standing Rock, to join forces with progressive movements for electoral change, like those that backed the Sanders campaign in the U.S., and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn. Grassroots resistance is an important catalyst for change, but without also transforming the state, the power of movements will remain limited.
A radical “movement of movements” will need to work on a number of fronts, both within existing institutions and outside of them, and none of its goals will be achieved overnight. However, the sooner we understand the task before us, the sooner we can start building the democratic power necessary to effect real change. With concerted effort, strategic action, and a little luck, we may yet re-direct the trajectory of our society from collapse to sustainability, and escape the fate of failed civilizations past.
Kevin MacKay is a Canadian social science professor, labour activist, director of a non-profit sustainable development organization, and author of Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization, published by Between the Lines Books. Kevin can be contacted at: