Rising to the global challenge

Why we need a consumer strike to save humanity

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Although the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great book, its opening statement is wrong. Earth – it turns out – is very significant. As far as we know, it is the only planet in the universe which has managed to outsmart the entropy principle to create a biosphere full of fantastically complex life forms. This is a remarkable feat, which took billions of years to accomplish. Among other things, it required removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create oxygen and the ozone layer. The fossil fuel deposits in the ground are the reason why we can breathe. Unfortunately, Earth’s ape-descended life forms seem to be too primitive to understand the importance of this fact. Douglas Adams got that right!

Earth, Moon, and the Biosphere
Earth, Moon, and the Biosphere. Based on a picture from Wikimedia Commons.

The biosphere is a precious thin layer of life on the surface of a small planet in an otherwise dead universe. The picture above shows the Earth, the Moon, and the volume of the Earth’s biosphere as small green sphere. To create the picture, I assumed that most life is located between –2 km and +3 km relative to the sea level. This green sphere thus represents the totality of habitable space in the known universe. It is roughly ten times smaller than the Moon and we basically use it as a sewer!

Consequently, we are now facing a sustainability crisis of astronomic proportions. The consensus of most studies published in 2018 is that the manmade destruction of the biosphere is progressing much faster than previously thought and that we have very little time to act. Amazingly, very few people are prepared to accept the consequences of this. To give one simple example: the latest IPCC report calls for a reduction of CO2 emissions by almost 50% in 11 years. A modern commercial aircraft is designed to last for 25 years. In other words, if we were to take the report seriously, we should stop the production of aircraft tomorrow. This is not a political statement but a mathematical fact.

The good news is that this would easily be possible. The key to solving our sustainability crisis is to stop doing things which harm the environment but are not necessary. Today, most flights and travels by car are for pleasure, with tourism accounting for 10% of CO2 emissions. In other words, we are destroying the planet out of boredom. The same is true for consumption; most people go shopping in order to break the monotony of daily life. If we weren’t that miserable, we would consume less.

There are many reasons for our inability to respond to the climate crisis. The most important one is that our capitalist system requires growth to function. Capitalism is based on the idea that capital is a scarce resource and therefore valuable. The problem is that capital income (or ROI) also leads to an increase in the amount of capital available. If the real economy does not grow, we soon have a situation with more money available than is needed, leading to negative real interest rates. Unfortunately, the correlation between GDP and environmental destruction is almost perfect. On the other hand, there is only a weak correlation between GDP and quality of life. To simplify the discussion, it might be better to refer to GDP as Global Destruction of the Planet at this point.

Another problem is that politicians have no incentive to be bearers of bad news. In recent years, it has become clear that people rather listen to pleasant lies than inconvenient truths. In addition, the status of the politician has declined to a level where there are very few political visionaries and leaders left. Why bother to tell the truth, when you can win by lying?

Finally, scientist – who have been warning us about climate change for decades – are not very good at getting things done. They are trained to find and communicate the truth. Leadership, on the other hand, can best be described as the ability to act on incomplete information. We have known enough about global warming to take action for many years know. What was missing was the political will to act. We are suffering from paralysis by analysis.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. Although we know that we need to ban the use of fossil fuel before 2050, global demand for energy still grows faster than renewable energy production. As a result, we now use more coal, gas, and oil than ever before in human history. The picture below shows the energy forecast by BP. It predicts 74% of the global energy demand to be covered by fossil fuel in 2040, down from 85% in 2016. Because of the increasing energy demand, more fossil fuel will be used in 2040 than today. You can criticize BP for a lot of things, but they do know a thing or two about the global energy market. And they have a strong incentive to keep the oil flowing.

The problem is that the rich and powerful benefit from the current system and are convinced that they can buy themselves out of any problem. The only way to instigate real change is to ensure that these people feel the pain too, by destroying the global financial system. A massive financial meltdown would ruin many banks and global corporations, requiring society to step in and take charge again. The global accumulation of wealth has reached such absurd levels – with 1% of people receiving 82% of the wealth – that we now need to press the reset button. Homo Economicus cannot not solve our current crisis.

Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, might still have a chance. In order to survive, we need to rethink the way our society is organized. Above all, we need to stop defining ourselves by what we steal from others – including future generations – and start appreciating what we contribute to society. Our basic problem today is that people can get rich by destroying the planet. A coal mine – to take an obvious example – destroys value, but still allows its owners to get rich. Why? The problem is that the free market optimizes the economy locally rather than globally.

This is why I advocate and implement a consumer strike. By not buying stuff, I save money and time and drastically lower my global footprint. Rather than running around in shops or browsing for the best deal on the internet, I spend time with my family, going for a walk, reading a good book, or doing some other meaningful activity. And it is perfectly legal; nobody can force me to buy things I do not need. More importantly, by not spending money, I actively sabotage the global financial system. If enough of us join in, it will collapse. Forget digitalization – what we need is demonetization!

If this sounds like a drastic solution, it is important to remember that the alternative is even worse. We do not get to cherry pick. The future of humanity is not a Disney movie with a guaranteed happy ending. We must choose between protecting the financial system or the biosphere; you can’t have the planet and eat it. The decisions we take today will determine if human civilization will collapse or not. Fortunately, more and more young people realize this and are prepared to fight for their survival. I have decided to join them. It is fun, it is rewarding, and it gives me a sense of purpose. It is better to die fighting than to live on your knees.

A last look back on Earth from the Cassini mission. Our planet is indicated by the arrow. The biosphere is not visible.

PS: Just after finishing this blog post, received the following article from the Huffington Post: We Cannot Fight Climate Change with Capitalism.

The Cassandra Syndrome

My decision to study physics was based on the conviction that we live in an enlightened society, where the power of science to make quantitative predictions was generally accepted. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Our society does not value science. It values the results of science, if these can be used to make people rich. Physicists were popular because of the laser, the atomic bomb, and the transistor. When they started talking about limits to growth and climate change, their message was less appreciated.

But, as Galileo Galilei pointed out in 1615: “It is not within the power for practitioners of demonstrative sciences to change opinion at will, choosing now this and now that one; there is a great difference between giving orders to a mathematician or a philosopher and giving them to a merchant or a lawyer; and demonstrated conclusions about natural and celestial phenomena cannot be changed with the same ease as opinions about what is or is not legitimate in a contract, in rental, or in commerce.”

Or as Richard Feynman put it: “Nature cannot be fooled”.

“Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.” These are the words of eminent climate scientist and the scientific advisor to the Pope, Angela Merkel, and the European Union Prof. Dr. Joachim Schellnhuber. Perhaps we should start listening.