Why we need a consumer strike to save the world
It is a mindbogglingly depressing spectacle: Every time the IPCC releases a new report, politicians and business leaders all over the world unite in pretending that they do not understand its implications. After some empty promises of taking climate destruction seriously and investing in green technologies, they quickly return to business as usual. Environmentalists and climate scientists are only marginally better, arguing that humanity could still be saved if only politicians and business leaders were to act responsibly, which everybody knows they will not. In other words, everyone agrees that the worst scenarios will come to pass and there is basically nothing we can do about it.
At least, there is no disagreement over facts and science anymore:
- Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are changing the atmosphere of the only inhabitable planet in the known universe, leading – among other things – to rapid global warming.
- Even if we were to stop using fossil fuel today, temperatures would continue to rise for quite some time. In order to have any chance of survival, we need to stop using fossil fuel completely by 2050. In other words, we have 30 years to completely rebuild the world’s energy infrastructure. Fun fact: The Three Gorges hydroelectric power plant in China took 18 years to build.
- As a first step, we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% during the next 11 years. The problem is that these emissions are still increasing.
The Keeling curve, measuring the atmospheric concentration of CO2, shows the magnitude of the problem.
Despite decades of political debate, the CO2 concentration is higher than ever before during the last three million years, it is increasing faster than ever, and the annual rate of increase is still increasing. We added 0.8 ppm of CO2 per year to the atmosphere in the 60s, today we add 2.4 ppm annually.
Here is a fun math problem: You are driving through town at 90 km/h (almost twice the allowed speed limit) when you see a police car 200 meters in front of you. How much can you accelerate and still avoid a speeding ticket? It is obviously a silly question. If you are already going too fast, you need to step on the brake.
Likewise, since the global footprint of humanity is approximately twice too large, we should not be talking about growth. You cannot eat more and shit less! We need to step on the brake as quickly as possible and reduce the size of the world economy by stopping all unnecessary economic activities. Deep down, we all know this to be true. Every car which is built is a disaster for the environment, regardless of whether it is electric or not. A large commercial aircraft emits hundreds of tons of CO2 per flight and is built to last for 25 years. If we were to take the latest IPCC report seriously, someone needs to tell Boeing and Airbus to stop manufacturing airplanes tomorrow.
Our problem is a completely anachronistic and dysfunctional economic system, which requires growth to function. If you want to understand why, I can recommend reading James K. Galbraith, Kate Raworth, or Jason Hickel. However, the basic problem is that capital income (or ROI) requires capital to be scarce (through supply and demand). As soon as there is too much money available, real interest rates will be negative. In other words, in a declining economy, there will be little space for investors to make money; you would actually have to work to earn a living.
We know that stopping climate destruction will require a complete redesign of the world economy. It is also clear that the political ambition to do so in non-existent. To make matters worse, the people earning money on fossil fuel are really nasty, referring to the free press as the “enemy of the people”, torturing political opponents to death and dismembering them with a bone saw, or poisoning them with nerve gas. Does anyone seriously believe that these people are prepared to reduce production of fossil fuel by 50% during the next 11 years? The mere thought of doing so hasn’t even begun to speculate about the slightest possibility of crossing their minds (to quote Douglas Adams).
There is another option, though. The profits of oil companies and banks are driven by consumption. If the rich, educated, and liberal-minded consumers of the world were simply to stop consuming, the tables would turn. It is difficult to be a drug lord if nobody wants to buy drugs. Likewise, it is tough to be an oil company if the demand for oil declines dramatically. By avoiding unnecessary spending, we can all dramatically reduce our ecological footprint. We can also break the power of banks and big oil.
I believe that we have passed the the political point of no return. Wether we like it or not, we cannot rely on our current generation of politicians to solve our problems. If we want our children to have a future, we need to take matters into our own hands. A Consumer Strike is simple, legal, effective, and saves you time and money. There is no reason for not trying.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So, stop buying, stop flying, and drastically reduce your meat consumption. Your children will thank you and you get to keep the money, rather than handing it over to murderers and crazy despots.
Some remarkable documents have emerged from major oil companies in recent years. Obviously, they have long been aware of the effects of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate. Still, it is shocking to see to what extent they understood the problem of global warming already in the 1980s. An internal report by Exxon from 1982 contains a forecast for the global average temperature of the Earth (cf. Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings, The Guardian 2018-09-19).
I have allowed myself to add the actual development of the temperature (annual averages as read stars). Obviously, the Exxon scientists were correct. Faced with such evidence, the Exxon management took the decision not only to continue to sell oil, but also to use their economic power to influence the political and scientific process. Greed is not good!
Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is much cleverer than most people realize. It perfectly captures a very common phenomena in society: most people are horrified of not agreeing with their peers, even when the peers are obviously wrong. This is known as “pluralistic ignorance” in social psychology (a discussion of the phenomenon can be found here).
Pluralistic ignorance also explains the saying that “only children and drunkards tell the truth”. In Andersen’s tale, it was a young boy who pointed out the obvious fact that the Emperor had no clothes. Sober adults are typically too opportunistic or socially inhibited to dare to publicly admit the obvious.
Recently, in Stockholm, a young girl named Greta Thunberg, told the truth about climate change. Please read her short statement. It does not contain anything we did not know already, but it is written by somebody who dares to speak her mind. Consequently, it makes more sense than anything ever written or said by any established politician.
The moral of the story? We need an expiration date on politicians or to force them to drink more. And we also need to stop destroying the climate.
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.
The world’s response to climate change is based on the concept of “sustainable growth”: we postulate that economic growth is necessary and try to ensure that it is sustainable. It is kind of like putting lipstick on a pig, but the banks love it.
There are a couple of problems with this approach:
- It has not worked so far. Not only are the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere still increasing, they are increasing faster than ever. After 30 years of failure, it might be time to stop beating the dead horse.
- There is no evidence that sustainable growth is even possible. Common sense and experience tells us that it is not.
- We need to be absolutely sure that sustainable growth is possible before trying. Otherwise, continuing to grow the economy is a recipe for disaster.
I have updated my plot comparing global GDP and CO2 emissions below. The data and analysis is provided in the following Excel Sheet. Please feel free to use and distribute as you like.
It was a great pleasure to give a lecture on climate change, consequences, and actions at the University in beautiful Sønderborg. It finally gave me the opportunity to translate my presentation into English. The slides (as PDF) can be found here
I working on a recording of the lecture.