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.

Let’s give young people something really useful this Christmas: hope!

The speech delivered by Greta Thunberg to the UN plenary at COP24 in Katowice was truly amazing. Not only does it take guts for a teenager to tell the world to grow up, she also made more sense than most politicians ever have. I am not the only one saying this. Here are some reactions on Twitter:

Naomi Klein: Ok Greta, you are officially a superhero.
Michael Mann: Thank you Greta — one person can indeed change the world…for the better. You are proving it. 
Kevin Anderson: On climate change @GretaThunberg demonstrates more clarity & leadership in one speech than a quarter of a century of the combined contributions of so called world leaders. Willful ignorance & lies have overseen a 65% rise in CO2 since 1990. Time to hand over the baton.

I was particularly impressed with her using the term emergency brake. The message could not be simpler: only if we are prepared to change our lives completely, our children will have a future. Very few people realize this. This is what makes the interview with Greta and her father so important.

We all know what we need to do. So, stop flying, stop buying, and change your eating habits. You will be happier, more relaxed, and have more time for important stuff. And you will give your children a chance to live. That would be an excellent Christmas gift and it wouldn’t cost you anything.

BTW, if you aren’t already convinced about the need to act, I can recommend this video.

I wish you all happy and relaxing holidays.

Klima-Vortrag: Null Öl, null Gas, null Kohle

17. Dezember 2018 – Wie wir das Klima-Abkommen von Paris umsetzen können

Im Klimaabkommen von Paris haben die Staaten vor vier Jahren vereinbart, bis 2050 aus den fossilen Energien auszusteigen. Damit wollen sie die Erderwärmung bis Ende dieses Jahrhunderts auf deutlich unter zwei Grad Celsius begrenzen. Marcel Hänggi zeigt in seinem Vortrag auf, wie wir dieses ambitiöse Ziel erreichen können.

Marcel Hänggi, geboren 1969, ist Wissenschaftsjournalist und Buchautor in Zürich. Er wurde mit dem Zürcher Journalistenpreis und dem Conrad-Matschoss-Preis für Technikgeschichte ausgezeichnet. 2013 wählte ihn die Zeitschrift Schweizer Journalist zum Wissenschaftsjournalisten des Jahres. Marcel Hänggi ist Mitinitiant der Gletscher-Initiative. Sie verlangt, dass die Schweiz ab 2050 vollkommen klimaneutral wird.

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Climate Destruction – when do we pull the emergency brake?

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

(quotation often attributed to Abraham Lincoln)

Well, it appears that many people have finally realized that they are being lied to. This time, it was a young girl in Stockholm who – much like in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes – pointed out the obvious: if we continue with business as usual, it really does not make sense for young people to go to school, invest in an education, or put money in pension funds. The school strike started by Greta Thunberg has received quite some media attention and inspired young people all over the world. I can recommend you all to read her statement.


Oops! It turns out that Limits to Growth was right after all. Unlimited economic growth is not possible on a finite planet and we have now reached or exceeded many of the planetary boundaries. Our children are now literally fighting for the lives. It is up to us – their parents – to decide which side we are on. For most people, this should be an easy choice.

Unfortunately, many people and almost all politicians continue to deny the obvious connection between the size of the economy and the rate of environmental destruction. As Greta Thunberg points out, global oil consumption recently passed 100 million barrels of oil per day. This ever-increasing oil consumption is caused by economic growth and it leads to environmental destruction.

Do we need to reduce the size of the economy to save humanity? Is water wet? Our refusal to accept the obvious makes us unable to implement even straightforward measures to avoid disaster. We know that every intercontinental flight emits hundreds of tons of CO2, which will remain in the atmosphere and heat the Earth for many centuries to come. Yet, we are not allowed to question whether all these flights are necessary. 50% of global emissions are caused by 10% of the world’s population. The rich are destroying the world.

We are now in state of Climate Emergency. If we act today, we might still save parts of the planet. If not, we will have abdicated our responsibility as parents and as civilized human beings. The time has come to pull the economic emergency brake and to cease unnecessary economic activity. So, if you love your children, you need to stop flying and stop buying. You should also join the environmental movement, because ten years from now it will be too late.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: global CO2 emissions soared to a new high in 2018.

PS. If you need an uplifting speech after all this misery, I can recommend Henry V. It is amazing what determined and brave people can accomplish.

On Swedish Zebras and AI

I was preparing a presentation on climate change some weeks ago and wanted to include a picture showing the effects of the drought in Sweden last summer. As you might know, PowerPoint now uses artificial intelligence to suggest an alternative text for each picture. This is what came out:

Swedish Zebras

The world is clearly going mad! We are terribly excited about AI, although its cognitive abilities are worse than that of a small child. Simultaneously, we do not mind destroying natural ecosystems far more complex than anything humanity has ever designed. The example also shows that we cannot use past experience to predict the future of the planet. AI works by comparing the picture to a database of old classified pictures. Apparently, the majority of the pictures in the database showing black-and-white animals and dry grass contained zebras. This does not mean that it always has to be like that.