Our global climate change experience has been fairly consistent in the 21st century. First, each year has been very hot or the hottest on record as global ice and permafrost melts, as sea levels rise and the temperature increases faster and faster in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Second, the new normal for almost all the earth’s creatures has been accelerating climate disaster from a panoply of epoch floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, mud slides and superstorms. This is not just killing people in the poorest nations, but drowning people in their basement apartments in New York City and accelerating the global extinction of plants, animals and insects. This 6th global mass extinction now has a name, the extinction of the Anthropocene, of human times, our times.
Third, is the collective failure, led by the biggest polluters, the richest and most powerful states of global industrial civilization, to take effective action, particularly since 1980, to both reduce and sequester global greenhouse gas emissions as the use of fossil fuels to power our lives marches on.
Three future global pathways for humanity
Global ecological economic growth
This is a green market solution for a future based on an accelerating global transformation to renewable energy and natural carbon sequestration on land and sea. The future is global sustainability within a context of ecological and social justice for all in a global economy that is larger, richer, fairer and peaceful.
Industrial ‘business as usual’ attempts to accommodate climate realities in grudging pursuit of a net-zero greenhouse gas future. Economies and democracies stagger, but manage to survive a deepening climate crisis through a combination of just-in-time technological change, ever improving and cheaper solar, new fusion, nanotech, bioengineering and selective geo-engineering.
Accelerating climate change leads to global collapse from crop failure, starvation, mass migration of the desperate, and war on a hot house earth that may persist for 200,000 years. In the polar regions and on select island states, high technology and fortified settlements save some. Meanwhile, scattered survivors live versions of a mad-max future and tribalism.
We will examine three alternative futures going forward. This is not an attempt to predict the Shape of Things to Come following H.G. Wells. Rather, I want to consider these three alternatives. This is more of a thought experiment than prediction. It rests on addressing a number of philosophical category errors that drive our march toward ecological catastrophe and collapse.
These include the beliefs, or at least the behavior that:
- global capitalist markets can continue to function indefinitely and profitably by not accurately pricing behavior that leads to self-destruction through pollution, depletion, and ecological damage;
- a global industrial system can exist on the basis of sustainability and prosperity for a rich and mass consuming minority, and poverty and misery for the majority of the 8 (soon to be 9) billion people on the planet;
- fossil fuel production, use and pollution, and subsidization can continue unabated as if there is no tomorrow, as ecological destruction rushes at us;
- almost $2 trillion dollars a year can continue to be spent and wasted globally on military spending, with the USA alone responsible for 1.14 trillion or 39 percent and not redirected quickly toward issues of climate change and poverty.
Three future paths
I. Global ecological economic growth
A global ecological growth system arises from the pursuit of sustainability and accelerating global economic growth that makes economic growth mean ecological improvement and the regeneration of the ecosphere and of natural capital.
Ecological economic growth (EEG) is dependent upon making the price system send clear signals for sustainability. All sustainable goods and services become cheaper, gain market share and are more profitable. This is accomplished by new ecological market rules, law, and regulation that transforms the taxation, fee, and regulatory systems by using ecological taxes on pollution, depletion and ecological damage. These include measures ranging from taxes on pollution sources and sinks, on modification of tools like the VAT to place higher taxes on the non-sustainable, and on real estate taxes indexed to sustainable conduct.
Markets and the profit system are quite sensitive to price and generally respond accordingly. However this is not all that must be done. A carbon tax by itself will not solve our problems. Law must redefine fiduciary responsibility to mean that the pursuit of economic growth or economic behavior for companies, institutions and government must be in the context of making economic growth lead to an ecological improvement within the context of social and ecological justice. Further, regulation must cap and then reduce to zero the emission of various pollutants, for example the release of carbon dioxide and methane from fossil fuel combustion and production.
Accounting systems must recognize and monetize the value of ecological assets created by the reduction, for example, of carbon dioxide displacement by renewable energy resources. The National Economy of Sciences calculated that the ecological value of displacement of one metric ton of carbon dioxide by renewable energy is equal to $100.
Sustainability Credits can be monetized on the books of investment banks or green banks as paid-in capital and as cash to invest in further renewable development and energy efficiency. Through the ordinary magic of banks, each $100 increase in paid-in capital can support loans equal to $1000.
The 34.81 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions represent not just a vital and essential example of ecological improvement, but also a means to create trillions of dollars of ecological value annually by monetizing carbon displacement through Sustainability Credits (SCs). Each SC is created by displacement of one metric ton (2204 pounds )of carbon dioxide or 2,593 kilowatt hours (0.85 pounds in 2020 per kilowatt hour). In 2020, the U.S. generated 4.01 trillion kilowatt hours, releasing 1.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Global carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2020 were 34.81 billion metric tons. The total potential value of sustainability credits is $3.5 trillion dollars a year and potential investment value ten times as large.
Sustainability Credits can be created by certified renewable energy system owners, including aggregating large groups of people with one solar panel. Monetizing ecological value can be a central tool for the growth and long term success of an ecological growth system and building a durable ecological civilization. Trillions of new dollars a year created by productive investment and by broadly distributed ownership, as long as productivity is non-inflationary, is essential and managed by central banks using usual tools as part of the money supply.
Ecologically, if the consequences of the n+1 copy of information or production is negligible, then the limits to wealth and economic growth are separated from ecological consequences. A dizzying number of forms of information and products to be traded via cell on a renewably powered world wide web governed by a zero pollution, zero waste world wide industrial ecology. The issue is not the limits to growth in dollar form, but the ecological consequences of any production which must be carefully monitored and limited as a central concern for economists, engineers, scientists, politicians, in fact all of us, to build and sustain the road to an ecological civilization as we travel.
The global pursuit of social and ecological justice means a global convergence on sustainable norms for all and global productive investment and transfer of technology from the rich to the poor. The goal is not simply renewable power, but that energy users as individuals also become owners of the renewable energy infrastructure. This will become the largest agglomeration of investment capital, that because of its substantially distributed nature is particularly well suited to have the consumers of renewable energy also eventually become the owners of the energy infrastructure. This is not charity, but investment in a sustainable and economically durable future for all.
A global convergence of sustainable norms for all means the richest nations and largest greenhouse emitters like the U.S. must reduce annual carbon emissions from above 16 tons per person to a global sustainable level of around 2.4 per person per year. About 21 billion tons a year globally is the maximum that can be dealt with by natural sources, if at the same time we are also sequestering a similar amount of carbon in soil and biomass on land and sea. This is essential for reducing cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and returning goal atmospheric carbon dioxide to pre-industrial levels below 300 parts per million.
This is a global high technology ecological civilization in action. This is more than just leaving wildlands alone. It means restorative tree planting and habitat rehabilitation. It means, as China is now doing, creating more habitat in new reserves and parklands, as well as natural bridges for species between habitat reserves.
Recently, New York State announced a plan to bring 3,000 megawatts of renewable power to New York City from solar and offshore wind. The ownership of such systems should not be in the hands of solar developers like me, but ultimately ownership transferred to the 8 million people of New York. This can be relatively straightforward. After the tax equity from renewable investment tax credits is exhausted, for solar in year six, ownership is transferred to a mega cooperative or association whose ownership is all New York energy users. Funds for the purchase can come from low interest revenue bonds that are supported by the revenue from the purchase of this renewable energy by New Yorkers.
Payments will be a fraction of monthly total revenue streams providing both yearly cash distributions and transferrable ownership interests to each of the 8 million ownership shares (limited to one per person). As a solar developer, I can still make lots of money and live very comfortably building these systems without becoming a billionaire and the owner of a General Solar, Inc. Instead, both building the system and selling it to energy users can be financed by friends at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Chase, or by a Green Bank.
At $1.50 a watt for 3,000 megawatts, total cap costs are $4.5 billion dollars. Income at $0.15 cents per kWh is $540 million dollars a year that can easily support a 20 year revenue bond at 3% interest financed by Goldman Sachs or Morgan Chase. Each of 8 million New Yorkers who are now the owner of a share of $4.5 billion dollars, worth at par $562.50, will provide a total estimated $54 million a year in income. That’s $6.75 per New Yorker, man, woman and child, or $21.60 per household per year for each of the 3.2 million NYC households.
Replacing fossil fuels with efficient renewables represents a paradigmatic example, among many, of ecological economic growth led ecological improvement. An ecological growth system can be entirely compatible with global markets and democracy and does not require degrowth, the end of markets, or revolution. It requires a long term commitment and determination to make the price system work, and fine tuning new market rules and laws for sustainable and profitable conduct for all. The new market rules in application are simple at bottom; everyone makes more money by the pursuit of ecological sustainability and minimizing ecological destruction.
The global politics of an ecological turn rests on creative competition among nations to provide leadership and ecological economic growth and a rapidly expanding sustainable economy that pursues, and must pursue, global fairness and justice. An ecological civilization can not succeed based on maintaining the privileges of the rich and the misery of the poor. Oxfam reports in 2020, that the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 60% of the world population, 4.6 billion people, as the numbers of billionaires has doubled in ten years.
The Credit Swiss 2021 wealth data book finds that the cohort of millionaires, 56 million people, or 0.8 percent of the world’s population, controls 45.8 percent of the world’s wealth, a percentage which has continued to increase from 35 percent in 2000. A global convergence on norms is based on a bigger pie and justice and fairness for all. The wealth of both the richest nations and the poorest nations will be built and sustained by means resulting in both profit and ecological improvement being fairly distributed, not further concentrated in the hands of the rich.
Within the context of the eco crisis and building an ecological civilization, new political forms will emerge. The nation state will be increasingly less significant an entity amidst a welter of associations and alliances of individuals and diverse organizations. The problems we face must be clearly recognized as global and dealt with fairly and globally; not by any unitary world government, but rather by a diversity of forms with a complex whole within a structure of rights and responsibilities, of social and ecological justice. The growing strength of global commons regimes is nominally within nation states but increasingly recognized and regarded as crucial entities granted legal protection and efficacy as a part of generally recognized global market rules.
The emerging reality globally, for example, is that mayors of large cities are leaders in the response to climate change embracing and implementing net zero or below zero emissions climate positions both displacing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly in federal systems, states like California and New York are pursuing strong climate change programs, as are many corporations of all sorts, from financial to manufacturing to service businesses globally, and educational and non-profit corporations and many activist groups from Audubon to Greenpeace to Extinction Rebellion and beyond.
Cooperation and confederalism: an ecological civilization will create new organizational forms and frameworks of global cooperation, confederalism, and governance. These will be shaped by the bundle of rights and responsibilities established by law and custom to protect and nurture both local and global commons. This will be expressed in patterns ranging from the local, versions of Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, to the global, by a welter of actors. A crucial economic and social manifestation will be the creation and ownership of a new asset class created by broadly shared ecological value from greenhouse gas displacement and ecological improvement, such as Sustainability Credits (SCs) where green politics becomes green economics. An expanding green economy will be characterized by a shared equity of participants protecting and managing the commons, both local and global.
Ecological economic growth is a path we can choose to follow that leads toward sustainability, ecological survival, increased wealth for all, justice and fairness. What happens is both our individual and collective responsibilities. Choose we must. Act we must.
II. Reformist industrialism
This is a path for business as usual. The path of grudgingly reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and by economic and ecological necessity, developing renewable and non-carbon dioxide emitting technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow, if not reverse, the march toward global ecological disaster. It is informed by promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to reach net zero at some time, by 2050, 2060, 2070. Always decades away.
This path will be shaped by a number of dynamics:
- the ongoing reduction in costs for wind and solar and efficiency, already the cheapest in many markets, and with zero fuel costs, and which makes fossil fuels both uncompetitive and demanding increasing subsidies;
- economic reality will eventually prevail and lead to competition for renewable and efficiency markets. Fossil fuel reserves and hardware will increasingly become stranded and bankrupt assets;
- technological innovation driven by massive investment in batteries, solar, wind, fusion technologies and diverse nano technologies which promises to increase energy resources and reduce prices by an order of magnitude;
- the pace of ecological collapse can increase in a nonlinear system or prove to be stickier than expected and provide more or less time before climate swiftly and catastrophically changes. An emergent new climate that may be decidedly unfriendly to most of the biosphere and decidedly for human civilization;
- the straw that finally broke the camel’s back may be an ice-free Arctic ocean open to solar heating, or melting permafrost and ocean methane hydrates releasing gigatons of methane, a most potent greenhouse gas; or Arctic and Greenland ice melt disrupting the thermohaline mechanism and slowing dramatically the Gulf Stream leading to plunging cold in Europe. The emergency bells are already ringing. But who is listening?;
- the agreement by China and the United States to facilitate cooperative competition in global renewable resources along with Japanese, European and Indian partners. If this happens soon enough it may forestall the advent of a catastrophic climate turn;
- geo-engineering is likely to be practiced in coordinated or uncoordinated global fashion, from modest steps to schemes for a reflective shroud of space umbrellas, to effects ranging from minor to surprisingly effective, to catastrophic, as billionaires and presidents plan to decamp with Elon Musk for Martian holiday;
- development of indoor/underground and vertical farming in sufficient scale that might maintain food supply in light of increasing drought, floods and temperature rises. Such agricultural systems are many times more productive. From Singapore to Boston, such container and vertical agricultural developments are already underway;
- global climate activism of millions and millions in the street demanding ecological conduct and the rise of ecological champions from all points of the political compass. Right-left-green. In the United States it is vital for a strong Republican climate change agenda to emerge from the whispered shadows. Such fear of advancing a strong agenda to stop climate change is not the case in most of the world’s largest economies. Right wing figures like Boris Johnson in Britain and Narendra Modi in India have reasonably strong rightwing climate agendas. The pace of change may greatly accelerate by a tidal wave of global political pressure as climate disasters continue to accelerate.
Reformist industrialism will also witness the weakening of many nation states, given the global need for common global action and global rules of conduct. The state will not wither away, but, given the worsening climate conditions and the necessity for action, the underlying undertow on states from the climate tide will be more confederation, self-determination and cooperative international global action. This will be change mediated by global combinations of actors, not simply nation states whose central organizing role will have substantially weakened. The underlying trend will be toward more shared value and ownership that must begin to reverse the ever increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.
Reformist industrialism may just muddle through and avoid global collapse if a number of factors line up as China and the U.S. lead the way, combining, for example, dirt cheap renewables, new fusion power designs, positive surprises from nano technology that increases by orders of magnitude the energy output and similarly reduces costs, in the context of a global political ecological turn.
III. Polar futures
A polar future is predicated upon two factors:
- climate disruption that overwhelms global civilization. This is an era of failed states, crop failure, famine, epidemic, mass migration of the desperate, wars for water, crop land and high ground;
- a measured collapse that provides time and the option to prepare polar bastions and some island redoubts.
On a hot house earth the polar regions might prove to be marginally habitable, even capable of having above ground agriculture. This is unlikely in the era of the great dying, as desperate starving millions will drive, then walk or sled far north or south. Such polar settlements out of survivor prudence will be built as high tech underground fortresses defending themselves from the starving. Scattered survivors may persevere by homesteading on the large available land now capable of growing food if sufficiently remote. Islands nations like Greenland, Iceland and New Zealand may be able to maintain themselves ecologically, but will also emerge as targets of well-armed and desperate nations possessing nuclear weapons.
It’s likely that militaries will plan carefully, or are already planning, for polar redoubts. For example, an underground city with agriculture using LED lighting and hydroponics, well camouflaged and with underground nuclear reactor power to eventually be supplanted by solar and wind once the great global wave of death runs its course. The Germans in WWII became quite adept at deception to maintain war production despite allied bombing. This is the spirit, the lifeboat ethics that will likely inform the decisions of those brutally responding to what they considered an operational necessity in a ‘polar future’.
‘What was done was what needed to be done at the moment’ was the understanding behind the cannibalism in the life boats of the whaling ship Essex in the 19th century, and by the perpetrators of the industrialized genocide by the Nazis, or in spasm of the ethnic slaughter in Ruanda.
The sailors on the life boat felt they had no other choice; Nazi murderousness was not just the actions of S.S. elites, but obedience to orders and a perception that the victims were unworthy ‘others’. Christopher Browning, in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and The Final Solution in Poland examined how a group of 500 middle aged family men from Hamburg, too old to be in the German army, engaged in mass murder. 6,500 men, women, children and infants were shot at close range in the head or neck by Reserve Battalion 101, and 42,000 sent to gas chambers. About 50 of the 500 refused to participate and were given other duties. “Mass murder and routine had become one,” writes Browning.
This is the human reality. A friend, the late Dena Abelson, née Dena Lipszyc, in Poland, spent about 1,000 nights at the slave labor camp (Arbeitslager) next to Auschwitz. As a teenager, Dena, after seeing her mother Sarah and her younger sister Bela sent to the gas chamber, labored in a secret underground weapons factory, that Dena did her best to sabotage. She walked from her barracks to the entrance of the plant, a door cut out of a very large tree that led underground to prevent targeted allied bombing. Dena was rescued by the Swiss Red Cross in an exchange for captured German prisoners. Dena spent the rest of her life teaching children to read.
‘Moscow does not believe in tears’ was a common sentiment for life in the former Soviet Union. Polar futures on a hot house earth, if people are able to build and prepare secure redoubts and survive the great dying, may persist for as long as 200 millennia (10,000 generations) until natural forces lead to a decrease in atmospheric carbon. Fifty five million years ago, the growth of enormous Azolla mats in the warm Arctic Ocean sequestering carbon ended the Eocene thermal maximum. And perhaps high-tech underground factory cities may eventually be able to produce devices in enough quantity to scrub sufficient carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Polar futures have the same resonance and joy as escaping to Mars with Elon, Bezos, Trump and Putin. It’s an alternative that individually and collectively we must stop from unfolding.
The prospects for building a sustainable ecological civilization arising from global ecological economic growth are a choice we can and must pursue. The suffering and risks posed by a Reformist Industrialism and the horrors of Polar Futures loom. It’s up to all of us to follow the path with a heart and build a future for our children and grandchildren for millennia to come. We must face the reality of climate change and act effectively and with urgency. Now is the time. The consequences of our actions may be measured in geological time.
1 Statistica.com world wide military spending 2020.
2 U.S. EIA 2020 Electricity Generation and Carbon Emissions.
3 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2021 Oxfam Global Billionaires Wealth.
4 Norman Abelson, 2003. Dena’s Final Journey. ISBN 0972863516, 9780972863513.
5 NOAA Thermohaline Current Dynamics.