Want to save the environment? Let’s leave the collapse porn under the mattress

Is the “end of the world” the best way to understand our ecological woes? chiotsrun/flickr, CC BY-NC

Collapse porn. Apocalyptica. Eco-rapture.

These are labels UK science journalist Leigh Phillips has given to a growing genre of environmental writing. Prominent among them are Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005), Paul Kingsnorth’s Uncivilization (2009), John Zerzan Against Civilization (2005), and Dereck Jensen’s Endgame: The problem of civilization (2006).

In his book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn-addicts: a defence of growth, technology, industry and stuff (2015) published last month, Phillips points to the collapse merchants’ belief in a mythical time when humanity lived in harmony with nature.

Idealising the past

A common feature of the genre is the idea of overshoot, the metaphor that humanity is hurtling down a road at 100 km/hr towards a cliff and there’s bugger all we can do. But if we’re overshooting now, was there a period when were we travelling OK? At what time in history do these authors think humans had it right?

From five authors, Phillips extracts six favoured periods of apparent harmony. Naomi Klein, between This Changes Everything and articles in The Guardian and In These Times, offers four: the 1970s before consumerism became rampant; 1776 when James Watt’s invention of the steam engine kick started the industrial revolution; the early 17th century just before the scientific revolution took off; and pre-agricultural society.

Adding to the list, James Kunstler suggests the Amish have got it right. Paul Kingsnorth, whose historical novel The Wake (2013) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, favours pre-Cromwell Britain. And both John Zerzan and Dereck Jensen go right back to pre-agricultural society.

The trouble with picking dates, says Phillips quoting David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity (2011), is that human history is a story of transforming inhospitable environments to suit ourselves, right back to the Palaeolithic and beyond. There is not, never was, and never will be an Eden — just the inevitability of problems to be solved.

What Phillips suggests is that somewhere between the half-hearted techno-utopianism of the right and the fervent neo-luddism of the gloomy left is Promethean optimism. This is the recognition that human history is a series of solutions to problems that themselves create more problems, for which we have to continually find even more solutions. And the big problem of our times is clean energy.

Reality check: bigger may be better

Joseph Tainter’s message from his classic study, The Collapse of Complex Societies, is that problem solving requires consuming more energy, not less. Austerity, rationing, and efficiency won’t power the breakthroughs we need.

History also tells us that the Stone Age didn’t end for want of stones; humans learnt how to use metals. We didn’t run out of whale blubber; we switched to kerosene. And more than likely, the fossil fuel epoch won’t end because we run out, but because we move to alternatives.

Here’s Phillips on austerity:

The anti-consumerist, back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, civilisation-hating, progress-questioning ideology of de-growth, limits, and retreat is hegemonic not just on the green left but across the political spectrum. Far from being central to progressive thought, this cauldron of seething effervescent misanthropy is utterly foreign to the rich tradition of humanism on the left and must be thoroughly excised from our ranks.

Phillips argues that, to solve the problems of climate and energy, we need a return to big publicly-funded programs on the scale of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and the Snowy Mountain Scheme. The trouble with the case for big government is the 20th century’s appalling record of central planning. The distinction Phillips makes, however, is between autocratic central planning and social democratic economic planning.

Maybe the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders suggests there’s an appetite for change after 30 years of neo-liberal, small government, leave-it-to-the-market problem solving. But that’s a tricky argument to run, and the weakest aspect of this otherwise sometimes angry, mostly serious, and at times very funny book.

Developing abundant cheap sources of energy that can compete with fossils fuels in all latitudes is not a task for crowd-sourced, ride-sharing start-ups, argues Phillips. Relying on the genius of Elon Musk or a breakthrough from the next boy/girl wonder out of Silicon Valley is casual outsourcing. The Tesla battery will only be a breakthrough when the energy it stores comes from sources both cleaner and cheaper than coal. That means greater public investment in R&D to further reduce the cost of wind and solar.

In the case of nuclear, established plants might be competitive, but the next generation reactors face the legacy of 30 years of bad press and stalled innovation. Despite the advocacy of James Hansen at COP21 in Paris, nuclear is unlikely to be widely embraced until it is safer, modular and cheaper over the fuel cycle. And you won’t crowd-source that.

Human nature: a case of good vs. wicked?

Ultimately, Phillips’ point in this long letter to the left is that the purveyors of collapse porn are objecting to more than big government, capitalism, growth, technology, or big kit. They have a fundamental problem with the human enterprise that goes back at least four centuries.

This genre, he suggests, is:

the latest episode in what has been an eternal battle between those who recognise within our species while there is potential both for greatness and wickedness, overall we are ascending, and those who focus on our wickedness and believe us to have fallen long ago.

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