An Unsustainable Modernity: democracy, the global climate emergency and environmental ethics.

Author:Smart, Barry
 
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Introduction: an unsustainable modernity--what needs to, and what can be done?

We live in deeply troubled and very uncertain late modern times. We face global problems with complex interconnected genealogies, the most significant of which is the detrimental impact of modern lifestyles on the planet, on human communities, and on the habitats and lives of a multitude of other species (Kolbert, 2014). These problems stem in significant part from the differentiation of human culture from a constituted 'natural world', the identification of development with economic growth and the unsustainable exploitation of what are assumed to be limitless 'natural resources' for human production and consumption, and forms of democratic governance limited in scale and scope to the interests of human communities configured as nation-states and thereby rendered relatively ineffective to date in respect of the climate crisis affecting a multi-species world.

There is now a substantial volume of scientific evidence and a near complete consensus among active climate and environmental scientists about the climate emergency, increasing global heating and the decline in biodiversity and ecosystems. There have been a series of responses to the changes and potential future risks identified with the climate emergency, ranging from 'denial of the problem, to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions' (Francis, 2015: 14). Denial has been cultivated in large part by the 'merchants of doubt' and generously funded, right wing, free-market advocating think tanks (Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Klein, 2015); faith has been expressed in possible geo-engineered 'solutions'; and there have been overly-modest national policy initiatives; and too complacent international climate conferences and conventions setting future emission reduction targets. (1)

A number of organisations have emerged to stimulate public awareness about the climate emergency, the unsustainability of modern life styles, and the forms of environmental injustice produced. Campaigns have been conducted to counter the complacency of governments in what Naomi Klein (2015: 360) has described, in recognition of both the sluggish character of governmental responses and the oil, gas, and mining industries close relationships with the state, as 'fossilized democracies'. Three relevant contemporary examples are provided by 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, and YouthStrike4Climate. 350.org is active in 188 countries and claims to be 'building the global grassroots climate movement that can hold our leaders accountable to science and justice' (https://350.org/about/). Extinction Rebellion began in the UK in 2018 and is now active in 35 countries and engaging in forms of direct action in response to the ineffectiveness of current policies to combat global heating and biodiversity loss (Watts, 2018a). And

YouthStrike4Climate is taking 'direct action where older generations have failed', including organising a global climate strike in 2019 across more than 130 countries (Monbiot, 2019; UK Student Climate Network).

The relative ineffectiveness to date of governmental responses to the scale, scope, depth, and complexity of the accumulating difficulties and dilemmas identified with the global climate emergency calls into question the appropriateness and readiness of existing forms of political governance. What precisely in our existing unsustainable circumstances might 'sustainability' involve? What is the meaning of environmental justice in a multi-species world in which there is an accelerating loss of biodiversity and a disregard for so many significant others? As Ingolfur Bluhdorn has noted, notwithstanding the interventions of activist movements, Green political parties, environmental researchers, and other agencies, 'the developmental trajectory of advanced modern societies... precludes... the transition of these societies towards sustainability' (2013: 16-17).

The complex configuration of problematic issues, risks, and threats that we now face is recognised, in significant part, to be a consequence of the globalisation of modernity, and in particular the globalisation of modern industrial capitalist modes of production and consumption. Particularly problematic is the cultivation of a seemingly endlessly expansive culture of consumerism that, as Thorstein Veblen anticipated, has made the purchase and possession of material goods seem 'indefinitely extensible... an integral part of one's scheme of life... [and] hard to give up' (1994 [1899]: 102). Modern institutions, in particular industrial capitalist production and its culture of consumerism, may have developed first in the West but, as Anthony Giddens (1990) observed, they are now global in scope, as are the high consequence economic, ecological, political and associated risks their globalisation has brought in its wake. (2) Modernity now 'looks unsustainable' (Giddens, 2011: 8). As the head of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis remarked in an address to popular social and ecological movements:

'An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation, are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness' (Francis, 2014).

It is in recognition of the enormity of such late modern difficulties that Zygmunt Bauman (2017: 159) identified 'a yawning gap between what needs to, and what can be done... between the size of the problems humanity faces and the reach and capacity of the tools available to manage them'. As we try to determine how we might deal with the scale and scope of the urgent problems we now face, democratic forms of government, sustainability initiatives and policies, and ideas about and associated movements campaigning for environmental justice may be amongst the most significant and perhaps best tools potentially available to us. However, are the 'tools' fit for purpose? Can democracies respond effectively to the threat of environmental catastrophe? Scientific evidence indicates that we are on the verge of a climate catastrophe and that dramatic measures are now required to stave off the worst consequences, raising questions about the capacity of liberal democracies in particular to deliver what is required (Gardner and Wordley, 2019; UNEP 2018; Bendell, 2018; Shearman and Smith, 2007).

Science, human activity and the environment

Science has been providing evidence of the detrimental impact of particular forms of human activity on the environment for over a century. In Capital (1976[1867]: 638), Karl Marx made reference to the way in which capitalist transformation of the process of production not only alienates and impoverishes workers but also how, in the case of capitalist agriculture, 'all progress in increasing fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility'. Marx's (1976: 637) critical concerns about capitalist production hindering 'the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil' were reiterated in a series of comments in 2014 by Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General, on the causes of soil degradation and erosion, which include chemical-intensive farming techniques, deforestation, climate change and global warming. Semedo stated that 'the current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs' (FAO 2014). Given current trends 'all of the world's top soil could be gone in 60 years' (Arsenault 2014). The IPCC (2019a) report Climate Change and Land confirmed the scale and extent of land degradation under current unsustainable land management practices and the contribution better land management might make to both improved food security and tackling climate change.

In the course of the nineteenth century, natural scientists argued that increased levels of carbon dioxide (carbonic acid gas) in the atmosphere would be likely to increase the temperature of the Earth's surface (Joseph Fourier 1827; Eunice Newton Foote 1856; John Tyndall 1872). An increasing accumulation of scientific evidence subsequently documented the respects in which 'the carbon dioxide and water vapor of the atmosphere have remarkable power of absorbing and temporarily retaining heat rays... It follows that the effect of the carbon dioxide and water vapor is to blanket the earth with a thermally absorbent envelope' (Chamberlin, 1899: 551).

In 1961 American scientist Charles David Keeling demonstrated that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were rising steadily as a result of human induced emissions and in 1965 the President's Science Advisory Committee requested Roger Revelle to produce a report on the 'potential impacts of carbon dioxide-induced warming' (Oreskes and Conway, 2010: 170). The report estimated that by the end of the century there would be 25% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that 'marked changes in climate...could occur' (Orsekes and Conway, 2010: 170). In the 1970s a series of scientific publications documented the increasing influence of human activity and use of fossil fuels on the climate. This research provided further evidence on the greenhouse effect or impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Sawyer, 1972; World Meteorological Organization 1979; Report of an Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, to the Climate Research Board, Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, National Research Council, 1979). In this period a number of other reports, prepared by the US National Research Council and the Energy Research and Development Administration, warned that continuing fossil fuel use would lead to 'intolerable and irreversible disasters' (Rich, 2019: 41) and a paper on climatic change and global warming by Wallace Broecker, a...

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