Why We’re Underestimating the Risks to Human Civilization – Umair Haque
Every day lately it seems that I wake up, and I read a slightly more apocalyptic bit of news. Yesterday — that the latest unforeseen casualty of climate change might be the clouds in the sky disappearing (accelerating runaway warming in the blink of an eye.) I confess: I’m worried, my friends. Are you? Do you feel this sense that I do that somehow things are going badly wrong in this new century — perhaps spinning out of control?
I think that we are severely underestimating the risks to human civilization, to put it simply. Which is also to say we are severely underestimating the work that we must do if we want this project called human civilization to endure. I say that because I’ve come to three disturbing conclusions.
First, we face existential threats for the first time in human history — dangers that genuinely threaten our ongoing progress, peace, and maybe even our basic survival. But second, we don’t just face one existential threat this century, we face at least three — climate change, mass extinction, and a failing global economy, which causes social fracture and breakdown, driven by rising inequality and stagnation. Yet third, what makes them even more dangerous is that they’re not additive — they’re multiplicative, each feeding the next, spinning it out of control. So: we don’t just face existential threats for the first time in human history this century — we face multiplicative ones, not additive ones, but ones which multiply and boost each other’s power, lethality, and quickness.
Whew. A lot to take in. Of course, you can be the judge of whether those are grandiose, empty statements, or whether my words carry any weight. Let me try and explain this strange and complex set of ideas.
The first set of risks we’re underestimating are of course natural. We’re now entering a phase of rapid climate change. The effects are all too plain to deny. It’s 70 degrees in London…in February as I write this — and it barely used to be 70 degrees by May. Climate-isn’t-weather-me- all you like, but the age of rapid climate change is now here — and it’s bringing with it everything from shattering wildfires to floods to hurricanes. Of course, these things alone aren’t the risk — it’s the changes that are to come which are. Rising tides, desertification, drought, disease, and so on. A world that slowly becomes uninhabitable — except in shrinking zones of livability, where things can grow and flourish.
Rapid climate change is here now. And we have yet to build a single carbon neutral economy anywhere on Planet Earth. Do you see what I mean by “underestimating the risks”? We have no idea what the effects of climate change will really be, except to say that they’ll be catastrophic — nonlinear feedbacks aren’t easily predictable. Take the example of the clouds — it’s only now that we’ve figured out we might literally be boiling the clouds out of the sky, which will then, by stripping away their protective layer, accelerate warming dramatically. Do you see my point? That’s just one effect we’ve only recently predicted. How many more are there?
What would we do if we were taking climate change seriously? Well, something like a Manhattan Project meets the now famed Green New Deal. Since you know about the GND a little bit, let’s think about a Manhattan Project I’d probably do something like hire all the talented minds I could find to model the earth, in its ecological entirety. Can it be done? Nobody really knows. What we have right now are separate models of atmospheres, animals, forests, oceans — not one integrated one, that might help us see how all these are linked. Then we might be able to predict it, and manage it, avoid the worst of it — by coming up with radical new ideas to address just those previously unforeseen predictions. Why aren’t we doing any of that?
What are we doing instead? Mostly, we’re doing what we’ve been doing. Our brightest minds are figuring out ways to make ads that follow you around and listen to you 24/7…they’re finding ways to trade stocks by the picosecond not just the nanosecond…while the planet all this stuff happens on is beginning now to climactically melt down.
Of course, I’m not a trillionaire, so I can’t do that. Neither are you. The fact is that in a world run by and for capitalism, such things will never, ever happen. There’s no profit in them. They’re not going to make anyone’s shareholders richer. No hedge fund manager is going to make another billion from them. There’s only long-term survival — ours, of our civilization, our world, our planet. In that sense, capitalism is completely unfit for this century.
The second kind of natural risk we’re running is probably even more dangerous than climate change itself. Mass extinction. We’re killing off something like 50 to 90% of the life on earth. But that’s the only life we know of anywhere in the universe. We are killing off the only life we know of, period, full stop. And we are doing with it furious swiftness and lethal precision. How is a mind to cope with that? Who can really process such a thought? Grieve for life itself? But let’s leave aside the moral concerns — and think in simpler terms.
Let me translate “mass extinction” for you: we’re ripping the bottoms out of our living systems. We are eradicating the most vulnerable things of all. Insects, bees, birds, fish. Decimating them, and then annihilating them to nonexistence.
But our living systems are also our food chains. They are also our soil. The pumps of our aquifers. They are also our lungs, our breath, the iron in our blood, the serotonin in our brains.
They support and nourish in countless ways, which we scarcely understand. The truth is that the are our bodies, which are constantly made and remade from them. But because capitalism has taught us that our bodies are “ours” — that we are “individuals”, for the sake of owning “property”, which begins with our “bodies” — we don’t understand the living world in this way, as both integral and connected to us, whatsoever.
What are we doing about this risk — the risk of ripping the heart of the living systems? We are doing…precisely nothing. Nothing at all. The insects are dying off and we’ve just noticed. The bees are disappearing and we’re just finding out. And even if you and I wanted to do something about it, what the hell would we do? We might, if we’re very, very lucky, very brave, and very wise, find ways to quickly stop pumping soot into the skies. But replenishing life on earth? Good luck with that. Even a Manhattan Project isn’t going to be able to do that. It’s far, far beyond our capabilities as tiny human things to replenish a dead world with life. And it will be for a very long time, because we simply have no idea how these systems work or interact or grow yet.
Here we begin to understand our fatal hubris. We’re not gods, my friends. But we are acting like we are. We are deciding the fates of billions of livings things, in ways we should not be. And that decision will come back to haunt us in terrible ways — because those living things are us, in ways we aren’t comfortable admitting, aren’t capable of seeing, aren’t ready to understand yet, because the truth is most of us cannot yet see, brainwashed by capitalism and greed and selfishness and supremacy, that we need the world far more than the world needs us.
So what are we ready to understand? That brings me to my third risk. The global economy is in terrible shape, my friends. We’re reliving the 1930s already for a very simple reason. Too much money goes to those at they very tippy top — the ultra rich, the billionaires who can buy whole American cities and not blink — while middle classes are shrinking, declining, and imploding in nation after nation, like a chain reaction of collapse, from America to Britain to Germany. As middle classes shrink and fall, they turn on those below them, the vulnerable, the weak, the other, hoping to take from them what was promised, they turn on former neighbours and allies, they turn on friends and partners, in a rising tide of selfishness and despair and ruin.
Hence, nationalism and extremism are rising around the globe — to the point that fascism has resurfaced, not in a small way, but in a very dangerous and large one. Fascists are effectively in control of America, of Brazil, of Turkey, of Poland, Austria, and mounting rising challenges in many other nations.
Now, the trap here is a subtle one. A global economy built on and for capitalism already cannot provide for the middle anymore — that’s no surprise, since capitalism makes capitalists rich, not you. But what happens middle classes who are already so broke they’re turning fascist meet the spiralling chaos, the poverty, the fear, the challenges — of my first two risks? Let me make that more concrete.
That’s a lot to handle, so let me try and simplify how my three risks interact. What I’m pointing out is that climate change, mass extinction, and capitalism imploding into fascism (or inequality and stagnation, if you like) aren’t separate, disconnected threats — each one makes the next much, much more dangerous, likely, probable, and lethal. Our existential threats are now multiplicative — not additive.
What happens when societies which capitalism is already imploding into fascism, by reducing their middle classes to new poverty, suddenly find their food chains collapsed? That means the prices of basic foods will skyrocket. Bang! What happens when societies in which the average person is already struggling to make ends meet suddenly finds the price of insurance, property, medicine, water, and so on spirals out of control? Bang! What happens is that the pressures for fascism mounting around the globe explode — and a big bang of fascism happens at the precise moment humanity needs to come together and solve its problems. Instead, nations fracture, splinter, and explode into extreme forms of nationalism, individualism, greed, and selfishness.
The shortages that capitalism has already created — so that the ultra rich can hoard everything in society — are going to go nuclear when they collide with the ones of climate change and mass extinction. Societies are already running short of basics, like money, medicine, retirement, or decent jobs — because capitalism has no incentive to allocate resources equitably or sanely, only to let the ultra rich hoard them. But what happens when today’s basic shortages meet tomorrow’s? The ones of climate change? Of mass extinction? What happens in societies where capitalism has already made healthcare or education cost a small fortune — and then mass extinction comes along and blows food prices into the stratosphere, leads to all kinds of disease, or climate change makes huge portions of land unlivable, causes insurance rates to skyrocket, makes getting to that job impossible? Are you beginning to see what I mean?
People who can’t make ends meet already are likely to turn to harder forms of nationalism, extremism, and fascism all the more so as they grow poorer — and when the existing shortages of capitalism meet the new shortages of climate change and mass extinction..bang! The result is going to be insecurity and anxiety and poverty of shattering kinds, pushing already teetering people straight off the brink of ruin.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting the human race will perish overnight, or even ever. I’m suggesting that a world splintered into nations that resemble a collapsed, fascist America — or maybe worse — each one bitterly contesting its share of dwindling resources, ready to do violence and commit atrocities, is going to be an age in which peace, progress, plenitude, and the survival of a whole lot of people grind to a screeching, lethal halt.
We should be working on my three great risks. Madly, furiously, like there’s no tomorrow. Because there won’t be one if we don’t. With not just one Manhattan Project or New Deal or Marshall Plan — but many, right now, this instant. We should be devoting our brightest minds and all our time, energy, creativity to figuring out how to go on progressing and prospering — not to selling ads that listen to you and trading stocks at light speed. But we aren’t— mostly because capitalism, it’s greed, selfishness, and short-sightedness won’t let us, and we, in turn, are so wedded to capitalism, we won’t let it become anything else yet. We are not taking the grave and mounting risks to human civilization nearly seriously enough. We are not taking them seriously at all, as far as I can see.
My first risk is climate change. That one’s bad enough. My second one’s mass extinction. It’s catastrophic. My third is capitalism imploding into fascism. It’s grotesque. All three are severe and urgent. But the real fireworks happen when all three intersect, meet, interact. When capitalism that’s already imploding into fascism because there’s not enough to go around meets the shortages of climate change and mass extinction — when middle class precarity meets the flood, the fire, the famine, the drought — well, then my friends, let me ask you again: do you think we’re underestimating the risks to human civilization?
What are we doing about all this — the idea that our great risks are multiplicative, not additive, that they feed back against each other? We are doing nothing. Not a single thing. We don’t even really have minds that understand it well yet. Our “intelligence agencies” are such a joke they didn’t even see Trumpism coming. Our economists mostly don’t think the climate matters, our politicians, even the good ones, don’t quite understand how all this works together, and our thinkers…they are out to lunch, quite literally, at some corporate speaking gig. Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better while we kill off most life on earth.
And that leaves, I guess, you and me, to remake the world a little better. Every generation has a challenge. This one’s ours.