Climate Change: No Place To Hide

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Why are the nations of the world not doing more to address the challenge of climate change?  There are probably many reasons.  But it's a reasonable assumption that one major barrier preventing faster and more effective response to climate change is this: the elite believe that they will be able to hide from the worst effects.  They think they will be able to retreat to a gated community, or retire to their private island.

No doubt, many other people in the industrialized West also have the same basic idea - that climate change will be dreadful for many in the 'Third World', but we will be able to ride out the worst effects.  There may be mass starvation across the world, but we are rich enough to buy the food we need; we have the skills and technology needed to solve the problems that climate change throws at us.  it's a lie - or simple wishful thinking.

The reality which they (and we) need to hear and understand is this: if civilization collapses - and it might - then there will be no place to hide, and there will be no building of a new civilization in a century or two.  You may have a super-yacht and billions of dollars, but this will not be of much help when the yacht has no fuel and the dollars are stored in a computer without electricity.

No Hiding Place

In the Middle Ages - often called, the 'Dark Ages'  - after the Roman Empire fell, Western civilization fell into a significant and long term decline.  But other parts of the world were not affected - China being the prime example - and even in the West, learning was preserved in the Monasteries.  Skills and technology were lost for most people, but not for all.  And eventually, things improved again.

This cannot happen again.  The fundamental reality is that if civilization collapses, there will be no centres to preserve knowledge for future generations, no safe places to hide until society is rebuilt.  Human civilization developed in the Stone Age, which lasted a very long time.  Stones are easy to find.  Then came the Bronze Age.  Out of that grew the Iron Age and then the Industrial Revolution, leading to computers and the modern world.  This process has changed the world in fundamental ways.

To take just one obvious example: the Industrial Revolution depended upon large quantities of coal.  But we have burned all the coal and taken all the iron ore which can be easily extracted.  We still mine them, but only by using advanced technology, which will cease to operate when the electricity dies.  The only resources left are renewable, and they depend on advanced technology to make and maintain.

The gated communities will look less attractive once the water and electricity supplies fail, when there is no more food in the shops, no more pizza deliveries.  They might have solar panels to provide electricity for a few years before the parts need replacing, but they will probably have starved long before  then.

Hollywood has done us a great disservice with all those post-apocalyptic films.  We see ruined cities and bleak landscapes, and know that many people have died, but life goes on: bands of people still work together, and the survivors are still driving cars - beat up, with missing doors and held together in places with straps, but still working.  It is complete nonsense.  Where do you get petrol for the cars, and replacement parts when they break down?  What are the people eating?  Who is making the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet?  All these things require resources and stable systems and skills which the survivors do not possess.

Every pre-industrial society is mostly farmers, and farming without tractors, or metal tools of any kind, is hard work.  We (in the 'first world') don't have the knowledge any more to produce by hand what we need to survive.  Some people think that 'primitive' hunter-gatherer tribes don't have schools, therefore they know very little; the reality is that they survive through using a massive body of knowledge which is carefully and systematically passed on through the generations - knowledge we (for the most part) don't have.

The Global Economy

Advanced countries only survive through imports of basic materials from poorer parts of the world.  If we stop getting the raw materials, we stop producing.  We cannot survive on our own - no country can, and neither can any individual.

Think of the archetypal cowboy, riding out on his trusty horse and completely self-sufficient.  Many of us would like to think that, if need be, we could be like that cowboy and take care of ourselves.  But this image is a myth, sold to us on film and TV.  Forget the gun battles: they were rare and very brief, not least because bullets were expensive, so you only fired a gun when you had to.  But riding out on the range, you might shoot a small animal, then butcher and cook it.  The knife you used to cut it up was probably made of metal mined thousands of miles away and then forged and shaped by a craftsman; the guns and bullets were the products of a sophisticated and complex industrial society, then shipped out West to trading outposts.  You can't fire a gun or skin a rabbit without using technology - including specialist knowledge, skills, equipment and trading arrangements - which no individual could possibly master.  So much for 'self sufficient': every day, the cowboy relied on modern, nearly 'state of the art', technology.

Even back in the Stone Age (in the Neolithic, starting around 9,000 BC), we know that people developed specialist skills and traded goods across thousands of miles.  It wasn't quite a global economy, but society was sophisticated enough and stable enough to develop trade routes which lasted for many centuries.  They used on a daily basis goods produced far away.

The Covid pandemic (and, to a lesser extent, the Ever Given when it got stuck across the Suez Canal) showed us something of how connected the global economy really is.  For centuries (and to a far greater extent in the past few decades) we have saved money by outsourcing production to wherever it is cheapest, and this has produced many lengthy and complicated supply chains.

To take one simple example (identified in the Covid pandemic), a box of tea bags may require the following items and processes:

  1. tea;
  2. teabag material;
  3. teabag manufacture;
  4. label material;
  5. label ink;
  6. label printing;
  7. string manufacture;
  8. string attached to label;
  9. staple material;
  10. staple manufacture;
  11. tea put into teabag and secured with staple attached to string;
  12. box cardboard manufacture;
  13. box ink;
  14. box printing;
  15. box assembly;
  16. box filled with teabags and closed;
  17. plastic wrapping; and
  18. box sealed with plastic wrapping.

Of course, this ignores all the transport, legal, financial and management activity behind all this activity.  Also, some of these steps can be undertaken in multiple locations.  So that simple box of tea bags can rely on products and processes from 18 or more different locations, which could each be in a different country.  And that is before you start to count the complexities of the system which got that box of tea bags from the factory to your home.  The point is not that tea bags are a particular problem: most of the products in the average shopping basket are similarly dependent on the functioning of a global economy.

And food is relatively straightforward.  The modern world depends on telecommunications - telephone lines, broadband, satellites, computers and (increasingly) smart phones, which are far more complex and rely for their production on technology which is much harder to create and maintain.  And all of these depend upon a reliable electricity supply for their operation. Remember Douglas Adams, and the passengers trapped on the starship which cannot depart because the lemon-scented napkins have not arrived?  It's a parody, but it makes an important point: every complex product and system depends upon many parts working together - take out one small, seemingly insignificant part, and you find that the whole thing fails to work.

This is also true of many ecosystems: we have seen example after example of populations failing because they depended on factors we didn't know were significant until too late.

In many of these complex systems, you can see a tipping point: up to that point, worrying trends can be reversed; beyond that point, the system settles into a completely different state.  We don't know exactly where these tipping points are in the economy and the ecosystems we depend upon, but we know they exist, and we have plausible models which say that, in many cases, they are not far off.

Unlimited Growth

It is widely recognized that many of our systems depend on the assumption of continual (in other words, unlimited) growth.  To take one obvious example: in almost every country, pensions can be seen as a massive legal Ponzi scheme: the large working population pays the bill for the current pensioners, with the promise that when they retire the working population will pay for their pensions.  This can potentially work if the population keeps growing - but with increasing life spans and declining birth rates, the ability of the workers to pay for the pensioners will continually shrink.

The financial viability of the telecommunications industry depends upon an incredible scale of production: around 1,150,000,000,000 microchips were made and sold in 2021 - which is absolutely fine (financially speaking) as long as production continues to increase year on year. 

Continual growth is a convenient economic assumption, but we know that - in the real world, with finite resources - every growth trend must eventually come to an end.

Science Fiction authors tend to assume that this continual growth can be achieved through expanding into space: colonies on Mars, and mining the asteroids for the raw materials.  In reality, even with the most optimistic scenario, we are not going to have more than the population of a small village living off planet a hundred years from now.  This is not going to provide the growth required to sustain the current economic system.

Much more importantly, the current forecasts all say that, if all goes well, the world's population will be considerably smaller by the end of the century.  And it is very unlikely that all will go well: we have all but reached the end of unlimited growth, and the collapse of the systems which depend upon it.  We may be aiming for net zero by 2050, but with our current plans the economy may well have collapsed by 2040.

Planned Fragility

There are many systems and structures which we depend upon, and we have deliberately made them more fragile than they needed to be.  In many areas, we have prioritized profit above sustainability.

As mentioned above, we have outsourced production in order to produce a cheaper product, thus relying on another company, often another country, and on reliable transport.

After outsourcing, we then developed 'Just In Time' systems, which avoided the cost of storage and the interest on the cost of purchasing the materials in storage, but then any delay in the production or transport of those materials has a significant impact (we shut down).  While the system works, we make more money, but then an accident blocking the nearby motorway results in expensive downtime.

When our staffing needs are variable, we can save money by putting staff on zero-hours contracts.  But then the staff have little loyalty to the company, fail to respond when we need them to be more flexible than usual, and disappear as soon as someone who is willing to pay more arrives on the scene.

When public bodies have a major project, they are required to take the cheapest bid, even though everyone knows that it is only cheap because it assumes that everything will go to plan and things never go to plan; the project always ends up costing far more than promised, and more than it would have cost if a more realistic bid and more cautious plan had been adopted from the start - because every change costs time and money, and many changes result in work which has already been done being thrown away.  The same thing happens with countless IT projects.  But you have to be unrealistically optimistic when bidding for a contract, or you don't win.

We build fragility into our systems because we constantly choose short term benefits, despite knowing that long term stability is far better for all involved, because the systems we function within require it.  Of course, we could choose to change the systems, but that would mean less profit.

In Summary

If modern civilization falls apart, there will be no place to hide, and no pockets of civilization waiting to rebuild once the chaos has settled down.  Whether we are a billionaire or just an ordinary person on the Clapham Omnibus, responding to the current challenge - responding well, and responding quickly - is our one and only chance, if we want our children, and their children, to survive.


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