That Era is Over! This is our Reality!
September 1, 2022
The following is an email interview conducted by Marxism and Collapse with eco-radical leader and organizer of the Deep Green Resistance (DGR) movement, Max Wilbert. It inquires into Wilbert’s response to the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” between Noam Chomsky, Miguel Fuentes, and Guy McPherson. Wilbert's comment employs the concepts of so-called deep ecology (a theoretical trend to which he subscribes) and the political principles of the DGR.
Marxism and Collapse: In a recent discussion between ecosocialist stances and collapsist approaches represented by Michael Lowy (France), Miguel Fuentes (Chile), and Antonio Turiel (Spain), Lowy denied the possibility of a self-induced capitalist collapse and criticized the idea of the impossibility of stopping climate change before it reaches the catastrophic level of 1.5° C of global warming. Do you think that the current historical course is heading to a social global downfall comparable, for example, to previous processes of civilization collapse or maybe to something even worse than those seen in ancient Rome or other ancient civilizations? Is catastrophic climate change now unavoidable? Is a near process of human extinction as a result of the overlapping of climate, energy, economic, social, and political crises conceivable?
Max Wilbert: Throughout history, all civilizations undermine their own ecological foundations, face disease, war, political instability, the breakdown of basic supply chains, and eventually collapse. Modern technology and scientific knowledge do not make us immune from this pattern. On the contrary, as our global civilization has harnessed more energy, expanded, and grown a larger population than ever before in history, the fall is certain to be correspondingly worse. What goes up must come down. This is a law of nature. The only question is, when?
Professor Chomsky’s argument that the collapse of civilization can be averted at a relatively minor cost by diverting 2-3% of global GDP to transition to renewable energy and fund a “Global Green New Deal” does not contend with the physical constraints civilization faces today. The global energy system, which powers the entire economy, is the largest machine in existence and was built over more than a century during a period of abundant fossil fuels and easy-to-access minerals and raw materials. It was powered by the last remnants of ancient sunlight, fossil fuels condensed into an extremely dense form of energy that is fungible and easily transportable.
That era is over. Accessible reserves of minerals, oil, and gas are gone, and we have long since entered the era of extreme energy extraction (fracking, deepwater drilling, arctic drilling, tar sands, etc.). Simply replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind energy and phasing out all liquid and solid fuel (which still makes up roughly 80% of energy use) in favor of electrification of transportation, heating, etc. is not a simple task in an era of declining energy availability, increasing costs, extreme weather, political and financial instability, and resource scarcity. And these so-called “renewable” technologies still have major environmental impacts (for example, see solar impacts on desert tortoises, wind energy impacts on bat populations, and lithium mining impacts on sage-grouse), even if they do reduce carbon, which is not yet proven. (See here and here.)
In practice, renewable energy technologies seem largely to serve as a profitable investment for the wealthy, a way to funnel public money into private hands, and a distraction from the scale of the ecological problems we face (of which global warming is far from the worst) and the scale of solutions which are needed. This is, as Miguel Fuentes points out, a rather timid cosmetic restructuring of the dominant political and economic order.
In our book, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, my co-authors and I call this “solving for the wrong variable.” We write: “Our way of life [industrial modernity] does not need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life. . . we are not saving civilization; we are trying to save the world.” Scientists like Tim Garrett at the University of Utah model civilization as a “heat engine,” a simple thermodynamic model that will consume energy and materials until it can no longer do so, then collapse. Joseph Tainter, the scholar of collapse, writes that “in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return.” This is our reality.
Whether sanity prevails and we succeed in building a new politics and new societies organized around rapidly scaling down the human enterprise to sustainable levels, or we continue down the business-as-usual path we are on, the future looks either grim or far more dire. Global warming will continue to worsen for decades even if, by some miracle, we are able to dismantle the fossil fuel industry and restore the ecology of this planet. The sixth mass extinction event and ecological collapse are not far distant. We are in the depths of these events, and they have been getting worse for centuries. The question is not “can we avoid catastrophe?” It is too late for that. The questions are: How much of the world will be destroyed? Will elephants survive? Coral reefs? Tigers? The Amazon rainforest? Humans? What will we leave behind?
I want to leave behind as much biodiversity and ecological integrity as possible. Human extinction seems unlikely, at least in the coming decades, unless runaway global warming accelerates faster than predicted. “Unlikely” is not “impossible,” but there are eight billion of us, and we are profoundly adaptable. I am far less worried about human extinction than about the extinction of countless other species (one hundred per day). I am far more worried about the collapse of insect populations or phytoplankton populations (which provide 40% of all oxygen on the planet and are the base of the oceanic food web). The fabric of life itself is fraying, and we are condemning unborn human generations to a hellish future and countless non-humans to extinction. Extinction will come for humans, at some point. But, at this point, I am not concerned for our species, but rather for the lives of my nephews and their children, and the salmon on the brink of extermination and the last remaining old-growth forests.
M&C: Has the human species become a plague for the planet? If so, how can we still conciliate the survival of life on Earth with the promotion of traditional modern values associated with the defense of human and social rights (which require the use of vast amounts of planetary resources) in a context of a potential increase of the world’s population that could reach over twelve billion people this century? The latter in a context in which (according to several studies) the maximum number of humans that Earth could have sustained without a catastrophic alteration of ecosystems should never have exceeded the billion. Can the modern concept of liberal (or even socialist) democracy and its supposedly related principles of individual, identity, gender, or cultural freedom survive our apparent terminal geological situation? Or will it be necessary to find new models of social organization, for example, in those present in several indigenous or native societies? Can the rights of survival for living species on Earth, human rights, and the concept of modern individual freedom be harmoniously conciliated in the context of an impending global ecosocial disaster?
MW: Human population is a hockey-stick graph that corresponds almost exactly with rising energy use. Most of the nitrogen in our diet comes from fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Green Revolution, said in his acceptance speech that “we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. . . There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.”
Ideally, this situation could be dealt with humanely by education and making family planning and women’s health services available. The best example of this actually comes from Iran, where under a religious theocracy in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, birth rates were reduced from around seven children per woman to less than replacement in little more than a decade. (The policy was since reversed, and Iran’s land and water are paying the price.) Technically, it is quite easy to solve overpopulation humanely: Reduce birth rates to less than replacement levels, then wait. Politically, it is much harder. As we have seen with the recent fall of abortion rights in the US, the political battle for control of women’s reproduction is alive and well, and basic ecology is anathema to many political leaders and populations.
Unless we take action to reduce our population willingly, it will happen unwillingly, as the planet’s ecology fails to support us. That will be harsh. Any species that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment it lives in will experience a population crash, usually due to starvation, disease, and predation. That’s our choice. Either we make the right decisions, or we pay the price.
The difference between our situation today and the Indus Valley civilization or the Roman Empire is that today's civilization is globalized. The collapse of global industrial civilization is coming. It cannot be stopped at this point. In fact, it is already in progress. But collapse is also not simply an overnight chaotic breakdown of all social order. We can define collapse as a rapid simplification of a complex society characterized by the breakdown of political and social institutions, a return to localized, low-energy ways of life, and usually a significant reduction in population (which is a nice way of saying that a lot of people die).
Collapse should be looked at as having good and bad elements. Good elements, from my perspective, including reducing consumption and energy use, localizing our lives, and having certain destructive institutions (for example, the fossil fuel industry) fade away. Bad elements might include a breakdown of basic safety and rising violence, mass starvation, disease, and, for example, the destruction of local forests for firewood if electricity is no longer available for heating. Some aspects of collapse have elements of both. For example, the collapse of industrial agriculture would be incredibly beneficial for the planet but would lead to mass human die-offs.
If collapse is coming regardless of what we want, it is our moral and ecological responsibility to make the best of the situation by assisting and accelerating the positive aspects of collapse (for example, by working to reduce consumption and dismantle oil infrastructure) and help prevent or mitigate the negative aspects (for example, by working to reduce population growth and build localized sustainable food systems).
As I write this, I am looking into a meadow between eighty-year-old oak trees. A deer and her fawn are walking through the grass. Birds are singing in the trees. A passenger jet roars overhead, and the hum of traffic floats over the hills. There is a fundamental contradiction between industrial civilization and ecology, and the organic tensions created by this contradiction are rising. These are dire and revolutionary times, and it is our responsibility to navigate them!
 Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It (Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2021), xviii.