How Bad Could It Get? — Part 2
On December 7, 2020, a news story from Common Dreams described an open letter sent by some 250 scientists and scholars to policymakers of many governments warning of impending “societal disruption and collapse due to damage to the climate and environment.” The letter called for urgent international efforts to “begin to prepare and so reduce its likelihood, speed, severity, harm to the most vulnerable, and to nature.”
The dire message echoed similar sentiments contained in a recent pair of United Nations reports on the same topic, briefly summarized by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as: “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.”
In the United States, Democrats and left-leaning voters tend, by a 73% majority, to regard climate change as a serious problem, according to Pew Research polling. But among Republicans and right-leaning voters, Pew finds, only 17% take climate change seriously.
As a group, Republicans are neither stupid nor evil. But Republican values and priorities differ drastically from those of more liberal voters. As further examples, the same Pew polling shows: on the issue of economic inequality in America, some 66% of Democrats say it’s a serious problem, but only 19% of Republicans agree. On racism in America, 66% of Democrats feel it’s a serious problem, but only 21% of Republicans agree. On the other hand, regarding illegal immigration, some 67% of Republicans say it’s a serious problem, compared to only 23% of Democrats.
According to Pew Research, “Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation or other factors.”
In polling done just before the recent election, Pew found that 89% of Trump supporters believed the nation would sustain “lasting harm” if Biden won. Similarly, 90% of Biden supporters feared “lasting harm” if Trump won.
The differences are so stark that, as noted in Part 1 of this essay, some analysts warn of possible civil war as an eventual outcome.
Thus, in addressing the question “How bad could it get?”, we are obliged to inquire along several interwoven lines of evidence. One line, for example, must examine the signs of advancing climate change and the consequences that could come with it: sea level rise inundating coastal cities, scorching heat leading to massive crop losses and wildfires, and so forth. Another level of inquiry must address the fracturing of civil society along partisan lines, with its attendant mutual distrust, recrimination and potential for violence, resulting in a tragically dysfunctional homeland unable to effectively meet the mounting challenges posed by nature.
This is why sober scientists are warning of “societal disruption and collapse.” It could really happen. And it would be utterly disastrous.
Meanwhile, back in the wacky world of politics, Biden and Trump supporters agree on almost nothing. In polling done in October, Pew Research found that 80% of Biden supporters “fundamentally disagree” with Trump supporters on “core American values and goals;” while 77% of Trump supporters had the same bleak feeling about Biden voters.
It gets worse. As of this writing, the electoral college has confirmed Biden’s win; but outgoing President Trump still refuses to concede, and over 70% of Republican voters still don’t accept the outcome, believing instead that Biden won by fraud, according to NPR/Marist polling.
After the Republican-led Supreme Court on December 11 dismissed the latest election challenge mounted by Texas and 17 other Republican-leaning states, Texas GOP chair Allen West ominously suggested, “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”
Echoing similar sentiments, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh declared on air that “I actually think we’re trending toward secession…It can’t go on this way. There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs. We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way.”
I’m no fan of Limbaugh, but in this instance he might be right. Without doubt, as he says, we are witness to “two completely different theories” of life and government in America today. That cannot bode well for national unity.
As external challenges such as climate change become more urgent and non-negotiable, the theory embraced by Republican / conservatives seems focused on maintaining a backward-looking status quo in which, among other things, women are subservient to men, people of color are subservient to whites, scientific fact is subservient to Biblical truth, and the rest of the world is subservient to the United States. Observing this from afar, many of our foreign friends and allies openly wonder if America is going off the rails.
In contrast, the theory embraced by Democrat / liberals and progressives, and to some extent political moderates, includes acceptance of science as a guide to reality, social justice that acknowledges the rights of the poor and people of all ethnicities, the value and appropriateness of international cooperation, and the right of women to control their own bodies, among other things.
Comparing these two social theories, it is easy to see why America feels more divided today than at any time since the Civil War.
What hope do we have of setting things right before it’s too late? In part 1 of this essay, I introduced three cogent thinkers who seem to agree that America’s chances of avoiding complete breakdown are slim to none. But “no chance” doesn’t give us much to work with.
There are, in fact, lots of creative people doing wonderful work on technologies and social strategies aimed at getting us through the current period of crisis. Make no mistake, these creative souls undoubtedly recognize the peril we’re in; and every one of them would likely say that we have absolutely no time to lose. But if, having acknowledged the dangers, we focus our intentions and energies on the best possible outcomes, there might still be a chance.
For example, a September 2020 report from The Nature Conservancy titled “Can the Earth Be Saved?” begins by saying “The answer is ‘yes,’ with some big ‘if’s.” They then describe three core strategies that, in their estimation, could spell the difference between calamity and a sustainable, hopeful future.
Success, they insist, begins with following the science. We must take seriously the real, scientifically verified threats of climate change, habitat destruction and unsustainable economic practices, particularly relating to agriculture. With that as background, they prescribe three essential strategies:
1. Produce more food on less land. This means a complete rethinking of large-scale agriculture, reducing the use of toxic fertilizers and drastically cutting back water use by planting the right crops in the places where they can most easily thrive.
2. Eliminate overfishing. Today’s industrial fishing methods have nearly depleted many fish populations while also destroying whole ocean ecosystems. By better understanding and honoring the ways in which fish propagate and thrive in their natural environments, and harvesting only the amounts that allow for longterm sustainability, the world’s ocean resources could continue to serve human needs into the far future.
3. Increase clean energy. As we have argued previously, The Nature Conservancy says that “Climate change is the single most serious threat facing our planet today.” In response to that threat, they say, we have no choice but to reduce carbon emissions; and that means gradually eliminating the use of fossil fuels. By investing in massive development of renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power, combined with large scale reforestation and carbon capture, it is theoretically possible to power the world without destroying it.
In the clean energy arena especially, there are many opportunities for radical decentralization. At present, most of us expect that our energy will come to us via giant oil companies and utilities. But a solar panel can be installed anywhere that receives adequate sunshine — even, for example, on a thatched roof in Africa. Wind generators can be installed anywhere that gets adequate wind, including in the middle of a farmer’s field. And micro-hydroelectric generators can work even on small creeks, as long as there is adequate water flow. Each of these strategies is already in use in thousands of locations around the globe, and the future potential is enormous.
A more ambitious and comprehensive “save the world” strategy, driven in part by the projected long-term global consequences of the Covid-19 crisis, has been proposed by the World Economic Forum. Following their September 2020 Sustainable Development Impact Summit, they have proposed to initiate The Great Reset, a global interactive process beginning in January 2021 that will “offer insights to help inform all those determining the future state of global relations, the direction of national economies, the priorities of societies, the nature of business models and the management of a global commons.” Needless to say, a major undertaking.
The Great Reset is too large a topic to discuss in detail here, but I will return to it in a future essay. For those interested to learn more now, go here.
In conclusion, it should be clear that both America and the larger world face unprecedented, game-changing challenges in the years ahead. How we meet those challenges will determine if society as we know it will continue to function, or if, alternatively, we experience a general collapse of social order leading to unthinkable pain and destruction. The choice is still ours, but the time is short, and the stakes have never been higher in all of human history.