Archive for November 4th, 2012

Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 5 of 7

November 4, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


Why is there so little urgency in confronting climate change, a catastrophe that has already begun to affect millions of people? Imagine for a moment a contrasting situation: suppose any country, anywhere in the world, were to learn that a neighbouring country were mobilizing for an invasion. The response would be not only instantaneous but perhaps even pre-emptive. The US launched an invasion of Afghanistan within weeks of 9/11. India and Pakistan have mobilized against each other several times in the last couple of decades.

Yet a major change in the planet’s climate is likely to cause much greater damage than most conceivable scenarios of military conflict. And still, far from acting to mitigate the processes of change, the world is moving in a direction that will only accelerate those changes. As the New York Times notes, in a piece on the record melting of Arctic ice in the summer of 2012: ‘some scientists think the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of summer ice as soon as 2020. But governments have not responded to the change with any greater urgency about limiting greenhouse emissions. To the contrary, their main response has been to plan for exploitation of newly accessible minerals in the Arctic, including drilling for more oil.’

How do we describe this process? To my mind it is summed up perfectly by a concept that is often used by climate scientists – ‘amplifying feedback loop’. An example of such a loop is (in the words of James Hansen, the climate scientist) ‘when a microphone is placed too close to a speaker, which amplifies any little sound picked up by the microphone, which then picks up the amplification, which is again picked up by the speaker, until very quickly the noise becomes unbearable.’

In the physical world, the feedback loop that is driving climate change starts with carbon emissions, caused by the steadily rising use of fossil fuels. But this loop is actually embedded in another one – a human loop, rooted in history, society and politics. It is the helical pairing of these two loops that is pushing our environment towards a point of no return. The two loops cannot be separated from each other any more than the twin strands of the double helix that makes life possible: they are, so to speak, the paired strings of a helix of disaster.

The strands of these two loops were first joined in 17th century Europe, when fossil fuels, in the form of coal, first came into widespread use. This happened to coincide with the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the emergence of a range of new industries, technologies and institutions, of which perhaps the most important was the nation-state. These innovations gave Europeans enormous advantages over the rest of the world and they were soon able to extend their power over the entire globe.

What made this ensemble of elements so peculiarly powerful was its claim of universality: in principle it was available to everyone in the world. The new era of progress and modernity promised limitless possibilities and endless growth to all who opted for it. And nowhere did this ensemble play a more important role than in the newly conquered continents of the Americas and Australia, where an abundance of land and resources reinforced the idea that growth could be truly endless and profit could be sought without limit.

The universalism of this ensemble was self-fulfilling: in a very short time the countries that had invented it were the object of envy and aspiration for the whole world. People everywhere wanted to be included in this loop of nationalism, sovereignty, industrialization, individualism, consumerism and ever-expanding economic growth. People may have differed on the routes that were to take them into the loop – communism, socialism, dictatorship, democracy and so on – but the goal was shared by the leaders of every nation. Those who tried to define other goals for humanity, like Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, found few takers for their beliefs: for the most part they were dismissed as cranks and deluded dreamers.

Only after a substantial part of the world’s population had succeeded in acquiring the package did the world at large get an inkling of a truth that many so-called ‘savages’ had understood intuitively: the supposed ‘universalism’ of this path was a hoax, a fraud. This way of life was feasible only so long as it was practised by a few: the toll it exacted from the earth was too great for it be universally adopted.



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