By John Scales Avery*
Greed, in particular the greed of corporations and billionaire oligarchs, is driving human civilization and the biosphere towards disaster.
The greed of giant fossil fuel corporations is driving us towards a tipping point after which human efforts to control climate change will be futile because feedback loops will have taken over. The greed of the military industrial complex is driving us towards a Third World War that might develop into a catastrophic thermonuclear war. The greed of our financial institutions is also driving us towards economic collapse.
Until the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, human society maintained a more or less sustainable relationship with nature. However, with the beginning of the industrial era, traditional ways of life, containing elements of both social and environmental ethics, were replaced by the money-centered, growth-oriented life of today, from which these vital elements are missing.
According to the followers of Adam Smith (1723-1790), self-interest (even greed) is a sufficient guide to human economic actions. The passage of time has shown that Smith was right in many respects. The free market, which he advocated, has turned out to be the optimum prescription for economic growth. However, history has also shown that there is something horribly wrong or incomplete about the idea that self-interest alone, uninfluenced by ethical and ecological considerations, and totally free from governmental intervention, can be the main motivating force of a happy and just society. There has also proved to be something terribly wrong with the concept of unlimited economic growth.
The Industrial Revolution marked the start of massive human use of fossil fuels. The stored energy from several hundred million years of plant growth began to be used at roughly a million times the rate at which it had been formed. The effect on human society was like that of a narcotic. There was a euphoric (and totally unsustainable) surge of growth of both population and industrial production. Meanwhile, the carbon released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels began to duplicate the conditions which led to the five geologically-observed mass extinctions, during each of which more than half of all living species disappeared forever.
The Stern Review Discussion Paper of 2006 stated:
“Melting of permafrost in the Arctic could lead to the release of huge quantities of methane. Dieback of the Amazon forest could mean that the region starts to emit rather than to absorb greenhouse gases. These feedbacks could lead to warming that is at least twice as fast as current high-emission projections, leading to temperatures higher than seen in the last 50 million years.”
The greed of giant fossil fuel corporations has recently led them to conduct large-scale advertising campaigns to convince the public that anthropogenic climate change is not real. These corporations own vast oil, coal and gas reserves that must be kept in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming. It does not seem to bother the fossil fuel giants that if the earth is made uninhabitable, future generations of both humans and animals will perish.
When the United Nations was established in 1945, the purpose of the organization was to abolish the institution of war. This goal was built into many of the articles of the UN Charter. Accordingly, throughout the world, many War Departments were renamed and became Departments of Defense. But the very name is a lie. In an age of nuclear threats and counter-threats, populations are by no means protected. Ordinary citizens are just hostages in a game for power and money. It is all about greed.
Why is war continually threatened? Why is Russia threatened? Why is war with Iran threatened? Why fan the flames of conflict with China? Is it to “protect” civilians? Absolutely not! In a thermonuclear war, hundreds of millions of civilians would die horribly everywhere in the world, also in neutral countries. What is really being protected are the profits of arms manufacturers. As long as there are tensions; as long as there is a threat of war, military budgets are safe; and the profits of arms makers are safe. The people in several “democracies”, for example the United States, do not rule at the moment. Greed rules!
Greed and lack of ethics are built into the structure of corporations. By law, the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation must be entirely motivated by the collective greed of the stockholders. He must maximize profits. Nothing must count except the bottom line. If the CEO abandons this single-minded chase after corporate profits for ethical reasons, or for the sake of humanity or the biosphere or the future, he (or she) must, by law, be fired and replaced.
COP25 Was Sabotaged by Greed
At the COP25 in Madrid, delegations from the United States, Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia worked actively to prevent meaningful progress, and they prevented it. In the words of Alden Meyer, director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists,
“I’ve been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991, but never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and the people of the world demand, and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action”.
The World Is on Fire!
“Our house is on fire!”, says Greta Thunberg, and she is right. The year 2019 saw a rise in wildfires across the globe. Bush fires in Australia are threatening Sydney and have caused the Australian government to declare a state of emergency. But Australia’s politicians continue the policies that have made their nation a climate change criminal, exporting vast quantities of coal and beef. The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said, of the fire victims:
“They don’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they are trying to save their homes.”
In other words, let’s not talk about climate change.
In the Arctic, wildfires raged, producing plumes of smoke the size of the European continent. In the Amazon, fires were deliberately set by greedy mining interests and beef farmers, illegally, but condoned by the government of Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics”. In Indonesia, plumes of smoke from burning forests darkened the skies over many nearby countries. Again, the deliberately set fires were illegal, but they were condoned by corrupt politicians, receiving money from the hugely profitable palm oil business.
Extraction of Fossil Fuels Must Stop
A United Nations report released on 20 Nov 2019 warned that worldwide projections for fossil fuel production over the next decade indicate that the international community is on track to fail to rein in planet-heating emissions and prevent climate catastrophe.
“The Production Gap” is an 80 page report produced by collaboration between the UN Environmental Programme and a number of academic institutions. It examines the discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C, and concludes that the necessary policy changes are currently not being made.
The famous economist, Lord Nicholas Stern, has stated that “This important report shows that governments’ projected and planned levels of coal, oil, and gas production are dangerously out of step with the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change. It illustrates the many ways in which governments subsidize and otherwise support the expansion of such production. Instead, governments should implement policies that ensure existing production peaks soon and then falls very rapidly.”
In an article published in Common Dreams on 20 Nov 2019, Hoda Baraka, the Chief Communications Officer for 350.org wrote:
“The disconnect between Paris temperature goals and countries’ plans and policies for coal, oil, and gas production is massive, worrying and unacceptable…
“The ‘production gap’ is a term used to refer to the difference between a countries’ planned levels of fossil fuel production, and what is needed to achieve international climate goals. This is the first time a UN report has looked directly and specifically at fossil fuel production as a key driver of climate breakdown. It shows that countries are planning to produce fossil fuels far in excess of the levels needed to fulfill their climate pledges under the Paris Agreement, which themselves are far from adequate. This over investment in coal, oil, and gas supply locks in fossil fuel infrastructure that will make emissions reductions harder to achieve.
“The science is clear; to stay below 1.5 degrees we must stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry immediately. That means that not a single new mine can be dug, not another pipeline built, not one more emitting power plant fired up. And we have to get to work transitioning to sustainable renewable energy powered energy systems.
“Across the globe resistance to fossil fuels is rising, the climate strikes have shown the world that we are prepared to take action. Going forward our job is to keep up a steady drumbeat of actions, strikes and protests that gets louder and louder throughout 2020. Governments need to follow through, to act at the source of the flames that are engulfing our planet and phase out coal, oil, and gas production.”
We Need a New Economic System
Economists are not used to thinking of the long-term future. We can see this in their attitude to economic growth, a concept which mainstream economists support with almost-religious fervor. But the unlimited growth of anything physical on a physically finite planet is a logical impossibility. To avoid this logic, mainstream economists, with self-imposed shortsightedness, willfully limit their view of the future to a few decades. However, the climate crisis is a long-term multi-generational issue. Young people throughout the world are rightly protesting that their long-term future is being blighted by today’s greed.
A few far-sighted economists outside the mainstream, for example Herman Daly, have made extensive studies of Steady-State Economics. Logic tells us that this must become the economics of the future, replacing the growth-worshiping and greed-sanctioning economics of today.
New Global Ethics to Match Our Technology
Today, human greed and folly are destroying the global environment. As if this were not enough, there is a great threat to civilization and the biosphere from an all-destroying thermonuclear war. Both of these severe existential threats are due to faults our inherited emotional nature.
From the standpoint of evolutionary theory, this is a paradox. As a species, we are well on the road to committing collective suicide, driven by the flaws in human nature. But isn’t natural selection supposed to produce traits that lead to survival? Today, our emotions are not leading us towards survival, but instead driving us towards extinction. What is the reason for this paradox?
Our emotions have an extremely long evolutionary history. Both lust and rage are emotions that we share with many animals. However, with the rapid advance of human cultural evolution, our ancestors began to live together in progressively larger groups, and in these new societies, our inherited emotional nature was often inappropriate. What once was a survival trait became a sin which needed to be suppressed by morality and law.
Today we live in a world that is entirely different from the one into which our species was born. We face the problems of the 21st century: exploding populations, vanishing resources, and the twin threats of catastrophic climate change and thermonuclear war. We face these severe problems with our poor cave-man’s brain, with an emotional nature that has not changed much since our ancestors lived in small tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa.
After the invention of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, humans began to live in progressively larger groups, which were sometimes multi-ethnic. In order to make towns, cities and finally nations function without excessive injustice and violence, both ethical and legal systems were needed. Today, in an era of global economic interdependence, instantaneous worldwide communication and all-destroying thermonuclear weapons, we urgently need new global ethical principles and a just and enforceable system of international laws.
The very long childhood of humans allows learned behavior to overwrite instinctive behavior. A newborn antelope is able to stand on its feet and follow the herd almost immediately after birth. By contrast, a newborn human is totally helpless. With cultural evolution, the period of dependence has become progressively longer. Today, advanced education often requires humans to remain dependent on parental or state support until they are in their middle 20’s!
Humans are capable of tribalist inter-group atrocities such as genocides and wars, but they also have a genius for cooperation. Cultural evolution implies inter-group exchange of ideas and techniques. It is a cooperative enterprise in which all humans participate. It is cultural evolution that has given our special dominance. But cultural evolution depends on overwriting destructive tribalism with the principles of law, ethics and politeness. The success of human cultural evolution demonstrates that this is possible. Ethics can overwrite tribalism!
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Human society is a superorganism, far greater than any individual in history or in the present. The human superorganism has a supermind, a collective consciousness far greater than the consciousness of individuals. Each individual contributes a stone to the cairn of civilization, but our astonishing understanding of the universe is a collective achievement.
Science derives its great power from the concentration of enormous resources on a tiny fragment of reality. It would make no sense to proceed in this way if knowledge were not permanent and if information were not shared globally. But scientists of all nations pool their knowledge at international conferences and through international publications. Scientists stand on each other’s shoulders. Their shared knowledge is far greater than the fragments that each contributes.
Other aspects of culture are also cooperative and global. For example, Japanese woodblock printers influenced the French Impressionists. The nonviolent tradition of Shelly, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela is international. Culture is cooperative. It is not competitive. Global cultural cooperation can lead us to a sustainable and peaceful society. Our almost miraculous modern communications media, if properly used, can give us a stable, prosperous and cooperative future society.
*John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).