Scientists to U.N.: To stop climate change, modern capitalism needs to die

The era of cheap energy is coming to an end and societies will need to reshape energy consumption and infrastructure or face consequences, warns a new scientific background paper issued to the United Nations.


The era of cheap energy is coming to an end and societies will need to reshape energy consumption and infrastructure or face consequences, warns a new scientific background paper issued to the United Nations.

The paper was written by biophysicists with the BIOS Research Unit in Finland who were asked by the U.N. to contribute research for the U.N. Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), which will be released in 2019.

It contains some sobering predictions. The team argues that today’s “dominant economic theories” and conceptions of modern capitalism are inadequate because they falsely assume societies will have continued access to cheap energy, like fossil fuels. Also, these theories generally don’t factor in sink costs—meaning costs that can’t be recovered—like climate change, and they fail to account for the potential sociopolitical consequences that could result from continued unchecked consumption and growth.

“Because economies are for the first time in human history shifting to energy sources that are less energy efficient, production of usable energy (exergy) will require more, not less, effort on the part of societies to power both basic and non-basic human activities,” the scientists wrote.

The team called for societies to start thinking about new models of governance and economics.

“It can be safely said that no widely applicable economic models have been developed specifically for the upcoming era,” they wrote, suggesting that the global economy is approaching a new era. “Our focus is on the transition period, the next few decades.”

What needs to be done? The scientists highlighted a few key issues:

Use less energy and transform energy infrastructure.

Renewables might help alleviate the effects of climate change, but they currently have a low EROI (energy return on investment), meaning it costs more to implement renewables than it does to use fossil fuels. The team predicted it will be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to meet current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades with renewables or other low-carbon solutions. Because of this stark reality, “there is considerable pressure to lower total energy use.”

Travel less and more efficiently

Walking, biking and electrified public transportation should all be emphasized in the world’s cities, the scientists wrote. This will require “changes in city planning” and “in vehicle production, in transport infrastructure such as railways, roads and charging stations, and in energy production and storage,” in addition to reductions in international freight transport and aviation.

Societies should produce more of their own food

Both affluent and developing countries should become more self-sufficient in food production because it will be “too risky to rely on the functioning of only a few main food production areas in the future,” the team wrote, also suggesting that “dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based diets.”

Build long-lasting wood houses

“The construction industry is currently dominated by concrete and steel, whose manufacturing and other life-cycle processes are very energy-intensive and cause significant climate emissions and other types of waste,” the team wrote. In contrast, long-lasting wood buildings can provide better carbon storage.


Source: World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice

Achieving these changes will require unprecedented action, the scientists said.

“Market-based action will not suffice—even with a high carbon price. There must be a comprehensive vision and closely coordinated plans. Otherwise, a rapid system-level transformation toward global sustainability goals is inconceivable.”

The team wrote that each society would have to develop its own solution for navigating the transition into a sustainable economy, however, those changes will probably require government intervention in every case.

“The most likely option for initiating transitions to sustainability would be for a group of progressive states to take the lead. This would require economic thinking that enables large public investment programs on the one hand and strong regulation and environmental caps on the other. In the modern global economy, states are the only actors that have the legitimacy and capacity to fund and organize large-scale transitions.”

The Finland team’s paper comes less than a year after some 15,000 scientists with the Alliance of World Scientists published a ‘Warning to Humanity’ that described various ways in which human activity is eroding the biosphere.

The scientists offered five broad solutions at the time:

1. We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. Priority must be given to the development of energy sources matched to third-world needs—small scale and relatively easy to implement. We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.

2. We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively. We must give high priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling.

3. We must stabilize population. This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.

4. We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty. "I believe we absolutely should have such bold goals for our country," says the director of The Earth Institute Jeffrey Sachs. "By 2030 let’s cut the poverty at least by half."

5. We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions. "As women and girls get better educated, they have fewer kids, and the kids they do have more resources so they're better taken care of and they are more successful," says Bill Nye. "So what we want to do, in my world over here in science education, is get women and girls around the world as educated as best we can as fast as we can so that there will be more resources per person in the coming years."

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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