2. Green Social Democracy or Barbarism: Climate Change and the End of High Modernism
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Green Social Democracy or Barbarism  43 Economic growth has become the secular religion of advancing industrial societies: the source of individual motivation, the basis of political solidarity, the ground for the mobilization of society for a common purpose. . . . If there is no commitment to economic growth, what can the Soviet Union—or Japan, or the United States—hold out as a social goal for its people? —Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976 If one were to choose a single word to characterize [what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century], it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. —Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power, 2008 The long-term future of societies all over the planet will be shaped in large part by their experiences of and responses to the ramifications of global warming, especially as those ramifications intersect and interact with other burgeoning environmental and human problems. It is already too late to avoid a cascade of local and regional “natural” disasters in the medium term (i.e., by midcentury). Yet near-term action to drastically Chapter 2 Green Social Democracy or Barbarism: Climate Change and the End of High Modernism William Barnes and Nils Gilman 44  Barnes and Gilman reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is imperative if a long-term civilizational catastrophe is to be avoided. What is the nature of this looming catastrophe?1 Briefly: indefinite business-as-usual GHG emissions are likely to increase planetary temperatures by at least several degrees, perhaps even by as much as the planet warmed at the end of the last ice age. Left unabated, GHG emissions and the consequent global warming will engender frequent extreme weather events, produce extensive flooding in some areas and permanent drought in others, dramatically alter hydrologies on every continent, and destroy the agricultural productivity of many of the world’s breadbaskets. In the longer term, unabated global warming will raise sea levels by many meters, destroying seaside cities that are home to hundreds of millions of people and great swaths of today’s industrial infrastructure. All of this is nearly certain to lead to massive refugee flows, as large areas become incapable of supporting more than sparse human population. Nor are these effects likely to unfurl smoothly or incrementally, allowing societies clear projections and ample time to adapt; instead, they will probably unfold as interlocking acute crises, producing social and political breakdowns in weaker nation-states and possibly interstate conflicts.2 Ultimately, if the alarms of someone like James Lovelock are to be believed, the humancarrying capacity of the planet may decline by an order of magnitude.3 Short of thermonuclear war, modern civilization has never faced a more dire existential threat. And it gets worse—because climate change is intruding into a world fraught with other ecological and political problems. Quite apart from any direct impact of climate change, inequality within and between societies has increased in recent decades; so has material and existential insecurity among the billions of poor people, particularly in the Global South, in the form of rising crime, social violence, and governmental weakness.4 Additionally, the world is running out of cheap petroleum, accessible and clean fresh water, and many other resources, even as global demand for them continues to rise.5 Moreover, no matter what we do going forward, increasing extreme-weather-related disasters—especially in coastal Asia, Central Africa, and the Caribbean—are already baked into the future as the result of the GHG already emitted over the past two hundred years. It is this world—not the world of the 1950s or 1960s— into which the effects of accelerating global warming are intruding ever Green Social Democracy or Barbarism  45 more powerfully. If humanity fails to build up societal capacities for mitigation , emergency response, and remediation in advance of this oncoming cascade of disasters, then as the disasters accumulate toward the middle of this century, all of our attention and resources are likely to get sucked into short-term remediation efforts—with nothing left over to address longer-term solutions. To moderate these consequences will require nothing less than a profound remaking of contemporary industrial modernity. In brief, the large majority of all industrial and mechanical processes that rely on hydrocarbons for fuel, or that generate...