State of the Art, Charles Keller

The Environment: Facing Facts

  1. Civilization in Denial
  2. Politics, Politics
  3. Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best
  4. Threats
  5. Culprits
  6. Coping Strategies
  7. Bibliography

Civilization in Denial

In our lifetimes, we'll see the collapse of the environmental infrastructure (land, oceans, lakes, rivers, atmosphere, and the biological web that infuses them) that feeds and protects us. (This essay regards the environment; here's another that focuses on peak oil and related economic issues.) It will occur with a rapidity that will catch most of humanity unprepared. Though the portents are mounting, like in prewar Germany, Cambodia, and elsewhere, we are individually and collectively refusing or unable to acknowledge them. A new and unprecedented holocaust is fast brewing. The suffering will be great.

I think of the stunned denial of Jews in Nazi Germany. These were people who had been successful and prosperous, and could not respond rationally to evidence that they were under attack and that their way of life was ending. Most clung to their world as it disintegrated around them. Giving it up was unthinkable. The reality, they thought, was distant and affected only faraway people. Life, they thought, could only continue as it had, as it should. "It can't happen here." But it did. Today, a holocaust of another kind is brewing. We are they.

An Orwellian doublethink makes this denial palatable. For example, consider the marketing hype that accompanies so-called green products such as toilet paper made from recycled materials. It certainly is true that recycling reduces the harm done by industry. However, it's often portrayed as "doing good for the environment"; no doubt, many consumers believe that by using such products they are indeed doing good for the environment. In fact, all they do is a little less bad.

The denial is especially prominent in the political arena. Funded largely by a powerful fossil-fuels lobby hellbent on preserving its hegemony, the administration of George W. Bush shuns the Kyoto accord on global warming. With only four percent of the world's population, the United States is a leading source (25%) of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. (China, too, is a major emitter and, with its coal-based energy economy, will within a decade eclipse the U.S.) There is no room for doubt that this must be halted if unthinkable upheaval and misery is to be avoided. Yet, the short-sightedness of our "leaders" simply hastens our travel down the path of self-destruction.

Few of us have failed to observe that the last few summers have been the hottest on record. How about the unusual number of forest fires in the western U.S. and the unprecedented floods in central Europe? How much longer can we fool ourselves into attributing extreme weather to vagaries and probabilistics in the physics of the planetary climate?

The UN has stated:

[We must deal with] ...the serious nature of the environmental threats faced by the international community. Special attention should be paid to unsustainable consumption patterns among the richer segments in all countries, particularly developed countries... Environmental threats resulting from the accelerating trends of urbanization and the development of megacities, the tremendous risk of climate change, the freshwater crisis and its consequences for food security and the environment, the unsustainable exploitation and depletion of biological resources, drought and desertification, and uncontrolled deforestation, increasing environmental emergencies, the risk to human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and land-based sources of pollution, are all issues that need to be addressed... To confront the underlying causes of environmental degradation and poverty, we must integrate environmental considerations in the mainstream of decision-making. We must also intensify our efforts in developing preventive action and a concerted response, including national environmental governance and the international rule of law, awareness-raising and education, and harness the power of information technology to this end. All actors involved must work together in the interest of a sustainable future.
In other words, the notion of a sustainable future is not just feel-good talk, it's synonymous with survival. Is anyone listening?

The future is bleak. Only those few realists with the foresight to prepare will survive.

Politics, Politics

Our policymakers aren't listening. How is it possible to accept such irresponsibility? Even George Bush has children... does he think that his family's wealth will feed them when agriculture fails and protect them when disease and infestations sweep the earth? Perhaps he does. More likely, he and his ilk don't think about it beyond dismissing the whacko "enviros".

Not all politicians are so weak-minded. Alas, politics does not deal well with uncertainty. There is no experiment or line of inquiry that can be conducted that will say precisely what will happen and when. The world's physical systems are too big and its processes are too complex. We'll never have perfect knowledge. In a political context, it's hard to combat the position that we should do nothing until we know more. But physics trumps politics. We won't know more until it's too late.

The Bush administration goes beyond simple denial. Having finally admitted that global warming is reality, their policy is not to reduce fossil fuel consumption -- we can permit no obstacles to the cashflow of those Texas oilmen! -- but to adapt to climate change.

The fault lies, too, in the political process. Scientists speak of changes occurring over decades and centuries but in politics the time horizon is the two years to the next election. Incentives for long-term thinking are few. If you want to get elected, your primary allegiance must be to economic growth. The electorate is not clamoring for rational climate-change policy. The pocketbook issues get the votes. By the time the climate and the environment become obvious economic forces (they always have been, but this hasn't been obvious) it will be far too late to save ourselves.

Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best

The first step in confronting these overwhelming -- indeed unthinkable -- challenges is to identify them. As the food chain and the mechanisms of weather fail, there will be massive failures of human systems and of society. Many of these can be anticipated today. Next, formulate a vision and strategy for survival. The objective is to prevent the demise of our various social structures: family, community, country, civilization, history, technology, art and culture. Next, put these plans into action. But how? Build a bunker to hide in? Become an activist? Become a farmer? Finally, help others do likewise: Teach seminars? Market survival products? Engage in politics?

When you have a mission, everything changes. You make different decisions. Priorities find focus. The mission? Yours may differ from mine. I'd save the world for our children, or at least save our children; create a safe place for them, give them a chance to survive.



There are already too many people. And it will get worse, fast: our population will double in the next 60 years. Our food supply must likewise double. Thanks to the Green Revolution, factory fishing techniques, livestock antibiotics, and numerous other technologies, our food supply has thus far been able to grow and keep up, but growth is leveling off as these reach their limits. Some -- seafood in particular -- are now reversing their growth trends and have dwindling yields as a result of overexploitation. We will certainly outrun our food supply.

Global Climate Change

We can't see nor smell the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We can't feel the one degree of average planetary temperature increase. Thus, these things are easy to argue about and deny. Indeed, as is well documented by Gelbspan and others, the fossil fuel industries have erected vast lobbying and public relations organizations to promote misinformation to further their own short-term interests. But the threat is now becoming reality. Here are the global processes related to climate change:

One form taken by this denial is, in effect, to say, "Yeah, it's bad, but it's biting the other guy, not me." Who is impacted by climate change and environmental destruction? The obvious answer is, "Everybody." Digging a little deeper, we can list the following sub-populations and sub-systems as being the first victims:

Limits to Growth, Economic Collapse

Here's just one example of the magnitude of the denial and its inevitable result. China is the biggest fisherman. With an astonishingly blind official policy, it inflates the numbers it reports of the volume of fish caught each year. The purpose of the policy is to avoid alarming its neighbors. Otherwise, they might become motivated to impose restrictions. Of course, the obvious outcome when there are no fish left is starvation. Policies such as these -- and those of our own and other governments are no better -- serve only short-term goals and will, ultimately, accelerate the crisis.

"Ecological limits require an immediate end to our current maximum economic growth strategies... the consequence will inevitably alter all our socioeconomic structures, particularly our assumptions about jobs and employment." (Theobald, Reworking Success, 1996).

Social Upheaval

Baldly stated: there will be massive social upheaval as people are thrown out of work by economic shrinkage and pauperized by rising food prices. Hundreds of millions (especially in developing countries) will face starvation and thirst. "Africans and Latin Americans who now have water will be short of it in less than 20 years. By 2050, more than 1 billion people in Asia could face water shortages. Death rates for the world's poor from global warming-related illnesses, such as malnutrition and diarrhea, will rise by 2030." [1]

Overtaxed and Failing Public Services

Systems at risk:
- safe drinking water
- health care/medical
- police/fire
- national defense
- roads, transportation
- electricity
- communications


- social unrest
- homelessness
- crime
- hunger
- repression
- war over increasingly scarce resources
- Diminishing food and water supplies threaten democracy in the developing world.
- Market crash, depression, hyper-inflation

Declining Agriculture

In 2001, research results were released by the UN Environmental Program at the Marrakech, Morocco negotiations on global warming (continuing discussion of accords reched earlier at Kyoto, Japan). This research warns that global crop yields could fall 30 percent over the twenty-first century.

Agricultural output will decline due to:

A 1996 US Geological Survey study concluded that US Midwestern crop-growing plains are susceptible both to massive floods and to desertification due to migration of sand dunes as a result of relatively small changes in atmospheric circulation patterns.

Desert conditions are also spreading in southern Europe. Reduced rainfall and droughts are increasing there, according to a 1996 European Commission analysis of rainfall data, and to a 1996 FAO survey of recent research.

In California, we see our snow pack (our primary water source) dwindling as our snow line recedes. Each year we heave a collective sigh of relief when there's a heavy snowfall; another year of drought has been avoided. Nonetheless, the well-documented trend is toward water shortages even as our population and demand grows.


Disruption of agriculture by global warming will cause food shortages, hence social unrest and breakdown of public systems, supply mechanisms. Changes in climate will force rapid changes in the way the world's food crops are grown. Says Lester R. Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and a noted environmental analyst who spent ten years as a policy advisor in the Department of Agriculture:
Global warming will cause major instabilities in the developing world world that could disrupt the global economy... The vast corn belt of the Northern Hemisphere, for example, will become hotter and drier, and that change can't be resolved merely by creating new corn belts further north, because the soils further north are not the same at all... Each global increase of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) around the world will reduce grain yields like rice and wheat, as well as corn, by at least ten percent... This disruption by a combination of climate change and water shortages has the potential for creating political instabilities on a scale that we can't even foresee.

Environmental Refugees

From countries suffering floods, drought, devastated crops, etc. Unprecedented migration and immigration, esp. from rising sea levels (33% of population lives within 60 km of coastline)

Ozone Depletion

Buildup of greenhouse gases. Effects on atmospheric chemistry.


Pesticides, nuclear waste, waterways poisoned by mining and logging operations, industrial effluents and dumps

New Diseases, Resurgence of Old Diseases

Global warming increases the spread of infectious diseases including malaria, dengue, yellow fever, cholera, hantavirus, and encephalitis. The aedes aegypti mosquito (carries dengue and yellow fever), formerly limited to near sea level, is surviving at higher altitudes. The range of malaria, too, is growing. As warming continues, the epidemic potential of mosquito populations grows. There is a real risk of the reintroduction of malaria into nonmalarial areas, including portions of Australia, the U.S., and southern Europe. Hemorrhagic dengue has quadrupled from 100,000 cases worldwide 1981-1985 to 450,000 1986-1990. Tropical diseases are moving north.


Several million acres of Alaskan forest have been devastated by severe outbreaks of bark beetles whose reproductive cycle has been halved from two years to one by climate warming.

Forest growth is stunted by increased moisture loss due to warming.


Due to:
- dams and water projects
- diversion of water for agriculture, industry, and population centers
- encroaching populations
- overgrazing
- collection of firewood

Plenty of precedent. At the dawn of the new millennium, the tragic loss of the Mesopotamian marshlands stands out as one of the world's greatest environmental disasters. Dams and drainage schemes have transformed one of the finest wetlands into salt-encrusted desert. Details.

Loss of Biodiversity

The number of species becoming extinct is accelerating. Warming-driven migrations are evidenced by butterfly studies that show impacts on geographies of migration patterns.

Depredation by imported exotics.

The loss of germplasm and increased vulnerability of food crops to their natural enemies. Scientists have never created a new gene; they simply recombine the genes they find in nature, the supply of which is now diminishing.

Global Warming

Over the past century, we have seen about one degree (Fahrenheit) increase in average temperatures. Scientists expect four to eleven degrees of additional warming by 2100. This will bring more violent weather, flooded coastlines, decreased food production, and social havoc.

Melting of the world's glaciers is accelerating. Alpine glaciers have lost almost 50% of their ice. Ice cores drilled in Tibetan glaciers show that the last fifty years have been the warmest in the last 12,000 years.

Erosion and Loss of Topsoil

High-yield farming methods in US Midwest loosen and pulverize topsoil so that it washes away with each rain. American farmers already have extensive experience with the dustbowls that result, and have modified their practices accordingly. However, agriculture by its very nature cannot completely avoid loss of topsoil. Future generations won't be able to grow similar quantities on the same land.

Collapse of Fisheries

Fisheries output is declining due to:

Species that have crashed:
- cod (Atlantic)
- sardines (West Coast)
- anchovies (West Coast)
- Chilean sea bass
- rockfish, Pacific red snapper, rock cod (West Coast)
- monkfish
- caviar (Caspian Sea)
- sea scallops (New England)
- orange roughy (New Zealand/Australia)
- East Coast swordfish

A study off the coast of southern California found a startling decline (70%) in the density of ocean-borne zooplankton. It concluded that the decrease is due to 2-to-3-degree-Fahrenheit increase in surface water temperature over the last 40 years. Zooplankton is an essential food source for hake, Pacific mackerel, and other commercial species.

More than 25% of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution, global warming, and overfishing, researchers warned at the 9th Intl. Coral Reef Symposium in 10/2000 on Bali. Up to 90% of coral reefs have been killed in some areas such as the Maldives and Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Coral Reefs play an essential role as an anchor for most marine ecosystems. Their loss would place thousands of species of fish and other marine life at risk of extinction. To prevent their further loss, we must reverse global warming, cut pollution, and stop overfishing.

Rising water temperatures in Monterey Bay have triggered an exodus of cold water crabs, snails, and other species.

Fresh Water Supplies Threatened

Human civilization has been restricted to the geographic pattern of the distribution of fresh water around the planet. Any lasting alteration of that pattern would pose a strategic threat to global civilization.

Our alteration of the global atmosphere is changing the way water is transferred from the oceans to the land and back again.

Aquifers are being tapped at an increasing pace throughout the world and water tables are falling. The outcome will soon be a devastating blow to agriculture, particularly in the developing world.

California depends for its water supply on a heavy snowfall in the mountains during the winter. In the last few years, as global temperatures have reached record high levels, California has in fact begun to experience a sharp drop in the amount of snowfall.

We mustn't underestimate the vulnerability of our civilization to even small changes in climate patterns. Regional predictions are speculative, but warmer temperatures have indeed been associated with water shortages in the West and with collateral effects such as increased forest fires due to drier conditions.

Disruption of Familiar Weather Patterns: Stronger Storms

Hurricanes and floods more violent. Warmer ocean top layer strengthens hurricanes

El Nino is part of the large, complex interaction of the Pacific Ocean with the global atmosphere. The pattern is changing due to global warming. El Nino events now last longer and their effects (storms in the Pacific, floods in California, droughts in Australia and Africa) are growing.

A 1993 study of the height of waves in the North Atlantic showed them to be 50% higher in the 1990s than in the 1960s. The evidence suggests that this is associated with global warming.

Rising Sea Level

Melting of ice sheets and shelves in Arctic and Antarctica is predicted to cause a three-foot sea level rise by the next century. At the end of the last ice age only ten thousand years ago, melting ice raised sea levels by thirty feet in only a few hundred years. 15% of Arctic ice cap melted between 1980 and 2000.

Early Indicators

- high incidence of skin cancer in Queensland, Australia
- blind rabbits, blind salmon in Patagonia
- Ethiopia dropped from 40% to 1% forest and is now in perpetual drought
- sudden worldwide explosion of oceanic algae blooms and toxic red tides
- sharp declines in frogs, toads, salamanders on every continent

Timing Unknown

These things will certainly happen, but how soon? Timing is the wildcard in the personal preparedness equation. How much time do I have?


Greed, short-term thinking, misguided development

Carbon-based energy industries are perhaps the largest of human economic systems. They depend on denial for their continued existence and growth. Their incentives drive them to apply their considerable resources and influence to oppose conservation and alternatives.

On the other side of the scale of economic incentives are the insurance companies. Increasing casualty losses due to harsher natural phenomena reduce their industry's profitability. Actuarial trends indicate that this is indeed happening.

Businesses are largely captive to the short-term demands of their shareholders and directors. Government leaders rarely address problems that cannot be solved before their next reelection campaign. Institutions respond to events only when they reach emergency proportions.

Policy-makers in denial (quote from UN):

It is necessary that the environmental perspective is taken into account in both the design and the assessment of macro-economic policy-making, as well as practices of government and multilateral lending and credit institutions such as export credit agencies.


The trends of globalization in the world economy, with the attendant environmental risks and opportunities, require international institutions to adopt new approaches and to engage the major actors involved in globalization in new ways. We should encourage a balanced and integrated approach to trade and environment policies in pursuit of sustainable development...

The private sector:

The private sector has emerged as a global actor that has a significant impact on environmental trends through its investment and technology decisions. In this regard, Governments have a crucial role in creating an enabling environment. The institutional and regulatory capacities of Governments to interact with the private sector should be enhanced. A greater commitment by the private sector should be pursued to engender a new culture of environmental accountability through the application of the polluter-pays principle, environmental performance indicators and reporting, and the establishment of a precautionary approach in investment and technology decisions. This approach must be linked to the development of cleaner and more resource efficient technologies for a life-cycle economy and efforts to facilitate the transfer of environmentally sound technologies.

Coping Strategies

With research and planning, there are things we can do to reduce the ill effects of climate change. These include identifying and cultivating new and adapted varieties of crops, trees, and livestock that are better suited to hotter conditions. Short-term thinking precludes conservation, but conserve we must -- energy, water, and all the other precious and dwindling resources of this earth. Our public officials must cease their dances to the tunes played by the industrialists and their short-term thinking. The denial must cease and clear-eyed research and planning must begin.
As an Individual
The elaborate and delicate infrastructures that have made possible urban density cannot endure. Cities are doomed. To survive, we must find a different way of life. This will be especially challenging for city-dwellers. It demands a complete uprooting, something that few of us are likely to choose. However, as resources dwindle and contention for them intensifies, survival will translate to local access to -- and control of -- natural resources.

Much thought has been given to survivable alternatives. One approach is to organize our living units into arcologies -- dense yet sustainable human settlements; cities with reduced ecological footprints. The notion is intriguiing but unproven.

A Vision
More realistic in the near-term are mini-arcologies and co-housing. These are small communities that we could begin to develop now. Their long-term goal would be self-sufficiency. They could perhaps be described as kibbutzes with higher standards of living. To appeal to me (and to anyone else, I'd imagine, that would join me) it would be essential to maintain a late 20th century standard of living. As in a kibbutz, a communitarian social structure makes sense; all must contribute and be involved.

It is difficult to engage in discussion of such communities without invoking visions of vigilantes or survivalist whackos. Yet, crumbling infrastructures demand planning of a new kind. Such communities must have farming and energy-generation components. Above all, they must have water.

Choosing a Site
By far the most essential resource -- which must be the top priority in site selection for survival communities -- is plentiful fresh water. Energy is important and is capturing today's headlines, but the twenty-first is undoubtedly shaping up to be the century of water wars. Cheap energy is essential to our standard of living, but water is essential to life. Climate change and environmental degradation are changing the patterns of water flow and delivery, and the profligate ways in which we have mismanaged this resource (case in point: most of the planet's major aquifers -- which were built up over millennia -- have, in a few short decades, been pumped dry and approach collapse) combined with ever-increasing demand guarantee that it will become increasingly, disastrously scarce. Canada has 80% of the earth's entire supply of fresh water.

In selecting a site, many more factors, too, must be considered. We must anticipate and avoid the likely destinations of displaced populations. We must go where subsistence is possible without industrial infrastructure. Etc., etc...

Social Structure
At the site I propose the creation of a cohousing community. The issues to resolve in creating such a community include:

Another Vision

On 8/12/05, Brian Howell wrote: I'll relocate and bring friends along with me. My criteria:

On 8/12/05, David Glober wrote: So Bri, what are your action items if the lit is already telling you game over?

On 8/12/05, Brian Howell wrote: The world has already come to an end. People just don't know it yet.

I'm tracking worldwide scientific literature on global warming. Truly, there is every indication that the global ecosystem is about to crash. Politicians are making noises about reducing GHG emissions by 5%, 10%, 20% by 2020. That's about 30 years too late.

More Vision
I propose to assemble a community of like-minded visionaries. We'll get some acres in Alaska's Southeast and each build (or adapt) a house in a semi-communal arrangement (i.e. cohoused -- separate living but some shared facilities, esp. power generation, food production, dining, workshop, etc.) and each live there a few weeks out of each year (as our busy professional schedules permit) with enough of us (say a dozen cohorts? where a cohort is an individual or a couple or a family) so that the place is never empty) while we develop systems for self-sustenance over a period of decades... How's that for a vision?

Bibliography and Resources

United Nations Environmental Programme

Global Warming Fact Sheet

Al Gore, Earth in the Balance, (1992)

Wm. H. Kotke, The Final Empire, the Collapse of Civilization, the Seed of the Future, (1993)

Thomas Malthus

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1961)

Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

Ross Gelbspan, The Heat is On

Robert R. Fields, Survival Primer, Icarus Press, South Bend, Indiana (1983)

US Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Impacts on the United States, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (2000)

Richard Heinberg, Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004)

James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005)

[1] Seth Borenstein, "Dire warning of warming's effects on humans," Associated Press, March 11, 2007.

UNDP's Human Development Reports: Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (2007/2008) --

Climate change is the defining human development challenge of the 21st Century. Failure to respond to that challenge will stall and then reverse international efforts to reduce poverty. The poorest countries and most vulnerable citizens will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks, even though they have contributed least to the problem. Looking to the future, no country.however wealthy or powerful.will be immune to the impact of global warming...