We’re Losing the Race

"So, What Do We Do Now?"

Letter #1 to Jeremy Grantham, October 15, 2018

This letter is a “compliment” to Jeremy Grantham’s “The Race of Our Lives, Revisited,” and suggests ways and means to deal constructively with its implications.  It accepts the “Race’s” implications, and expresses how we might engage the transformations required, as immediate as those need be, so that some livable futures for some parts of humanity may be engaged.

In “The Race of Our Lives, Revisited,” a philanthropist finally has explained that the overdetermined and interconnected crises of climate breakdown, ecological overshoot, and pervasive pollutions are not problems that can be solved or even difficulties that can be sufficiently addressed.  Instead, Jeremy Grantham details how taking, making and wasting – our relentless extraction, production, then pollution processes – now yield predicaments we must endure.  The difference between problems and predicaments is stark.  Problems have solutions.  Predicaments can only be managed.

The situation that remains – once too many humans take too much from our Earth, leaving too many poisons in our wake – is a predicament, and Grantham’s “Race of Our Lives Revisited” describes the unavoidable predicaments and necessary responses for collective survival:

  1. Destroy the Earth or rapidly and completely decarbonize economies. (Page 2).
  2. Gradual fossil fuel reductions mean coastal cities will be flooded and uninhabitable; ice caps will melt. (Page 3).
  3. We are losing 1% of our global soil a year. There are 30 to 70 good harvest years remaining. (Page 3).
  4. We have created a toxic environment not conducive to life, and toxics saturate our daily life. (Page 3).
  5. There is simply no other way to manage these crises except for extensive and overarching governmental regulation and leadership in establishing restrictions and limiting poisons. (Page 4).
  6. Even with optimistic assumptions and accelerating green technologies, i.e., decarbonized energy, the projected use of fossil fuels will still be 50% of energy consumption in 2050. The largest increase in CO2 levels was in 2017.  (Summarized on page 13).

Grantham analyses several aspects of several more predicaments in the next 13 pages.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by the intractable nature of the illuminated crises, particularly when most all of them are getting inexorably worse.  On page 28, however Grantham explodes the bombshell:

“The greatest deficiency of capitalism is its complete inability to deal with any of these things.”  A few pages later he concludes, “God help us.  For we appear incapable or at least unwilling, to help ourselves, and our great scientific skills increasingly appear insufficient.”

To Be Resigned to Comprehensive Catastrophe:

“Is that Our Only Option?”

At first glance, it seems that Jeremy Grantham has argued that our Modern Wonder-world will end with “Hell and High Water,” while the water itself will be laced with toxic poison.  He does not show any way out, nor does he provide a feel-good, unrealistic ending as do so many others.  In other words, he tells it like it is, as too many green groups, and most large environmental organizations have been afraid to do.  In their case, decades of advocacy have been defined by the rule of: “Don’t scare the public!”  They believe that if they do, then the public will freeze or give up.  They have certainly believed that explaining the full truth of the dire straits we are in would interfere with getting money, membership, and related support.

For too long, the Reality of our existential situation attended by proliferating interconnected crises has been covered with fig-leaves or denied outright.  The Truth of the matter has been tailored to continuing the economic system, the social system, and bowing to what has been called “political realities.”  Yet, in order to deliver comprehensive catastrophe, all we have to do is to continue to act in ways that are “good, moral, and certainly acceptable.”  Human self-immolation means simply continuing to turn the Earth into a waste stream behind our increasing and relentlessly increasing economic activity, while we eliminate the rest of Earth’s mammals, except ourselves and our domesticated animals.

We have no moral restraints that would stop complete self-destruction!

Despite a laundry list of crises, all requiring management, and not finally fixable (or even solvable), Grantham plainly states that salvaging some parts of a fractured future will require collective action, extensive governmental regulation, and governmental leadership.  Clearly, individual actions and exhortations toward improved individual choices or individual behavioral changes will be futile.  As they have been for the last few decades.

So, is there any good news?  Or, do we just party till the Titanic goes down? 

To Be, or Not to Be: To Do or Die

Perhaps there is a plausible way out of the cul-de-sac that is presented by the crises, stated and otherwise.  The crises argue for collective action, extensive government regulation and governing leadership.  In the USA, the unstated belief is that there is no possible way for government to do what is necessary.  Nonetheless, the major philanthropies, like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation have five-year plans that are working to build political leadership and elected officials that can begin someday to start to propose the suite of policies required to salvage some part of our future and perhaps shards of civilization. 

This is too little and too late.

It is widely known that one political party is moving as fast as possible to drive us off the cliff of oblivion, and the other party is not proposing emergency brakes to stop forward momentum.  Somehow, though the idea leading philanthropies suggest is  to support “green” and responsible politicians.  But,  (almost) no Congressional candidates are proposing actions at scale or reflecting the urgency and the breadth of the interconnected crises, or looking to legitimately transform any of the conditions exacerbating the crises, the prescription does not change.

So, there seems no escape from the comprehensive catastrophe that is fast approaching.   Something drastically different is needed.  Consider Backcasting.  Backcasting is reverse-forecasting.  So, can we start with a specific desirable future outcome and then work backwards to the present conditions? 

The desired future outcome is the entire country working together cooperatively and with focused effort to eliminates fossil fuels as soon as is possible, at something like 10%/year.  The economy and productive capacity of our nation would be focused on eliminating fossil fuels, stopping toxic release while cleaning up pollution, slashing extraction, functioning within frameworks of fairness and social justice in order to involve everyone, like we have in our past, providing benefits and incentives for population reduction, and much more.

The recent analogy for something close to this comprehensive effort was World War 2.  In the peak of that war, in 1943, the necessity of the emergency  meant that military outlays were about half of the entire economic outputs for  contending nations:  USA 42%; UK 55%; Germany 70%; and Japan 43%.  So, how could this level of concentrated and cooperative effort be catalyzed now?

To begin with, who could rouse, educate, alarm, warn, and advise the people of this nation?  

We could quickly eliminate most actors as possibilities for that role: politicians, business, green groups, climate activists, and any others who would normally come to mind.  Without much thought we would be left with philanthropy as the only actor that could possibly have the credibility, who would care about impending human catastrophe, who could muster the resources, and who could supply the advocacy that could possibly galvanize enough people who could come to grips with the numerous parts of the crises.

Philanthropy could devote a few dozen billion dollars over the next three years designed to hold the cultural conversation – analogous to the conversation that was unavoidable in the US in the 1850s concerning slavery, i.e., everyone was talking about it everywhere one went, where people met, where families dined, and where political conversations occurred.

To get to effective action requiring a cohesive and comprehensive political response, Americans must give themselves over to the collective political system, in the ways we did in World War 2.  In order to do that, we must understand first that we have no choice because effective action must mean collective governmental action.  Moreover, our very survival and the survival of our children are urgently at issue.   

To get to comprehensive and cooperative effort, nothing less will suffice.  That effort must be catalyzed by some entity who cares and who has the resources to make it happen.  Those resources are at no one else’s disposal than philanthropy.  Jeremy Grantham understands the scope, scale, and urgency of the interconnected crises that beset all of us.  He explains how concerted governmental action is required to stave off the crises’ worst aspects.  He could perceive that unless the American public is persuaded of the extant emergency, they will not motivate that collective action.  Certainly, Americans do not grasp, much less recognize and accept that continuing our economic, political and social operating systems means comprehensive catastrophe.  Similarly, the US is not conscious of how rapidly the transformations of our operating systems must take place if we are to create a viable future (since we do not have a viable future now).

Philanthropy can come to see – as Jeremy Grantham does – that large scale and urgent government action is now necessary, and that it is necessary for Americans to have that explained, and explained as unavoidable and immediately required.  Just barely one human lifetime ago, America changed from isolationist to the leading Allied champion, and changed overnight.  The wake-up alarm was Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s response to it. The nation responded.

The information, the news, the data related to the threats to our survival are all more significant and widespread than in 1941.  Yet the nation must “get the picture,” then “make sense of it.”

Grantham gets the picture, and clearly so.  There is no reason that philanthropy cannot follow his lucid lead.  And then gather some of its copious resources.  And then communicate, in ways that cannot be avoided, and relentlessly, the reality of what all of us face.  The nation can be moved.  The nation must be moved.  Philanthropy can be catalyzed to come to our aid and succor.

That is their role, and they must see it.  Jeremy Grantham can be their guiding light.

Looking back from an historical perspective, sometimes it seems that the future of a culture rests on the shoulders of a significant individual, or just a few.  We believe that may have been true in the case of George Washington.  Perhaps for Abraham Lincoln.  Perhaps now, our future is in Jeremy Grantham’s hands and the fellow philanthropists who can see the need and respond to it.

We can ask, and we can hope that Jeremy Grantham answers the call.



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