Time to speak the unspeakable

From The Guardian

By Julian Cribb

On any day between 10,000 and 30,000 wildfires blaze around the planet. Realms as diverse and distant as Siberia, Amazonia, Indonesia, Australia and California are aflame. The advent of ‘The Age of Fire’ is the bleakest warning yet that humans have breached boundaries we were never meant to cross.

It is time not only to think the unthinkable, but to speak it: that the world economy, civilization, and maybe our very survival as a species, are on the line. And it is past time to act.

It isn’t just fires. It’s the incessant knell of unnatural (human-fed) disasters – droughts, floods, vanishing rivers, lakes and glaciers and the rise in billion-dollar weather impacts.

It is the spate of extinctions, the precipitous loss of sea fish, birds and corals, of forests, mammals, frogs, bees and other insects. It is the march of deserts and the waxing of dead zones in the oceans.

It is an avalanche of human chemical emissions poisoning our air, water, food, homes, cities, farms and unborn babies, slaying 9 million a year.

It is the probability there will be no Arctic before the end of this century and rising seas expelling 300 million from their homes.

It is the ominous seepage of methane from the world’s oceans, tundra, swamps and fossil fuels, threatening runaway heating of 7-10 degrees or more.

It is the drift of billions of tonnes of soil from lands that feeds us, into the blind depths of the ocean, placing food security on a knife-edge as farming systems fail amid a turbulent climate and degraded landscapes.

It is the rising toll of noncommunicable disease now killing three people in every four.

It is the $1.8 trillion spent weaponising nations for the true ‘war to end all wars’. Unchained by political malice or blunder, robot weapons of mass destruction commanded by artificial intelligence will choose who lives and who dies.

Yet a global citizen movement of scientists, youth, elders and women is demanding urgent action in the face of a growing risk of Collapse. Its scientific warnings, Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike for Climate are flooding the streets of the world’s cities.

Pope Francis plans to add “ecological sin against the common home” to the Catholic catechism. Bank of England governor Marc Carney warns of “abrupt financial collapse” due to climate change. The Global Economic Forum  sees mounting danger in its annual assessment of catastrophic risks.

Professor Jem Bendell, of the University of Cumbria, UK, is among voices warning that the collapse of civilization may already have begun. Because we cannot easily predict its pace, trajectory or magnitude is no reason for inaction, he says. His paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating our Climate Tragedy predicts “There will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of (citizens)”. Catastrophe is “probable,” it added, and extinction “is possible.”

Yet, so far, only a handful of countries – France, Canada, Britain, Ireland and Argentina – have declared even a climate emergency. Most Governments continue to move at glacial pace – and turn a blind eye to the 9 other mega-threats [ii] threats menacing humanity. Why?

Because a worldwide counter-revolution is under way, intended to paralyse action on climate, environmental loss, extinction, toxic air water and food. It is financed by ‘dark money’ from a terrified fossil fuels sector through shady institutions with names like the ‘Competitive Enterprise Institute’, the ‘Heartland Institute’ and the ‘Institute for Public Affairs’. It pours hundreds of million dollars into global propaganda to discredit climate and environmental science, seduce government and deceive the public.

More sinister still is the growing control of the fossil fuels lobby over governments and the world media – not only in floundering western democracies, but also Russia, China, Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia. Media corporations serve as a propaganda front for fossil fuels, brainwashing audiences with a round-the-clock thunder of deceit, half-truth and misdirection.

Now, a new UN report says fossil corporates plan to ramp up carbon emissions 50-120% by 2030  beyond the limit for a safe human future (1.5 degrees C). Despite the renewables boom, fossil infrastructure investment has rebounded in 2019 after 3 years of decline, says the International Energy Agency. On the face of it, the fossil lobby has turned the tide.

There are only three motives to so hazard civilization: greed, malice and ignorance. Either the returns are so great that fossil executives are willing to cook their own grandchildren – or they are blind to the risks. Since these are technical people, the latter does not ring true: oil majors like Shell and ExxonMobil have revealed in court they understood exactly what they were doing to the Planet for nearly 50 years. Ignoring it, they then sought to deceive humanity, while ramping up carbon output.

The world is dividing into two opposing movements: the concerned ‘survivors’ – the young, the old, the wise, the educated, the informed and the pragmatic – and the cynics backing the very global system that will precipitate Collapse.

Scientists’ estimates for how many lives Collapse will cost range from 50-90% of the human population. The number is not knowable because human behaviour, as war, cannot be foretold. The process starts with famines and water crises – both already in evidence – leading to refugee tsunamis and multiplying conflicts.

As this truth sinks in, the part of humanity committed to survival is seeking legal redress. Columbia Law School documents over 1640 ongoing lawsuits against fossil fuel companies and/or governments. But the law is slow, and justice can be bought.

It is time to speak the unspeakable.

Without urgent action to terminate fossil fuel use, return the planet to a state of ecological health and address all 10 mega-threats in an integrated way, then our worst fears will become our fate. Collapse becomes inexorable.

Doing nothing, or too little, sentences humanity to Collapse – economic, societal, even existential. It is time to discuss this, openly, honestly, truthfully.

We have only one rational choice: to choose to survive.

This demands all necessary actions [iii] – although they spell the end of existing systems of energy, food, water, money, defence, transport and politics – and their replacement with new ones, universally dedicated to a viable, just and sustainable human and planetary future.


[i] Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His latest book is Food or War, Cambridge University Press 2019.

[ii] The ten existential threats to human civilization and survival are:  resource depletion, extinction and eco-collapse, WMD, global heating, global poisoning, collapse of food systems, pandemic disease, uncontrollable new technologies, population growth and mass delusion. They and their solutions are described in “Surviving the 21st Century”, Springer, 2017. 

[iii] The solutions are described more fully in Surviving the 21st Century, Springer, 2017

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