By the end of the 2020’s, we’ll know which way we’re headed: toward environmental oblivion or an era of global restoration
New Year’s Eve, 2000. What a hopeful moment for humankind! Thousands of public celebrations around the planet ushered in the new millennium, yet there were no reports of bombings or disturbances. It seemed like a turning point when hope was born anew and the global community might come together for a brighter future.
But just two decades later, at the beginning of the 2020s, the outlook is far bleaker. The global environmental crisis is upon us, and already has engendered social upheaval, including mass migrations. In response, authoritarianism has spread throughout much of the developed world, and regressive policies are undoing environmental protections and blocking the initiatives needed to address climate chaos.
In Part 1 of this series I predicted that we would pass one of two opposing tipping points during this decade. The first, described there, would tip the planet into a cycle of irreversible environmental disaster as interacting earth systems collapsed and brought others down with them.
Here, we’ll see how a different outcome is possible, how a global environmental movement, combined with recent technological developments and new blueprints for action, might tip us into an era of environmental restoration and the general prosperity it could bring.
We were surprised, in the past two years, by the explosion of the youth climate movement. In August of 2018 Greta Thunberg started her movement by sitting, alone, across the street from the Swedish Parliament and holding a handmade sign that read, “School Strike for the Climate.” In 2019, there were two global climate strikes involving at least one million students each, and Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Prize and became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
This tells us there is tremendous potential for rapid political change because many, if not most young people who will be of voting age this decade will join forces with the huge number of today’s adults who understand that climate change is the greatest existential threat to civilization. If an action as seemingly unimportant as Thunberg’s solo climate strike can spark an overnight mass movement, conditions are ripe to tip the global political scales.
In terms of technological advances, well-meaning people, including many politicians, are mistaken when they say we need to invest in green innovation to address climate change. We do not.
We already have the basic technologies we need in the form of “negawatts” and renewable energy production to shift to a sustainable energy economy. Negawatts are the energy units saved — not needing to be produced — with energy-efficient construction, retrofitting, lighting and so on. In terms of energy production, existing photovoltaic and concentrated-heat solar energy, wind power and related technologies can power the entire planet 24/7/365. All we must do is rebuild our grids and infrastructures so we can deploy and connect these technologies.
That’s where policies come in, and fortunately we already have “green-growth” ideas in place. Some, like the Paris Climate Accords that provide a legal structure for international cooperation are up and running, however tentatively. Additionally, powerful concepts like the Green New Deal are capturing the imagination of a younger generation that awaits their fleshing out and implementation.
Unaddressed, forces such as global heating and deforestation will soon push us past the tipping point of unstoppable environmental catastrophe. What will it take to tip the scales toward a sustainable future? Ironically, just as the Great Depression ushered in an era of American social progress, it might take the early effects of environmental collapse to finally force us to act. In parts 3 and 4 of this series, we’ll see how monitoring the situations in Australia and Brazil could foretell the future at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.