Dedicated to William E. Rees
President Trump complains about “Fake News” while at the same time providing us with its concise definition. Fake news is simply those which he doesn’t like! We would, however, give too much weight to the importance of this president if we wanted to accuse him of having invented “Fake Reality”.
The contrast between reality as it is and reality as we want it to be has – for better or worse – accompanied humanity since the beginning of history. It is important to emphasize its positive impact too, because every utopia, every thought that aims at improvement, must first push aside that eternal objection: “No, there is no alternative”. Not infrequently it is precisely the greatest innovators who prove to be quite blind to real reality, because they carry a vision within their heads of some future reality they want to create.
Perhaps the historically most significant example
of such creative blindness is provided by Francis Bacon, the inventor of modern times – if I may be allowed to use such a bold expression. At the same time that William Shakespeare raised his country to cultural excellence, this man foresaw a world completely transformed by technology and science, a world where the visible, the weighable and the measurable acquire paramount importance, so that man, through precise observation, would come to be the ruler of nature. Francis Bacon drew this vision solely from his own head, for in surrounding reality he found little to make it even conceivable. I am not saying that there was a lack of great inventors. After all, Galileo was his contemporary and Isaac Newton was born less than twenty years after Bacon’s death. But the Lord Chancellor was blind to the fact that his vision would have remained without consequences – and indeed had no consequences for two and a half centuries – had it not been for the really decisive breakthrough at the end of the 18th century: fossil revolution.
The actual turning point bringing about the Anthropocene,
an epoch which marks the beginning of man’s undisputed dominion over nature and the exponential growth of material wealth, was made possible only by the fact that the immense stocks of coal stored in millions of years in the depths of the earth (one hundred years later supplemented by those oil and gas) came to be mined on a large scale. *1* Without the industrial exploitation of these as yet unearthed treasures, Bacon’s vision and all subsequent inventions would have remained inspired mental exercises, utopian visions, as they had occupied man’s fantasies in myth and fairytales for so many centuries. But now it happened that two curves were simultaneously set on an exponential course: the progression of wealth on the one hand and that of fossil fire on the other. While global GNP – converted into US dollars in 1990 – was still around 650 billion around 1800, it had reached around 1.98 trillion by 1900, that is, about three times that much. With 28 trillion dollars around 1990, this amount had grown fourteenfold in less than a single century (Maddison).
This development reflects quite accurately the exponential increase in world energy consumption. In 1800, the latter amounted to about 400 million tons of oil equivalents. A hundred years later it was already 1.9 billion tons, almost five times as much. In the next ninety years, until 1990, consumption then increased by a factor of sixteen to 30 billion tons (McNeill)…
between the two exponential curves is obvious. Coal and oil would never have been effective without the invention of the steam engine (and much later diesel and electric engines), but on the other hand these engines were able to begin their triumphal march solely because mankind had ignited the fossil fire in the meantime. Industrial revolution and the use of fossil raw materials thus form an indissoluble unit. Only when facing this obvious truth will we be in a position to draw the logical and inevitable conclusion – and this is indeed highly disturbing: the exhaustion of its fossil raw material base could condemn the Industrial Revolution to having been no more than a mere flash in the pan – a rather short-lived intermezzo in the course of world history.
Only few people dare to face this perspective, because
No earlier epoch in human history
succeeded in so short a time to radically change the material fate of man – and doing so largely for the better. Of course, many critical voices had from the start been raised against the “materialistic thinking” of the new era. In France, it was Rousseau, in Germany, the romanticists, who condemned striving for mere usefulness and material success; the great critic of capitalism, Karl Marx, had no objection against science and technology, instead he complained that material progress had by no means resulted in greater social justice.
The protest of the Romantics remained limited to a relatively small group of artists and intellectuals (and was later wrongly dismissed as “reactionary”); Marxism temporarily conquered half the world and continues to play an important role in the protest against inequality. The fact is, however, that fossil society for the first time since the Neolithic Revolution managed to release the lower ninety percent from immemorial bondage. The bourgeoisie and the middle classes were able to achieve prosperity and political influence and – since the twentieth century – this even applied to the working class.
Yet it was precisely this historically unique success
that contributed to the emergence of a new and extremely dangerous blindness – people and even scientists now got accustomed to a different kind of Fake Reality. Indeed, every thoughtful scientist should have asked himself from the outset – that is, almost three centuries ago – the critical questions: “How long will fossil reserves last? And: “What happens when they are exhausted?”
These questions seem so obvious that their complete absence in public debate can only be explained by their unconscious or even deliberate repression. Politics and the population did simply not want to look into the future. The collectively cherished ideal of eternal growth was so enchantingly beautiful that no one wanted to be reminded that such a thing never existed in nature nor can possibly do so. In fact, these elementary questions were brought to the attention of a general public for the first time and in a scientifically systematic way only shortly before the collective dream was shaken by the 1973 oil crisis. The report of the “Club of Rome” on “The Limits to Growth” was published in 1972.
However, the oil crisis proved to be a temporary, politically staged problem. It had barely been overcome when the world, after a deep breath of relief, resumed with undiminished enthusiasm its dance around the golden calf of Fake Reality. Eternal growth was and still is on the agenda of all industrial nations. How this is compatible with the finiteness of available resources still awaits being made the subject of public discourse. Societies were and are dominated by wishful thinking and its expression in Fake Reality.*2*
Such blindness alone would not be fatal
As was to become apparent soon after the publication of the “Limits to Growth”, available reserves were proved to be more abundant than scientists had assumed at the beginning of the 1970s on the basis of then available data. However, the real danger of Fake Reality is to be found at a different place. Lord Bacon, the inventor of the modern era, imagined those happy people of a coming scientific civilization – the inhabitants of “Nova Atlantis” – as frugal citizens who turn poor huts into stone houses and fragile tools into durable devices. Not even the idea of throwaway society occurred to him. But that’s exactly what modern industrial society is all about. Our economy sucks an ever-increasing flow of resources into its factories, making sure that every consumer constantly replaces the gadgets surrounding him with the most recent models. The process of buying and waste producing has become the very foundation of present day society. It is in this way that goods and income may be constantly increased.
Throwaway society created the existential danger now confronting mankind, because it is the non-biodegradable poisons resulting from industrial production that have become the real threat to the mature fossil age. Not even Karl Marx, otherwise so acute an observer, seriously considered this outcome three centuries after Bacon.
We may say that nobody anticipated the real threat of our time. Today we know that it is not class struggle and not even the depletion of fossil resources that threatens with collapse the industrial age in its present shape.*3* Instead this danger emanates from the manifold wastes of the industrial process, i.e. from anthropogenic poisons that nature is unable to degrade. First and foremost, of course, this applies to carbon dioxide, which destabilizes the climate. The contamination of the world’s oceans by plastic may pose a similar threat as it is likely to destroy the food reservoir for billions of people – maritime protein. In addition, the poisoning of entire regions in Africa, Indonesia or the Philippines with electronic scrap and other waste transforms nature into pestilent and uninhabitable deserts. Nuclear has become a threat wherever atomic energy is being used.
Only with a modest two percent, Germany
contributes to the contamination of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. It owes this advantage less to successful climate protection than to its outsourcing of the dirtiest industries (together with the resulting negative environmental balance) to developing countries, especially to China.
Seen in this light, the increased environmental awareness of Europeans is of little significance. Even if a Green party in Germany were able to transform economic policy in the most complete way, it would at best be in a position to reduce global CO2-emissions by a maximum of two percent. In other words, it is not the Germans nor the Europeans, it is the world’s biggest polluters – China, the US and India – who decide the future fate of the planet. As is well known, the United States, under its president Donald Trump, has dropped out of the Paris treaty on the reduction of CO2-pollution. In India, the talk about the environment is considered a luxury problem of rich Western nations. And China? China is indeed a case in its own right. What is happening there will decide the future of all mankind.
The Chinese have a large pool
of outstanding scientists – meanwhile perhaps the world’s largest. All Western knowledge is copied and absorbed – meanwhile even perfected beyond Western standards in certain sectors. Just as Germany after 1870 surpassed its mentor England within a couple of years, the Chinese are now striving for the top in all fields of science and technology. Of course, China’s experts are just as well aware of the existential threats posed by industrialization as are people in the West – after all, they are constantly reminded of the health-threatening poisoning of the air in their country’s major cities and rampant ecological destruction. But under President Xi Jinping, the party has acquired an absolute command over public discourse. And the Politburo has clearly defined the political direction: “First we have to catch up with the West in terms of prosperity and power, then we can afford the luxury of talking about environmental problems”.
In this sense, journalists are obliged to be first of all loyal to the Communist party whatever they may personally believe to be true – a demand that of course also applies to scientists when they address the public. The strict affirmation of Fake Reality has turned into a first commandment in China.
So far, the party’s line has proven effective
both with regard to its own people and to foreigners. At home, millions of people have been freed from thousands of years of poverty in an incredibly short lapse of time. And as far as foreign countries, especially the West, are concerned, the Chinese are very well informed about the thought currents prevailing in Europe and the US and cleverly plan their own propaganda accordingly. They have long understood how important the term “green” has become for Western people. So, in China too, political traffic lights all switch to green and no propagandistic effort is spared to present the Asian giant as a pioneer of green policy and the United States under Trump as a backward state that stubbornly refuses to understand the demands of our time.
The art of hiding reality behind a façade of Fake Reality was developed to far greater perfection in an ancient culture like China than in a comparatively new one like the United States. De facto, China is much more ruthless against nature than the US, but unlike Trump – an elephant that deliberately and apparently with gusto crushes all porcelain he may come across – China is a master of beautiful appearance. And it is true that it has built the world’s largest wind farms and has reforested greater stretches of semi-desert than any other country. However, the downside of this development remains unmentioned. According to figures from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), about 150 new /coal/power plants are still under construction in China and India alone, and the same number is planned. Overall, China’s dependence on electricity generation still amounts to 70 percent (Atlas of Globalization). China is the mega-environmental sinner alongside with India – and there is nothing to suggest that this will change in the foreseeable future.
The reason why the Chinese uphold Fake Reality
is, of course, obvious. It is only because the party keeps the fossil fire blazing more and more that it can promise even its poorest citizens a greater degree of welfare. Although the allegedly communist country increases its number of billionaires with each passing year, average per capita income is pushed to the bottom by the sheer number of people. For the time being it is not higher than in Algeria, Brazil or Macedonia, if we take purchasing power into account. For this reason, it is so important for the Chinese state to tap all possible sources of available energy. The party leadership is well aware that it can only hold on to power if it enables a whole billion people within the next two decades to enjoy the same standard of living as the privileged inhabitants of the coastal regions. Nor does this endeavor seem unfair from our Western perspective. Why should the Chinese be denied a level of prosperity that we enjoy for a long time already? On the other hand, it should by now be obvious to any ecologically educated person what disastrous consequences this will have for the planet.
So, who’s to blame?
It is part of our habituation to Fake Reality that we accuse the profit striving of manic egoists of being responsible for all evils, including the progressive destruction of the environment – no matter whether we call these egoists capitalists, big corporations, banks or simply the neoliberal system.
If only things were that simple!
Because then some countries at least would have solved the problem long ago by a political revolution!
But unfortunately matters are by no means that simple. No less than half a billion Chinese are still waiting to own a water closet and a car just like us and enjoy a holiday flight at least once a year. And meanwhile, the remaining billions of people in Africa and Inner Asia urge their governments to provide them with just this standard of living. They do not care much about what type of economy and what political system realizes this goal, if only it is realized at all – and better today than tomorrow!
In truth, politicians and governments
all over the world are forced to act by their citizens who strive for that same prosperity which the richest nations already possess. Until three hundred years ago, an overwhelming majority of people – regardless of whether they lived in New Guinea, China, India or Persia – had no idea concerning the well-being of Germans, Italians or North Americans. Today, television carries images of the good Western life to every home in the world. Such globally accessible information has an inevitable consequence: for the first time in its history, mankind is experiencing a global race – a race of nations for wealth and power. Nor is this race only driven by envy, it is as much due to our sense of justice. Regardless of whether we politically tend to the left or the right, we believe that it is the duty of good government to provide equal opportunities for all its citizens, so that they may achieve a similar standard of living. Does the European Union not take it for granted that the wealth gap still existing between its western and eastern Member States must be levelled in due time? But there is no cogent reason why this demand should not apply to the entire planet. It is only fair that equal opportunities should be granted to all people and nations so that one day they will enjoy the same material wealth.
We accept this call for material justice as a matter of course, but at the same time we are painfully aware that we are about to clash collectively against an unsurmountable barrier. Since the climate crisis, at the latest, we are confronted with an apocalyptic fact:
Nature is no longer playing along!
In California, Australia and the whole of Siberia, forests are ablaze – they burn ever more often and ever longer. In the Philippines, Japan and China, but also in parts of Africa and Europe, there are every year more violent and destructive storms. The Arctic and Antarctic ice shells are melting faster than the wildest predictions of computer simulations had foreseen. And we humans are so frighteningly “successful” that by now we account for 36% of total mammal biomass. The farm animals we consume account for a further 60%, while all wild animals together make up only four percent of the total – which means that they are at the brink of complete extinction.
It is for these reasons, that the façade of Fake Reality for the first time exhibits undeniable and dangerous cracks. We must finally admit that we are now faced with an Either-Or. Within the next two or three decades we will either reduce our fossil fuel consumption towards zero (and that of other scarce resources to a very low level as well) or we will rush towards ecological collapse.
The example of Greta Thunberg
and the “Friday for Future” movement shows that it took a schoolgirl to publicly reveal the truth about the emperor’s new clothes. Greta Thunberg was courageous enough to declare war on Fake Reality. But can we expect a successful outcome from this movement? Yes, perhaps in outward appearance. I can well imagine that some religious sect like that founded eight centuries ago by Francis of Assisi will soon emerge in Europe or in the United States. Just as then, a small number of “saints” will pass through our streets barefoot and dressed in rags to preach to their fellows that they must change fundamentally if the planet is to survive as a habitat for future generations. But just like back then, this will hardly change the actual situation. The sect’s disciples – like the Franciscans at that time – will be nourished by the rest of the population, who thus enjoy a clear conscience and continue to live exactly as they did before. In any case, the US will hold fast to the “American Way of Life”, while China, India and Africa loudly insist on their right to participate in this prosperity.
Although the result – “namely collapse –
is clearly foreseeable, there is no majority that would vote for a termination /of the current economic system/” (Harald Welzer).*4* The question is, why? I don’t believe that all or even most people are incorrigible and shortsighted egoists and, therefore, incapable of looking beyond their own immediate needs. It is because every state that embarks on the path of renunciation will definitely weaken itself and turn into a victim of those who made no sacrifices and thus become relatively stronger. If a strong supranational authority could force all nations to simultaneously engage in sacrifices, so that none loses or gains in the process, then there would probably be no difficulty at all in saving the planet. The task of a functioning government has always been to prevent people from becoming wolves to each other. But today, national governments are no longer in a position to deal with global problems. A transnational decision-making body is needed to put an end to the disastrous race of nations for greater wealth and greater power. *5*
Canadian ecologist William E. Rees
has calculated on the basis of available scientific data that under present technical conditions two billion people – about one billion more than around 1800, when the fossil fire was ignited – are compatible with a sustainable way of life. *6*
With this insight, science launches a cognitive bomb. Humanity must almost return to where it started before the Industrial Revolution. We understand why the whole world is so keen to close its eyes to reality and why it desperately clings to the distorted image of Fake Feality. We all are, of course, aware that even the most consistent family planning will not reduce the number of people fast enough to reduce it from seven or ten to only two billion in the course of this century. Nevertheless, something must happen – climate doesn’t care how much time we have left.
As a matter of logic,
we are forced to conclude that the disaster can only be averted by radical renunciation. The whole of humanity must reduce its current consumption of resources to a little less than one seventh, so that we do not consume more in resources and emit more toxins than a maximum of two billion people.
How can this be done? I just argued that any single state that embarks on this path is liable to hopelessly weaken itself without benefiting nature, as long as all others do not follow suit. In other words, no single state can – and will – really act decisively against climate change, because then it would have to force its own people to renounce prosperity, even if the rest of the world is not prepared to join these efforts. Only a transnational authority can avert the catastrophe by enforcing the same renunciation on all individual nations. For this – and only for this reason – I see the goal of history in a world government, because it alone is capable of saving mankind from ecological collapse and nuclear self-destruction (“Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History”, Amazon).
That is the first reason why no Green Party tells the truth. At the present moment, a transnational legislative authority still seems to be completely utopian. We all want to do something here and now – not just the Greens – but if we are honest and don’t escape into the fantasies of Fake Reality, we are forced to admit that the present conditions condemn us to impotence.*7* The situation must first become so unbearable for mankind that it meets the global danger with global action – until then people will shirk the truth and instead calumniate those as panic-mongers who point the finger at Fake Reality.
German economist Meinhard Miegel
cautiously dared to indicate the direction in which we must move: He spoke of that “growth mania” which we will have to quit. *8* This is remarkable because Miegel is a conservative thinker. The call to put an end to our allegedly eternal growth, that is to fake reality, is now coming from all sides. What Meinhard Miegel didn’t see – and probably didn’t want to see – is that we can’t abandon growth without completely changing the current economic paradigm. The consequences of such a change are indeed so fundamental that this is the second reason why nobody – not even the Greens – is telling us the truth.
I have already spoken about the urgent need for a global authority to solve global problems. The need for a basically changed economic system will be discussed in the next (?) article.
1. According to Ian Morris, England covered half of its energy needs with coal as early as 1650, i.e. almost one and a half centuries before the actual beginning of fossil revolution. Around 1700 “England produced five times as much coal as the rest of the world combined, fifty times as much as China” (Michael Mann), because the possibilities of energy production from renewable sources available up to then were almost exhausted. There were hardly any trees left in England and Ireland. The opencast mining of coal would also have quickly come to an end if the steam engine had not succeeded in extracting coal from the depths of the earth.
2. And this rule of wishful thinking often leads to an intense desire to repress reality as it is. “I imagine: There is no more talk of the end of the world, of the Anthropocene, of irreversible destruction, of planetary borders” (Welzer, “Everything could be different“). This is a call for repression: Folks, lets stick to fake reality, it’s more beautiful!
3. The depletion of resources is, of course, threatening enough. See Ugo Bardi, “Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet”.
4. Welzer, op. cit.
5. In my book “Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History – The Destiny of Mankind in the 21st Century” (Amazon Kindle and Paperback), I explain this perspective in detail.
6. Cf. “Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase” in Ecological Economics, Volume 169, March 2020, 106519. The essay was kindly sent to the author by Mr. Rees before being printed.
7. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Thousands of actions that make sense for the environment will be carried out now and in the future by most states. A remarkable example is the ban on CFCs to end the destruction of the ozone layer. Nevertheless, the decisive measures are not being implemented, namely those which seriously penalize a state in the race for greater power and economic strength. No nation will voluntarily reduce its resource consumption to about one seventh though that is precisely what the future – a sustainable economic life – requires mankind to do.
8. See Meinhard Miegel, “Exit – Wohlstand ohne Wachstum” /Prosperity without Growth/. Propyläen 2010.