“This” civilization is the one built on an industrial foundation. By the most generous measure, it’s scarcely 500 years old, and it’s really only in the second half of that period that the techno-capitalist organization of society and economy picked up steam – a time span of wondrous, accelerating, almost magical achievement and transformation of the conditions of life on our planet.
It’s time to recognize that this civilization is coming to a close, like it or not. Not because of its moral stain, though the inhumanity of the industrial order would certainly justify its ending; while the privileged few have profited immensely, industrial civilization has manufactured untold miseries for the mass of mankind in the form of imperial colonization, slavery, labor exploitation, genocide, and nationalistic wars that become more horrifically lethal as the means of mass killing become more technologically refined.
Industrial civilization is finished for the simple reason that it has reached its limit. The dream of perpetual growth and prosperity on a finite and desacralized planet has been exposed at last for what it always was, a delusional fantasy. Our forests – those that have not been destroyed already by industrial “progress,” or consumed in drought-fueled firestorms – are in decline. Our water is becoming increasingly scarce and increasingly polluted by industrial processes. Corporatized industrial farming consumes topsoil in the course of making it more “productive” while simultaneously poisoning our waterways. The oceans grow steadily more toxic, killing off coral reefs and dispatching countless species of ocean life to rapid extinction. The world is getting hotter by the year; storms and other extreme weather events are stronger, more frequent, and more destructive. Glaciers are rapidly melting and sea level rise is accelerating to the point where mass retreat from global coastlines is now inevitable. Within decades, vast areas of the world will be quite literally uninhabitable.
Once largely ignored, “climate change” is now a regular presence in news headlines, prompting widespread optimism that at last humanity is waking up to the urgency of radical action. Who would not like to be optimistic in the face of so much cause for despair? Yet most of the new hope is, unfortunately, premised on the conviction that we can keep basically the same industrial game going if only we shift away – granted, the shift must be rapid, it must be radical, it must be now! – from our addiction to fossil fuel energy sources, replacing them with “renewables.”
But this premise is false, for at least two reasons. First, it is false because it is now widely recognized that even a total and immediate stoppage of fossil fuel emissions – an absurd impossibility – would not save us from a continued rise in global temperatures (and hence the melting of the ice sheets) over the next several decades, an assured scenario that guarantees catastrophe on a massive scale. Second, it is false for the even more “pessimistic” reason that technology cannot save us. Fossil fuels are highly dense energy sources that will not be replaced quickly, if ever, by even the most clever combination of energy-generating solar panels, wind turbines, hydro-power capturing devices, or even a new generation of nuclear power plants.
If homo sapiens is to escape the fate of so many other species that once roamed the planet, it will be through managing to move beyond industrial civilization itself, rejecting its dream of endless growth and continual consumption in favor of a new vision of sustainable global society, one grounded in a new reality of restraint, resilience, cooperation, and solidarity – solidarity not just among humans, but with the whole of the natural order. Anything else, anything less, is to continue our current march toward death.