Interview mit Zukunftsforscher Harald Welzer: Folgen des Klimawandels und Akzelerationismus als systemisches Unknown Unknown

Sehr gutes Interview von Tilo Jung mit Zukunftsforscher Harald Welzer über die Folgen des Klimawandels als systemische, unkalkulierbare Unknown Unknown, warum wir die Zukunft nicht radikal genug und nicht-linear denken und deshalb die strukturellen Bedingungen, die den Klimawandel erzeugen, nicht ändern können.

Zufällig schreibt Bernd Stegemann im (konservativen) Cicero über dasselbe Thema im Kontext von linkem Klima-Populismus, der auch mit CO2-Steuern ebenfalls innerhalb einer neoliberalen Wachstums-Logik verhaftet bleibt:

Die Politik steht also vor der absolut neuen Herausforderung, dass sie ein Problem lösen muss, das niemand genau beschreiben kann, und das sie dafür in einer Öffentlichkeit Zustimmung gewinnen muss, die aus lauter Quatsch (Chebli-Tweets) und rückwärtsgewandter Rhetorik (AfD-Tweets) nur noch mit dem eigenen Chaos beschäftigt ist.

Niklas Luhmann hätte an diese Stelle wohl gesagt: You cannot see, what you cannot see. Und er hätte damit auf die grundsätzliche Schwierigkeit hingewiesen, dass Menschen immer Entscheidungen treffen müssen, bevor sie überhaupt begriffen haben, was auf dem Spiel steht. Diese kontingenten Entscheidungen, wie sie systemtheoretisch genannt werden, sind exakt das Gegenteil von panischen Reaktionen.

In dem Zusammenhang ebenfalls sehr empfehlenswert sind Hartmut Rosas Buch Beschleunigung und Entfremdung (grade gelesen, quasi eine soziologische Theorie des Akzelerationismus), und dieser Text von James Dyke (Senior Lecturer für Globale Systeme, Uni Exeter) über die Technosphäre als Motor des Anthropozän und als selbsterhaltendes System und warum es sich mit Maßnahmen innerhalb dieses Systems kaum stoppen lässt, da die Technosphäre (also alles was wir tun und benutzen, um diese Gesellschaft zu konstituieren, inklusive Wirtschaft, Politik und Kultur, also Handys, Autos, Büros, bis hin zu Organisationen und Städten) ein selbsterhaltendes System bildet, das sich verselbständigt hat.

Der Text ist hart und lässt nur wenig Raum für Hoffnung und auch wenn ich bislang revolutionäre Ansätze für falsch halte (und zwar aus ganz banalen Zeitgründen: Ein Umsturz zugunsten einer Politik, die dem Klimawandel angemessen begegnet, müsste zeitgleich die politischen Macht-Systeme in Europa, USA und Asien stürzen, inklusive umfassender Umbauten ganzer Industrien und einer neuen globalen Wirtschaft – forget it), so lassen mich solche Texte und Interviews doch an meiner Haltung zweifeln.

The technosphere

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.

Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.

Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.

But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.

Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.

The tyranny of growth

It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.

But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.

Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.

There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.

The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.

The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.

Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.

If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.

My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.

Limits to freedom

It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.

Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.

If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.

In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.

This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.

Renewable energy production has not led to a reduction in fossil fuel use. Thongsuk Atiwannakul/
The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garrett has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.

The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans. […]

those who fear the collapse of civilisation or those who have enduring faith in human innovation being able to solve all sustainability challenges may both be wrong.

After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.

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