Kicking the Habit


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

Our Addiction to Fossil Fuels Can Kill Us

10 Feb 2020 – The Industrial Revolution marked the start of a massive human use of fossil fuels. The stored energy from several hundred million years of plant growth began to be used at roughly a million times the rate at which it had been formed. The effect on human society was like that of a narcotic. There was a euphoric (and totally unsustainable) surge of growth of both population and industrial production. Meanwhile, the carbon released by the burning of fossil fuels began to duplicate the conditions that lead to the 5 geologically-observed mass extinction events during each of which more than half of all living species disappeared forever.

We all know that drug addicts can die from their addiction. The world’s scientists are unanimous in telling us that unless we take immediate action to kick the habit, our addiction to fossil fuels will kill human society and much of the biosphere.

Immediate Action Is Needed to Save the Future

The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilization and the biosphere from the most disastrous effects of climate change, we need to act immediately. But it is difficult to mobilize public opinion behind urgently needed action because the most severe effects of global warming belong to the long-term future. Immediate action is needed because without it, feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the drying out and burning of tropical rain-forests, will take over, making human efforts futile.

Greta Thunberg Told to “Study Economics”

At the 2020 Davos Forum, teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg urged business leaders to divest from the catastrophic activities of the fossil fuel industries. She was rebuked by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchen, who said, “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us”.  Thunberg’s response to tweet a UN graph showing that the world’s remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2027 unless emissions are curbed. “You don’t need a college education to understand the graph”, she said.

The exchange is interesting because it shows the stark contrast between the demands of our current economic system, and what has to be done to save human civilization. Economics has been called “the science of growth”, but growth is killing us. The size of the human footprint has become too large for our environment to support.

Our entire economic system is currently based on the use of fossil fuels, but our addiction to coal, oil and gas will surely kill us unless we can kick the habit in time. Mnuchen is saying, “You will damage the economy”. Thunberg is saying, “Perhaps so, but we have to stop emissions immediately to save the long-term future of human society and the biosphere”.  We can gain hope from the fact that, if massive government subsidies to fossil fuels were removed, renewables would already be cheaper than fossil fuels, and the urgently-needed transition to renewables would be driven by economic forces alone.

Trump Was Tried for the Wrong Crimes

The impeachment trial of Donald Trump has now come to an end, with no witness allowed, and Republican senators voting along strict party lines to acquit the obviously guilty president. Many people, me included, feel that Trump was tried for minor crimes, whereas he ought to have been tried for his major ones.

There is so much wrong with Donald Trump that one hardly knows where to start. He is a bully, braggart, narcissist, racist, misogynist, habitual liar and tax evader, in addition to being demonstrably ignorant.  He has contempt for both domestic and international law, as well as the US Constitution. In the words of Michael Moore, he is a “part-time clown and full-time sociopath”. However, it is Trump’s climate change denial, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and sponsorship of the fossil fuel industry that pose the greatest threats to human society and the biosphere. The general support of the Republican Party for the fossil fuel industry is the reason why Prof. Noam Chomsky called the party “the most dangerous organization in history”.

Destroying the World for Profit

Does it make sense to destroy the world for the sake of profit or personal advantage? This is exactly what our governments and business leaders are doing today. This is what very many ordinary people are doing. But does it make sense?

Does it make sense to saw off the branch on which you are sitting? Does it make sense to jockey for a place at the Captain’s table on board an iceberg-struck Titanic? Whoever contributes to the destruction of the world has to live in the world that they have destroyed.

Perhaps a short-term advantage can be gained; perhaps a small private Utopia can be created by acts that harm the general future; but all individual fates will sink like stones in a deep sea, if society as a whole sinks. Individual fates will be lost in the general fate. There will be no protection for anyone, if the world as a whole goes to pieces. We must hope that the world’s leaders will wake up and begin to think about the long-term future. After all, they too love their children and grandchildren.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Feb 2020.

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