An Interview with Wolf Tivy
Following our recent blog post on the future of climate activism, we were delighted to be able to interview Wolf Tivy, editor in chief of Palladium Magazine – an online publication dedicated to exploring the future of governance and society. He provided us with some fascinating insight into the changes that need to take place if we are to competently respond to the threat of climate change, and the potential that exists for a more ecologically integrated civilisation.
This interview was conducted by Imran Mulla, organiser for Climate Strike Leicester.
IM: Many articles published by Palladium Magazine focus on issues of state capacity and competence. Given the seeming inability of governments around the world to competently respond to the threat of climate change, what do you see as being some of the biggest structural obstacles to meaningful climate action?
WT: Given a relatively unified and functional society, it's not hard to just allocate some capacity to study the problem and come up with an appropriate combination of direct and systemic solutions. The biggest structural obstacle is that lack of a strong unifying center with the capacity to pull off big moves. We are too caught up in smaller problems like Brexit, political polarization, and elite infighting. You can't govern well if your own household is not in order.
The next big obstacle is the degree to which we've allowed climate change and the broader environmental movement to be co-opted by partisanship and all-or-nothing thinking. The current rhetoric is all about blaming the other side for killing the planet and how pragmatic solutions must be opposed to keep the pressure on as leverage for other political agendas. It's no wonder it goes approximately nowhere.
The response to our article on geoengineering was surprising: across the board, everyone was excited, because it wasn't presented as a story of guilt, but of maturation and possibility. It's understandable to be scared and angry about the problems we face, but I think we could get a lot more done and build more momentum if we focused on presenting pragmatic solutions in a more positive and unifying way.
IM: There’s often a lot of debate within the climate movement about how we should balance our rhetoric between focusing on individual lifestyle changes and large-scale reforms. What’s your take on this?
WT: I ride a bike, live in a very small house, and avoid unnecessary airplane travel, partially to limit my environmental footprint. I think the individual lifestyle change is necessary to demonstrate feasibility and support for a lower-impact way of life. You can't decarbonize cities if people don't know how to live without their cars, or if no one would use bike lanes, for example.
But on the other hand, most of our impact comes as a result of how we have structured society. As an individual, you can't do much about our cities being organized to require automobile transport, our food being grown and transported with oil, our electricity coming from coal and gas instead of sunshine and uranium, or there being no high speed electric train to the next city.
It's not so much that we need systemic change as much as lots of medium-sized adjustments to how we collectively organize our activities: build trains and bike lanes, return to sustainable urbanism, build nuclear power, figure out more ecologically sustainable agriculture, etc. These are your large-scale reforms. You need better government to pull them off, but we always need better government.
At the larger scale, people say things like "capitalism is killing the planet," but capitalism is a red herring. This is about industrial civilization of any kind, and the failures of our society to govern itself prudently for the long-term. The most fundamental problem is just imbalance and inefficiency in our processes. We aren't yet good at holistically governing an ecologically integrated industrial civilization, and we need to get good at it.
Ultimately, we can't just limit impact by increasing efficiency. We need to boost the capacity of our natural and technological ecosystem to metabolize our waste products back into valuable inputs. For climate change, this means carbon capture geoengineering, but it generalizes everywhere. Very little is irreversibly consumed in a fully developed healthy ecosystem; most resources are part of a recycling loop. This is what makes growth sustainable.
IM: The rhetoric around the environment, often becoming quite apocalyptic, can sometimes lead to assertions that humanity itself is the problem, with the implication being that depopulation is the solution. How can we refute and combat these narratives?
WT: Our impact on Earth is eventually going to be apocalyptic, on the order of the great oxygenation event, or the advent of life itself. It already has been, really: 96 percent of animal biomass is humans and livestock, with only 4 percent still wild. And we’re just getting started. We cannot shy away from the scale of our impact.
What we can do, however, is create a future that is still consistent with healthy and beautiful ecosystems and restore the ecosystems we've been damaging. Society is a complex and highly biodiverse living superorganism. As we mature, we will necessarily incorporate more and more of our environment into our internal ecological homeostasis processes. Our civilization can be and should be very green, despite being transformative. We're not going to get wild Earth, but we can have productive garden Earth.
That future, which we as humans can bring about and participate in, is ultimately much more interesting and hopeful than the alternative without humans.
IM: The UN’s 2018 IPCC report stated that nuclear energy will be necessary if we want to achieve decarbonisation. Just how big a role do you think nuclear energy will have to play in the transition away from fossil fuels?
WT: The non-carbon future is a balance between nuclear and solar. Nuclear is great for cheap large-scale base load power. Solar is simpler and less hassle, but we currently don't have the energy storage technology to use it on a large scale. (Germany's attempt to go renewable actually increased carbon footprint as they had to shift more load to natural gas peaking plants to balance the unpredictability of solar and wind.)
Nuclear and renewable energy storage both require some technological advance. Nuclear is more plausibly held back by political problems, but there are still questions about whether it's economically worth it at current technology levels.
It's also worth noting that just reducing fossil fuels isn’t going to be enough, nor will it be fully feasible. We’re going to need natural and technological carbon drawdown geoengineering to get the climate under control, which will also make fossil fuels much less bad. The problem is our current inability to recycle CO2. We need to intensify the drawdown side of the carbon cycle.
The scientifically inclined climate activist should be working on these three problems: CO2 recycling, affordable nuclear power, and efficient large-scale energy storage.
IM: Palladium Magazine published an article last year by Patrick Mellor which made the case for geoengineering – and in particular, for the method known as Oceanic Iron Fertilisation, suggesting that we can withdraw up to 20% of the carbon from our atmosphere by using iron to stimulate algae growth. How could geoengineering be carried out in a way that doesn’t spark international conflict?
WT: I don’t think there is much fundamental reason for conflict. My hunch would be that if a bit of international momentum could be built around the idea, someone could get away with the experiment.
The more serious obstacle would not be conflict between states, but the general state of vetocracy we live under. Anything that would change things and have a big impact, which fertilization definitely would, will have dozens of groups coming out of the woodwork raising objections and demanding compensation for damages. Some of those objections are legitimate, like that the decaying aftermath of fertilization creates a destructive low-oxygen environment in the ocean. It would take experiments and practical study to see how bad this is and how it can be mitigated.
But we have to put these things in perspective: the potential upsides are just as high, like the increased productivity of fish stocks with more algae to feed on. And the downside of inaction is, as you know, a fairly serious environmental disruption in its own right. Ocean fertilization might in the end prove not to be worth it at full scale, but we must be willing to take experimental risks and make trade-offs as a society. Right now, our problem is that no one has the authority to actually do that, mostly within our own societies, rather than between them.
IM: What's the Palladium vision for a more ecologically integrated human civilisation?
WT: I've hinted at it. This is less Palladium's vision, which is more neutral, than my own. It is also not original to me. See our recent article on “greening the heavens” for a survey of far-future projections of ecological-industrial convergence.
There are a lot more potential synergies between human civilization and Earth's non-human ecosystem than we currently exploit. We could use our planning and technological abilities to accelerate, restore, and create healthy ecosystems. For example, various fertilization schemes in the ocean or on land, tree planting and re-greening of deserts, or re-wilding and productivity-enhancing experiments like Nikita Zimov's Pleistocene Park in Siberia. Even just planting wildflowers in public parks and mowing our lawns less often.
In turn, there are many services for which we rely on healthy ecosystems, like carbon sequestration, pollination, pest and disease control, psychological health, air quality, erosion control and flood prevention, agricultural genetic biodiversity, all of our food, many of our best materials, and of course the beauty and enjoyment of our daily environment. These could all be intensified by helping those ecosystems work better.
Modern agriculture is a good example of a practice that's unsustainable and ugly in the long run precisely because it avoids using natural ecosystems. The monoculture system ends up needing a lot more pesticides, herbicides, mineral fertilizers, and fossil fuels. Permaculture or regenerative grazing, and maintaining substantial feral populations as genetic backup, while underdeveloped as practices, could be the better long-term path if combined with some technological acceleration. With grazing in particular, you don't need pesticides and herbicides, because the animals eat weeds and bugs and do better when the ecosystem they are feeding on is healthier, which is in turn helped by their presence.
The big picture is that our biosphere is undergoing a transition to incorporate our organized intelligence and industrial processes. This is going to be very disruptive in the short-term, but in the long-term could lead to a much stronger and healthier natural ecosystem, with more resources, stability in better modes, and more organization. The Gaia hypothesis that Earth's ecosystems form an intelligent superorganism isn't true as stated, but we should make it true. We should see ourselves as a part of that ecological superorganism, specifically the vanguard of intelligent stewards who keep it healthy and organize it towards higher purposes. My Bison Sphere article was an April fools joke, but it touched on many of these themes.
IM: And finally – how optimistic are you about climate change? Do you think we’ll be able to rise to the challenge on an international level?
WT: I think things are going to get a lot crazier first, but we will ultimately get it under control. It's going to take an attitude of active responsibility to restore and enhance our ecosystems in the most productive patterns, rather than merely mitigating harms. The worst projections may even come to pass, but it’s not going to kill us, and ultimately we have the power to bring it back from there to a much greener future once we decide we want to. The faster we get good, the easier and less destructive this will all be.
On the political level, I'm more worried about governance within our societies than I am about international cooperation. There are fewer moving parts internationally. Our bottleneck is seemingly a lack of ability to execute on technological, social, and ecological development for any collective imperative at all. It's not a coincidence that this obvious collective problem of carbon pollution isn't being solved in an age where very few collective problems are being solved.
Ultimately, we need to lose our fear and incompetence around the idea of government, build competent government that can actually solve problems, and take active positive responsibility for our impact on our environment. For any of you who are interested in solving those problems, come join us at Palladium Magazine.