It’s 38 Degrees in the Arctic Circle


I once lived in a flat that became infested with mice. After some time the problem disappeared, but eventually we realised that the mice had been eaten by rats. I was remembering that rodent anecdote reading this week about about the small Siberian town of Verkhoyansk. Last weekend, weather stations in Verkhoyansk recorded an air temperature of 38°C or 100°F. That obliterated the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic Circle. The increased heat has triggered permafrost fires in the region, which are releasing tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The phenomenon was awarded three paragraphs in the Guardian and a smattering of outrage elsewhere.

We are distracted.

It’s not surprising. The media failure around reporting climate breakdown is long-standing, and was a key demand of Extinction Rebellion, especially focused on public broadcasters: Tell the Truth. Nor is it surprising in terms of human behaviour. How can we be expected to focus on the larger abstract notion of “climate change” when we are (very much) focused on the tangible virus that might kill us or our family?

But the problem is that the plans for recovery out of this crisis collide precisely into the one we’re not paying any attention to.

This week the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery published its report, ‘Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland’.

The group is led by the former head of Tesco Bank, and current chair of Buccleuch Estates, Benny Higgins. So it’s not a surprise that despite the report being sprinkled with zeitgeist terms of “wellbeing” and “resilience” it had little of either.

The report mirrors our current obsession with economic growth, which is the main driver of climate breakdown.

It states unequivocally: “Scotland had the ambition to become a robust, wellbeing economy. That is one that generates strong economic growth… and that does so with an unequivocal focus on climate change, fair work, diversity, and equality”.

This is gobbledygook. Doublespeak. It doesn’t have meaning.

The problem for wellbeing campaigners is that their language is being co-opted for business-as-usual practice.

Where to begin?
First the the idea that “that each generation should leave its successor a set of natural assets” is radically at odds with the reality that what we are leaving the next generation is: omnicide. Secondly “nature” isn’t an “asset”, this is the sort of language that comes from the pen of a banker, but it’s so wildly inappropriate for the predicament we’re in it’s staggering. Thirdly to say “Our approach to natural capital should be founded on the goal … so that future generations can choose how to live their lives and the economy has natural infrastructure to support it” posits nature as “infrastructure” to support the economy. This is at heart of the bizarre worldview that is dragging us into mayhem. Finally Higgins report suggests that the problem with “degradation of the environment” is it constrains “economic productivity” over the long term.
The whole report is littered with this framing of the growth economy as a sort of deity under which everything else is in service. It suggest the Scottish Government has learned nothing from the covid experience, has no consciousness of the depth of our ecological crisis and has no strategic approach to help us “recover”. There is no awareness at all that the conditions of our economy are the very things that have undermined wellbeing and destroyed resilience.
It is like suggesting we treat coronavirus by administering large doses of coronavirus.

As environmental campaigner Matthew Crichton commented: “Left to Benny Higgins and his crew, that would be a very conventional recovery. One good thing is that it does call for a boost to investment levels, but it has no suggestions about how to do that apart from asking Westminster for more funds or borrowing powers. No plan for Scottish Green Bonds here, no call for a massive increase in the capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank, just a suggestion that it should invest in housing – which looks dangerously like a dilution of its commitment to funding a Just Transition.”

Which brings us back to Verkhoyansk.

Last year the science journal, Nature, published a study by eminent climate scientists warning that nine major ‘tipping points’ which regulate climate stability are close to being triggered. These include the slowing down of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, massive deforestation of the Amazon, and accelerating ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet. They warned that any one of these  tipping points, if breached, could push the climate into catastrophic runaway global warming.

The problem is not Verkhoyansk in and of itself, the problem is what it represents and how it relates to these tipping points.

It is quite clear that the report initiated by the Scottish Government had saving jobs as its key criteria. That is understandable given the economic catastrophe created by the coronavirus. But if we keep saying over and over that we are in “unprecedented times” then we need – and should demand – some unprecedented thinking.

As the economist anthropologist Jason Hickel puts it: “As the Arctic burns under a record heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 45C, economists are lining up to call for more growth. The discipline is increasingly unhinged from reality. The key lesson for post-covid economics is that you do not need growth to solve a crisis of unemployment. Shorten the working week, distribute income and wealth more fairly, and introduce a Green New Deal job guarantee.”

If the Nature study from last year should have brought shock and action rather than inertia and duplicity, a new study in Nature Communications was a breath of fresh air. The study showed what we already knew, that the wealthy are disproportionately responsible for climate change. It found that the richest 10 per cent of people are responsible for up to 43 per cent of destructive global environmental impacts.

The authors write: “Recent scientists’ warnings confirm alarming trends of environmental degradation from human activity, leading to profound changes in essential life-sustaining functions of planet Earth. The warnings surmise that humanity has failed to find lasting solutions to these changes that pose existential threats to natural systems, economies and societies and call for action by governments and individuals. The warnings aptly describe the problems, identify population, economic growth and affluence as drivers of unsustainable trends and acknowledge that humanity needs to reassess the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence.”

We have seen during lockdown a glimpse into a possible alternative future: one where obsessive work and toil in pursuit of consumption are ceased, one where appreciation of nature, not as an “asset” but as something we are intimately part of, is normal. At the very heart of our current predicament is our economic system which values nothing but itself for its own sake and perpetuating that system is an act of self-harm we are witnessing in real time.



Comments (16)

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  1. AndrewGreen says:

    Absolutely nails the existential crisis we face, which is being ignored by most as we invest all the energy we have into a lesser emergency which will pass. There is no vaccine for global meltdown. Unless we learn from our response to Covid-19 what we can and must do in an emergency, we, along with most higher life forms on the planet are stuffed!
    Thank you Mike for spelling it out so clearly. For me this is the most important piece you have ever penned.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    Yep. Capitalism is a suicide death cult. As is any other ‘-ism’ that involves ecomonic growth of any sort.

    We tend to forget that the climate effects we are seeing now are a result of emissions 10 years ago – such is the lag in the planetary system response.

    We also tend to forget that of all the emissions since 1750, half were put out there in the 30 years 1980-2010

    If you want some crude maths, 1750-2020 = 270 years. Lets call all the pollution, soil degredation, CO2/CH4/No2/SO2/H2S emissions, wildlife loss etc added together as 1 unit per year, so lets call that 270 Doom Units. {It’s maths, you’re allowed to do things like that}
    1750-1980: 130 Doom Units
    1980-2020: 140 Doom Units (approx)
    2020-2040: therefore 140 Doom Units ????
    2040-2050: another 140 Doom Units???

    If we added 140 Doom Units in 30 years, that is 140/30 = 4.6 Doom Units per year, or 46 Doom Units per decade.
    But there is a 10 year lag in effects caused by emissions, a decades worth. In other words 46 Doom Units of emissions haven’t had an effect yet. That is 46/270 = 17% of all the negative effects of human activity since 1750 haven’t fed into the system yet.

    So even if Gandalf, Sauron, Galadriel and the other Maia, Thor, Oden, Zeus, Jesus, Mohammad, God and all the other mythical creatures humans have invented got together and magically sealed all the leaking clathrates, removed all fossil fuels, made humans forget how to make fire, terminated all pregnancies and sterilised all males under 70 – overnight – we would still see a 17% increase in warming, pollution, ice melt, storm occurence, storm strengths, flooding, etc, etc, etc, in the next decade. 38*C in the Arctic? Nah, more like 44*C. CO2 418ppm? Nah, more like 489ppm. CH4 1.8ppm? Nah, more like 2.1ppm. 165mph hurricane? nah more like 190mph. And so on.
    Okay, crude maths, but maybe an illustration in numbers of where we’re at.

    CAMs (Copernicus Atmospheric Measuring system) is showing methane plumes in the North Sea again. Which reminds me of a paper I saw in Dec 2016 showing that 500,000 years ago defrosting methyl hydrates in the same region (off Norway) caused a huge seafloor landslip, which the resulting tsunami covered the east coast of Scotland in 250′ of mud. Basically an extinction level event. There have been more recent similar events, one 8000 years ago did about 4′ of mud or something like that. The article was more about the tipping point for the landslip – on land the tipping point is 38*, whereas in this sea-bed event it was as little as 7-15* angle, and they weren’t sure why. Unfortunately I never saved the article, damned if I’ve never been able to find it since.

    If you live on the east and north coast of Scotland, you might want to ensure you are 250′ above sea level….. Or, if in future years you see all the wildlife fleeing en masse to the east, follow them as fast as possible!

    And never forget the exponential function. Take your growth rate (whether economics or ecological damage), divide it into 70, and that is your doubling time.
    A growth rate of 3%, sounds nice and benign doesn’t, is a doubling every 24 years. Yes, double resource use, double energy use, double working hours (not necessarily double population, just a greater workload per person, &/or greater debt load). Infinite growth on a finite planet is a mathematical impossibility, but since when did economists do maths?

    But back to the present, I do despair, the mass of the population seems desperate to return to “business as usual” or “back to normal”, even though that normal caused the problem in the first place. The mass gathering leavng 40 tons of rubbish on Bournemouth beach this week is a glimpse of that self-immolation if I ever saw one. Extinction live on TV! Because collapse is a process, not a single event.

    And the voices, the processes, the authors, the artists, that talk of a better way, blogs like this, the doomosphere channels on Youtube, anarcho-primitivists, permaculture advocates, even the most recent science papers directly blaming neo-liberalism, are visited by tens of thousands at most.

    It feels like we are like mice in a howling gale saying “this way” as a stampede of 7 billion elephant-sized lemmings head towards the cliff.

    1. Thanks Mark, I sometimes share your despair

    2. John Learmonth says:

      Thanks for pointing out that the climate has been changing for eons…..with or without human input (if it exists)
      Incidentally the warmest year recorded in the Artic Circle was…….1915 although as ‘official’ records have only existed for 125 years we really have no clue whats going on.
      ‘Denier’ signing off. Keep well!

      1. Wul says:

        John, “It was hot once in 1915” doesn’t reassure me.

        It’s a bit like someone who gets steamin’ every day saying ; “I’m not an alcoholic, sure my Grandad got drunk once and he wasn’t an alky”

        1. John Learmonth says:

          Wul, its hot every year in the SUMMER, even in the artic. Gets very cold in the winter though….its called climate change.
          Bugger all to do with humanity though….time will tell. In the meantime I’m not panicking.

          1. I’m not going to tolerate actual deniers on here.

            It’s too late and I’m too old and I’m too bored and I have children to worry about to deal with your bollocks. Go and see a shrink, or have a word with your self or try some self honesty but you wont be on this site peddling this shit.

        2. John Learmonth says:

          Looks like pointing out thats its cold in the winter and warm in the summer makes you a denier…….bet this doesnt get thru

  3. aayawa says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for the hints on deconstructing business speak.

    One question:

    How would we get the benefits of “progress” or would we have got them if we had not had growth and consumerism? We would not have had cars – horses and barges would have been seen as enough, maybe we would not have had trains. The Internet ( and its associated carbon emissions)? Computers? doubtful. And the people at the top would still have been treating those at the bottom like dirt but able to hide because no internet no social media.

    Alternatively: How do we get the benefits of technology and better knowledge without consumerism? And how do we do that without the state turning into dictatorship.

    Seriously, whatever we do will have side effects, some negative, possibly extremely so. It is time to look at tradeoffs.

    “Capitalism” by whic I mean the greed based corporate style we have currently, is a ot of the problem. People crowding onto beaches illustrates another side of the problem

    1. Thanks for the comment – the historical legacy is a good question but we are where we are. As the people who benefitted from the industrial revolution we are also responsible for the vast bulk of emissions and many argue we therefore have a responsibility to do something about that.

      So we need to degwrow the economy. That’s the only way out of the climate catastrophe.

      I go into this as bit here:

      and here:

      I dont think technology and better knowledge is tied to consumerism.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Excellent article, which I just tweeted out to as many as I could tag. Consumerism is a byproduct of contemporary capitalism, which needs its products to be consumed so they can be made a return on investments. We are so far from needing anything of the sort, it is pathetic to belabor the point…we are on the edge of final destruction, and continue to think electing the next clown will do the trick.

        Short of mass uprisings everywhere, I see no hope. We truly do not face–and grasp–the immediacy and finality of our global peril. And just saying “but what will replace it” finesses the point that short of such an upheaval, there will be no replacing. Of anything. While we may give various names to what it is we do, what is manifest is that if we are to survive, we are going to make it up as we go along–or, as has been expressed in other arenas of struggle for social progress, you discover the road by walking it.

        We are no longer in the historical frame of electing a government in X years who will take care of matters. If only it were that simple and (relatively) easy. It’s not.

    2. Mark Bevis says:

      Good questions, but exemplify the paradox of the age we’ve lived in since agriculture took off.

      The nearest “best vision” if you like, of a post-collapse society, or more politely put, a different way of living, that I’ve seen, is presented here:

      Although it’s a decade old, and the title of the paper is incorrect, there is no solution to global warming.

      For 200,000 years, the human species lived without economy, without stratified class structures, and in relative harmony within planetary boundaries. So it can be done, although even then, we oversaw the disappearance of much of the mega-fauna (aurochs, mammoths, etc). And it is still argued about whether we merely capitalised on species in decline anyway due to changes in environmental conditions, or whether the ‘myth of the noble savage’ holds sway and we massacre everything in sight eventually, regardless.

      The ugly truth is most likely that we would have to do without many of the benefits of ‘progress’ if we are to live within the natural boundaries of the planet.

      But a useful debate can be had about what we can take forward, what knowledge we can rediscover, and what we leave behind. Because if we don’t have those conversations, those actions, then eventually Mother Nature will take those choices away from us.

      There are two mathematical certainties:
      1) the population of humans will be ‘rebalanced’ to somewhere between 100,000,000 and 1000,000,000, or to zero.
      2) the planet we restabilise at an average 4*C warmer world, even if we cut all emissions tomorrow. It may well be +8*C.

      The only uncertainties are when these events will happen, and over how long a time frame. The Limits to Growth shows 1) from now to 2040. Some science is showing a +4*C world by 2050, within the lifetime of most people reading this. They could both be out by a century, but I personally doubt it.

      A question for each individual to ask themselves is, could they live in a world without 24/7 energy supply, dairy and meat free diet most days, and no fossil fuels. A world without the structure of paid work, but a world where you have certain community responsibilities, that involve doing. Eg composting human waste, growing food, hand making tools or structures, learning herb lore, whatever you’re good at. So we might have intermittent electricity, from declining numbers of solar panels, or crude copies of, so we can access information for a bit, or run low powered lighting sometimes. But you’ll not be driving a tractor and trailer across the fields, it’ll be bikes and horses.

      Then if you could live in such a world, would you want to?

      As collapse progresses, which by any metric started back in the early 1970s, we’ll start to learn to live with less. For 1 in 6 of the UK population, this is already happening. But they are forced into that by neo-liberal economics, they didn’t choose it.
      Unfortunately our world is dominated by a media that backs the status quo, because they fear the alternative is a threat to their privilidge. I have news for them, it is. But if they don’t get with the data, then they’ll as likely end up on the end of pitchforks and firing squads.

      A Degrowth agenda is a good starting point, it would be wiser for a society to choose how we degrow, rather than be left with the aftermath of not having taken a choice. But the window of opportunity is closing fast, if not closed already.

      1. John McLeod says:

        Mark: Thanks for this post. It would be good if a version of this could be an article in itself. This might bring a wider response to your very valuable contribution. The links within your post open up really fascinating pieces. The anarchist article (first link) reminded me of the work of the American historian-anthropologist-political scientist James C Scott. One of his key ideas is that human history has consisted of a tension between states and non-state peoples. He suggests that it is only in the last 300 years that states have expanded to the extent that there is little space left for non-state communities. His description of non-state peoples is very similar to the scenario described in the anarchist article that you linked it. Essentially, people live much more satisfying and healthy lives in non-state cultures.

  4. Janet Fenton says:

    Thanks Mike for the readability and plain truth you express here.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Yes, the disease is excess; that can become socially unacceptable. And the economy-exalted is not a deity but a cacodaemon, and its worshippers follow the opposite of the good life and human thriving:
    As you can read, the evil cacodaemon specializes in shapeshifting, which is exactly what those report quotes are performing, outwardly. Also associated with royalty.

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