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France

Eye on France: The end is nigh!

media A flooded campsite in Saint-Julien-de-Peyrolas, southern France last summer. AFP

Le Monde’s opinion pages carry two dramatic articles linked to climate change. The drama arises from the fact that this week sees the disappointing end of the Cop 24 conference in Poland. Here in France, we’ve had the president forced to retreat on a tax commitment which was intended to finance the so-called energy transition.

And the news from the climate scientists just goes on getting worse.

You could say we’ve had too many warnings from too many experts about the imminent end of everything. But these two guys are pulling no punches.

There’s the geoscientist Dominique Bourg who says that the only political question currently worth asking is how we keep Planet Earth open for continued human habitation.

And then there’s the economist Serge Latouche who warns that, far from chasing increased growth and ever-burgeoning consumption, the only hope for the human race and, incidentally, the rest of the globe’s living organisms, is a conscious and conscientious policy of decreasing growth.

Latouche admits that that’s a fairly radical solution, since it involves nothing less than a change in the way we think about civilization. But if we don’t make that change, he says, civilization is going down the gurgler, and that sooner rather than later.

Dominique Bourg is struck by the contradiction between public awareness of climate danger and the feeble reaction of most governments.

Blame the ancestors

Part of the problem comes down to the long human history of reacting rapidly to immediate danger, usually by running away or climbing the nearest tree.

We could deal with a sabre-toothed tiger, but the vague, far-away threat posed by global warming is not the sort of danger human beings are wired to confront.

Dominique Bourg says things are changing. Last summer, which saw the whole of the northern hemisphere sweltering under unprecedented heatwaves, with fires and floods on the side, helped to wake many up to the closeness of the danger.

And the latest report from the international climate expert group has brought the date of Armageddon forward from the end of the century to perhaps 2030. Tomorrow, in other words.

Public concern and political inaction

But there remains the gap between public concern and political reaction.

A leader like US President Donald Trump can deny the reality of climate change, even when his own experts warn of the devastating economic consequences of such a denial, to say nothing of the human ones.

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro says he regards the Amazon Basin as an exploitable resource, and has refused to host next year’s Cop 25 climate conference.

Even Emmanuel Macron, a champion of the war against warming, has been forced this very week to sacrifice a carbon tax to civil unrest.

The real problem, according to Dominique Bourg, is that individual or community action is just not enough, even if it’s obviously a step in the right direction. We need our politicians to take the lead, and we need them to act together because only a global effort will be sufficient.

The end is nigh, maybe even now

If we don’t make that effort, the prospects are grim. Dominique Bourg says society will simply collapse as the globe becomes less and less inhabitable.

Economic growth is no longer the grail, it’s actually a death sentence.

Dominique Bourg says we have to re-think our political options in terms of that fact. It’s no longer a game involving left, right and centre, but a clash between short-term profiteering and human survival.

Which brings us back to Serge Latouche, the anti-growth economist.

He says the human race is hooked on over-consumption and will continue the spending spree until something shockingly dramatic happens to make us change. We’re animals of habit, with some very bad habits.

Serge Latouche says there’s nothing to be hoped for from the political arena, because politicians are all, more-or-less, at the mercy of the markets.

And there’s no point either, he says, in working piecemeal, eliminating killer chemical weed-killer here, programmed obsolescence there, cutting out coal somewhere else. There is no gradual solution.

Disaster needed

What we need is a decent disaster

The only thing that will save us, says Serge, is a catastrophe.

He's not clear on what or how serious that might be. Remember that last year’s Cyclone Harvey cost 180 billion dollars in the United States alone, and that didn’t change anything fundamental. Latouche is clearly thinking of some vast physical disaster, followed by the collapse of the global economic system. When the dust settles after that, he says, the survivors can begin life in whatever emerges to replace western society.

If we’re to have any chance of avoiding that, he says, we have to change our economic model, working and consuming less, to escape from the gilded chains which the market has sold us and which ensure our docile slavery.

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