Wolfgang Knorr – Why Climate Change will be the West’s Downfall

Resilience is the weak point of the economic-social-political system we have come to know as the “West”

Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University


A friend of mine has an unusual profession: he makes a living by buying and selling used fire engines, often to Global South destinations. Not a car dealer, but a dealer in essential machinery that keeps people safe. This friend of mine recently had an interesting story to tell: when a large industrial fire broke out near his home town, he quickly sent in one of his decades-old models, along with, naturally, the local fire brigades. This being in Germany, however, meant that most fire engines coming to the rescue were modern ones, with all the fancy gadgets and electronics modern manufacturing has on offer. Only thing was: the only fire engine that arrived, sprung up into pumping mode and never stopped until the fire was under control, was the old clunker ready to be shipped out to some far-flung, cash strapped “developing” country. None of the  the fancy new ones achieved anything like it. They stopped working, the crews did not understand the manual, or, a common complaint, they couldn’t operate the sleek touch displays wearing their thick, fire resistant gloves.

I thought of this story recently when I read about frequent complaints by the Ukrainian army about over-priced, over-designed, but ultimately useless Western weapons systems. Like the fire engines, they were not fit for the tough reality of chaotic situations. But in real emergency situations, as in a major fire, or a war, reliability can be everything. The key word here – one which has become so popular recently, not only in climate circle – is Resilience: the ability to withstand existential threats that are principally unpredictable.

There are many reasons why resilience is the weak point of the economic-social-political system we have come to know as the “West”. They have to do with market competition and its corruption, the use and abuse of intellectual property, narratives of progress and technical mastery, and the corruption of the narrative space by corporate media and its backers in government. They also have to do with a deeply ingrained arrogance stemming from the lack of collective memory about societal failure and breakdown.

A good example for the endemically low resilience of modern products is the 15 year-old desktop computer I am writing this text on. Its hardware is entirely up to modern standards, as the clock speeds of those computers have not increased ever since. But I am now faced with the need to either upgrade its operating system, which due to changes of various technical conventions will slow down the computer massively, or stick with the tried and tested one but increasingly face failure of certain programmes or features.

The reason for this wasteful and useless form of progress (it just creates headaches for me as a consumer, but no benefits) is that companies are under constant pressure to innovate so that they can maintain their profit margins. If technical progress reaches a plateau, they often react by engineering the appearance of progress through manipulating the market using intellectual property rights, like enforcing the usually meaningless constant upgrades on my desktop computer. (An analogous engineered pseudo progress is the megapixel race of phone cameras, which due to the laws of quantum physics, above a modest count makes no difference to image quality.) This idea of progress is generally cheered on not only by the companies’ own advertising, but also by much of the media establishment and our modern culture as a whole.

To see how resilient this strategy is, it’s worth looking at nature. It was the late Stephen Jay Gould who came up with the concept of “punctuated equilibria”, describing how the evolution of new species was characterised by short periods of rapid change, interspersed by long periods of stasis, i.e. almost no change. There is still debate about the general validity of this theory, but it is clear that nature tends to be inherently hyper-conservative. Winning concepts are generally not given up. For example, the “code” with which genetic information is stored has not changed since the early evolution of life on earth. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke” seems to be the motto. Compare this to the almost annual operating system upgrades imposed on me as a computer user: modern society seems to prefer a different slogan: “don’t care when it breaks, just get the latest model”.

The interesting twist in this story is that the periods of rapid change in the history of evolution were the result of cataclysmic events, or mass extinctions. To a keen observer, it does not seem to be much of a coincidence that our preoccupation with rapid change and innovation is about to trigger another mass die-out in the natural world, which will eventually cause a renewed bout of accelerated evolution (only that it will come too late for us to enjoy). So by wanting rapid change, rapid change is what we’ll get, only that the change may turn out to be our own undoing. Ironically, our modern world, so in love with endless rapid innovation and change, is utterly incapable of reacting when this rapid change starts unfolding in the real world, outside of performance charts and marketing strategies.

Proponents of the market economy would now object, saying if there was sufficient demand for simple, reliable and resilient products, they would surely be produced. And indeed, there are such products, such as the proverbial Swiss army knife, Japanese steel, or German precision optics. But these tend to exist mostly in the shadows of the glamour around the latest gadgets. The problem is that if all products sold were utterly reliable and long lasting, demand would slow down to such a degree that the entire system based on endless expansion would soon collapse. Hence capitalism has an unavoidable tendency towards cheapness.

In an ideal world, where supply, demand and the setting of the rules of the market were strictly separate worlds, a market economy may in fact also work in a situation where resilience, and hence reliability and simplicity, are everything, such as a major crisis, societal breakdown, or wars. But in reality, real demand is never purely about what people need, but influenced heavily by sponsored narratives. Supply can often be monopolistic, and the rules of the market are often written by the suppliers of the goods. History has also shown that when there is a real emergency, as in a war, countries often revert to a much more planned economy, as for example Germany during WWI. An element of tight central control may also be behind the surprising resilience of the Russian economy faced with its ongoing war in Ukraine and Western sanctions.

With humanity increasingly having to confront the worsening impacts of climate change, we may increasingly be driven into a situation of real emergency, not dissimilar to a war. Since lack of reaction to rising emissions of planet heating greenhouse gases is a structural problem created by rising inequality and overconsumption, we can expect emissions to continue at a rapid pace until something really radical happens. This radical shock event may either be a voluntary but radical reversal of the current “Western” system due to sheer necessity, or it will be some major systemic breakdown of our global economy or political order, for which, due to our focus on growth and consumption, we are ill prepared. Either way, the days of the “Western” way of consumer society are numbered.

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  1. “Its hardware is entirely up to modern standards, as the clock speeds of those computers have not increased ever since.”

    It was made clear by the market failure of the Pentium 4 power hungriness that clock speeds could not increase anymore, but there are many other speed improvements since then. Whether they, and the pointless features which guzzle resources, are that important for day to day computing is the actual doubt. And I’d say some, but when they are “needed” to increase and pass the cost of spying on the users to their own hardware, definitely not all.
    The real problem, comparatively, is not so much the pollution, which can and is mostly exported, alas, but that it is all a series of grifts: AI, cryptocurrency, gig work, software as a service, blue hydrogen, clean oil, recycling, electric cars, eurobonds, fiscal incentives, and so on have some uses in them, but they are filled with lies and scams, and aren’t a replacement for managing and solving problems with actual workers who are incentivized and empowered to care about doing things well. Western politicians don’t even care about having bullets as long as there’s a contract saying someone will take care of it, with no responsibility to themselves, even if it is more wasteful. It’s a recipe for gradual degradation of the reliability of social systems and institutions that is much deeper than can be measured, since existing workers somehow keep it running. But they’ll soon leave too. Like climate change, stopping making it worse will not stop the process, the path must be fully reversed.
    Are you seeing anyone with any will of competence for it? The shitshow will increase, and so will telling you your eyes are lying.

  2. Thanks so much, great comment!
    “aren’t a replacement for managing and solving problems with actual workers who are incentivized and empowered to care about doing things well”

    In the end, it’s about our notion of reality. Scams are normality, and what used to be normal (as your line quoted) is now radical.

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