Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Some months ago I reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. I suggested that Zizek’s political projections would have little chance of materializing because economic collapse precipitated by climate mitigation efforts in the rich world would overwhelm everything else in but a few short decades. Next I came across G. Gaul’s “Geography of Risk” which, though focusing on storms and sea-level effects on the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, supported my prediction. Now this, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (review & link below), comes along amplifying everything in the Gaul book and laying down an even more frightening picture not only about where present trends are taking us, but the almost certain inevitability of vast tracts of the equatorial and presently-temperate Earth becoming uninhabitable by 2100.

Most of the cascades described by Wallace-Wells have already been triggered and will not stop (though they would slow a bit) even if we ceased all industry-related atmospheric carbon production tomorrow, something that is obviously not going to happen. Technology (as he points out) is not going to save us this time. We do know how to pull carbon out of the air yes, but as Wallace-Wells shows, we cannot afford to deploy enough of it fast enough to block a two to three degree (celsius) rise in average global temperatures over the next 75 years.

Wallace-Wells is (non-optimistically) hopeful that humanity will wake up in time to stop carbon output at least soon enough to halt future warming at three degrees. In fact I believe human industrial carbon output (most of it, globally) will cease in another ten or twenty years, roughly when we are close to two degrees of warming (as of 2018 we were at one degree and some change with atmospheric carbon rising faster now, year on year, than it has ever before). But it won’t stop because humans wake up and do something about the problem. It will stop because all of the economies of the world will have collapsed. Over a few decades, people will starve (or die from disease and war) in such vast numbers that few will be left to put any substantial carbon into the atmosphere more than the cooking fires that could be found dotting the Earth ten thousand years ago. The human population will be about where it was ten thousand years ago. That might be by 2100, likely sooner than that.

Still all of the cascades, devastating forest fires and melting permafrost will yet be releasing billions of tons of carbon even in the absence of human industry, and of course ocean levels will continue to rise utterly changing the geography of the world. By 2200 there will be very few places on Earth where food can be grown or hunted and the human race may be reduced to levels barely able to avoid extinction, if even that. If this isn’t frightening enough, the news gets worse from here. Even if the temperature rise tops out at three or four degrees, the planet will not again return to a cooler, human-comfortable climate regime, for thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands, of years!

Uninhabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells 2018

This book opens with what, for me, was a surprise. I know that carbon emissions have, world-wide, steadily increased even since the first international “climate mitigation agreements” of thirty years ago. What I did not know is that since 1990, the world, collectively, has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as it did in the thirty years from 1960 to 1990. There are other surprises: Bitcoin anyone? Sure there’s some electricity involved but how much could that be? It turns out to be about as much, per year, as one million international jet flights! Our own industrial activity is only a part (albeit still a large part) of the problem now. Other, cascading effects, are now adding their impact. Global wild-fires now consume, on average, ten times as much forest every year as they did thirty years ago. That’s a lot of extra carbon. Even worse, the world’s permafrost is beginning to melt releasing carbon in the form of methane which, depending on whether we are speaking of low or high altitude, has between four and eighty times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The title of the book is prescient. Think of the climatologically worst environments on the Earth today (having warmed a bit more than one degree Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1800. We are on track to hit two degrees by 2050 or so), perhaps the middle of the Sahara, or someplace where it never stops being hot and raining. These are today’s most inhospitable climate environments. By 2100, that sort of place will be among the best and most livable we have on Earth. Large parts of our world will be largely and literally uninhabitable, places where humans die because their bodies cannot cool themselves by sweating unless immersed in cool water, or because there is no water the glaciers being gone, and this at only three degrees of warming (2100).

The first third of the book is about various cascades, most already triggered, some on the verge. Effects of warming that add up both by directly making things worse, and by degrading the planet’s ability to absorb carbon and mitigate the other effects. Wallace’s picture here is very dire. In the rest of the book Wallace deals with the economic, political, social, and psychological future. Here I do not think he is dire enough. He speaks of refugees in the tens of millions (try hundreds), extremist movements on both the right and left, of wars, pandemics, crop failures, of collapsing economies unable to sustain the cost of climate mitigation, and that only the economies that can afford any mitigation to begin with. The rest will have since joined the refugees. Wallace touches on all of this, but I do not think he fully appreciates how quickly and thoroughly human beings can (and will) turn on one another long before this all becomes as bad as it’s going to get!

Technology will not save us. Wallace covers that too. We can desalinate water and even pull carbon out of the air. There will never be enough of either that the world can afford. Besides, both are energy intensive processes and even if powered with renewable energy, that is not easy to do as concerns the chain of activities that must be powered to build and maintain that technology. Rare-Earth mining is a very dirty business.

In the end, Wallace is hopeful, though not optimistic, that the global polity will wake up and de-carbonize the global economy, not in time to halt two to three degrees of warming, it is already too late for that, but in time to prevent it going to four degrees or more. I think he is over-optimistic here too. It is simply not possible, politically, and this for economic reasons, for soon-to-be nine-billion humans to de-carbonize as quickly as needed to hold the line at two to three degrees. What will force the race to de-carbonize will be economic collapse, leading to socio-political collapse, leading to mass death (over some decades) from starvation, disease, or war. I think Wallace sees this grim possibility. He hopes it isn’t inevitable.

This a good and timely book though I doubt it will have much effect on the carbon trajectory of our so-called civilization. It is good to see the ground covered as much as Wallace covers it. He does a good job of showing how the climatological and the political go together (alas perversely). I think he fails to draw some obvious conclusions from his own well-made points. Perhaps it’s for the better. He would be accused of doom saying. I am a doomsayer! Feel free to accuse me! Meanwhile, the book is frightening enough as it is!

Review: The Geography of Risk by G. Gaul

This well written book hasn’t any philosophical implications on which to comment. I put this here in my rapidly expanding “book review” subsection because of its relevance to my commentary on Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. My commentary on the Zizek book ended up being mostly about climate change and ecological disaster, something that Zizek mentions but doesn’t much talk about. My point in that commentary was that the re-making of the world’s social, political, and economic orders that are the focus of Zizek’s book (many of his books in fact) will be made mostly irrelevant thanks to the utter destruction of the present global order beginning with its economics.

That’s what I said about Zizek. Specifically, with regard to the United States I said that climate change would soon bankrupt it, and that long before the impact of the twin phenomena (climate change and [partial] ecological collapse) was fully felt. Now a couple weeks after writing that commentary, along comes this book which, while focused on a singular aspect of the problem (the U.S. East and Gulf coasts), illustrates and puts numbers to my claims.

The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul (2019)

Only two weeks ago I wrote a blog essay commenting on another book I recently reviewed (Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”). In my commentary I pointed out that the on-rushing phenomena of climate change will shortly (next few decades) overwhelm the social, political, and financial capacity of any national or even supra-national organization. I accused Zizek of ignoring “the elephant in the room”. Only a few days after that essay (see my Amazon profile for blog address) this book by Gilbert Gaul appeared on my radar. Its title alone seemed a validation of my claims. I was not disappointed, though as it turns out, the focus of the book is geographically very narrow.

Dr. Gaul is an expert in the economics, geography, and risk of coastal and near-coastal communities of the United States Eastern and Gulf coasts. That, specifically is what this book is about. He is easy to read, gives us all the important numbers, but isn’t dry. He tells the story historically through the eyes of many involved: developers and politicians one one side, scientists and some of the engineers tasked with fixing a hopeless situation on the other.

Why this region? First, the U.S. Eastern seaboard, especially from New Jersey to southern Florida, and then throughout the Gulf of Mexico is riddled with barrier islands made mostly of sand, and then behind these barriers lots of shallow bays, estuaries, and low-lying land sometimes extending inland hundreds of miles. Second, all of this coast is among the world’s great hurricane and “rain bomb” bowling alleys. Third that same coast, all those barrier islands, have evolved demographically from a few fishing villages in the 1940s through inexpensive (once middle class) small summer homes costing a few thousand dollars, to multi-million dollar mansions. Fourth, back in the 1950’s the Federal Government covered 10% or 20% of the cost to rebuild thousand dollar homes when storms destroyed them, today the government covers 90% of the cost to replace a like number of million-dollar homes!

The net result of all this is that the taxpayers of all States, not just the coastal states affected, were, 70 years ago, on the hook for a few millions of Federal dollars spent on this process. Today, the number is in the hundreds of billions! As it turns out, according to Gaul, the cost to U.S. taxpayers to repair hurricane and rain damage to places that are destroyed by these weather phenomena every decade or so (sometimes more) is higher than damage from all other disasters (inland floods, fires, earthquakes) combined and by a big margin.

How this all came to be is much the focus of this book. In the end the answer is politics and economics. Take a barren piece of sand and put a few homes on it. Soon you begin to need services, sewers, roads, traffic control, bridges, banks, and so on. There come to be small towns with mayors, police, fire fighters, contractors (building and repairing homes), bankers, and so on. These are jobs paid for by property taxes. When the properties are destroyed (repeatedly) the tax base disappears and all these jobs are threatened. The solution is always to build back as quickly as possible and to make up for the temporary losses faster, to build more and bigger. As all of this re-construction occurred, the homeowners themselves could afford a smaller and smaller percentage of it all. To save the jobs (and ever larger community tax bases) Federal tax payers assumed a larger percentage of the replacement cost until today, this often comes out to more than 80% of costs to rebuild homes of millionaires and 100% of the ever growing network of roads, flood control projects (which never survive more than one next storm), bridges, sewers, and so on.

Of course all along these decades there were individuals in and out of government who pointed out that this cycle was absurd and would eventually become un-affordable not to mention physically unsustainable as the islands became smaller (erosion) and bays and wetlands were filled in to make yet more homes (and roads), further increase the tax base, and in consequence make it more difficult for high water to drain exacerbating the problem. The solution of course is to stop the building, abandon the islands back to small fishing villages, and let the waters do what they will. But repeatedly re-building small homes and a few services back on line meant jobs and now re-building big homes and greatly expanded services means even more jobs and trying to protect those towns (a hopeless endeavor) is always wasted work (Gaul gets into some of the crazy numbers). But millions of jobs are now invested in the continued functioning of those economies! The cycle goes on!

All of this and I haven’t even mentioned climate change. The economics and politics of this process is the focus of Gaul’s book, but he doesn’t ignore this. The bottom line here is that it would be bad enough to be loading American tax payers more and more economic risk as the economies of these storm-prone places get larger. Even if the storms and sea levels stayed constant the economic burden on the American taxpayer is already onerous and growing. Climate change will only make this worse. Gaul’s focus is the American East and South coasts whose risk grows disproportionately because of its exposure to more frequent, bigger storms and sea level rise. But he is well aware also that interior climate-related disasters, fires and floods, will grow in severity and so cost.

In my blog commentary mentioned above I said that this problem generally, this growth in the cost of disasters, would, in another decade or two, bankrupt the United States. Gaul’s book, though narrowly focused, is an argument for my claim.

Review: The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Zizek

As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.

I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (ocean warming, acidification, other knock-on effects) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (heavy metals, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.

Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything. In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.

Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.

The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.

Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.

Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water! Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.

In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.

Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!

Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.

Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?

The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.

To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.

This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will exhaust us economically long before that. So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.

The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia

Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.

What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!

By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.

The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.

I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.

Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.

There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.

I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!

There remains one more thing to be said. Zizek tells us many times that there is no “right time” for revolution. Revolutions happen when circumstances come together to make the collapse of a present regime possible given the ardor, number, and organization of the revolutionaries. If the regime is strong enough it will not collapse and instead will break the revolution. But with or without a revolution the present day world-order, however anarchic it is, will shortly collapse for economic reasons without anyone having to do anything in particular to bring it about. Perhaps Zizek and I will not live to witness this event, but I wonder, as must he, if the Left will be ready to take advantage of it when it happens?

Having written this commentary I stumbled on this book: “The Geography of Risk” by Gilbert Gaul. My commentary is here with a link to the book putting numbers to my claims above.

Other books I’ve reviewed by Slavoj Zizek

Less Than Nothing

Living in End Times

Trouble in Paradise

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors

[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.

Zizek Courage of Hopelessness

In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.

The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.

Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.

Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!

Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.

No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.