A contributed article.

The Mess We're In.

by Dr. Dorian Lewis Felix Cavé*, Associate Researcher at the Weizenbaum Institut.

It's hard to deny that humanity is engulfed in a period of existential challenges unparalleled in history.

Sure, you could point at that other time, about 70,000 to 80,000 years ago, when the supervolcanic eruption at what is now Lake Toba in Sumatra might have only left between 1,000 and 10,000 humans on earth. Things were hairy enough. But there was a major difference: back then, our species had to deal with unfavourable circumstances (it was really cold) that it hadn't caused itself. It's one thing to adapt to the vagaries of nature because you're just in the wrong place at the wrong geological era; it's another if you and your fellow H. sapiens are causing, by just going about your daily business, the possible death of everybody (including many non-human species). In the second case, surviving as a species isn't about triumphing over a hostile environment: it's about self-transcendence.

But we don't really seem on track to achieve this. Quite the opposite: scientists say that modern humans are causing an age of environmental breakdown and biological annihilation to unfold. This includes things like:

  • global heating: the planet could reach +1.5°C degrees of warming by 2027 compared to the start of the industrial era, and possibly 6°C to 7°C degrees by the end of the century. Five dangerous climate tipping points (out of 16 identified) may already have been passed due to global heating. Ultimately, these tipping points may lead to crossing a global tipping point, which would put the planet on a truly catastrophic 'Hothouse Earth' trajectory. Just 2°C of global warming could expose up to one quarter of the human population to land aridification, making agriculture very nearly impossible.
  • mass extinctions: up to 58,000 species are believed to be lost each year; vertebrate populations declined by 69 per cent between 1970 and 2022. And of one million species that are facing extinction in the coming decades, half of them are insects - which play a critical role in ecosystems and in human food production.

  • oceanic acidification: oceans have acidified by +26% since the beginning of the industrial revolution; this figure could rise up to +170% by 2100, which would be more acidic than any time in the last 14 million years.

  • deforestation and topsoil losses: there are -50% fewer trees worldwide since the dawn of the agricultural revolution, and over 75% of Earth's land is now substantially degraded)...
    ... The list goes on.

Crucially, while these catastrophic impacts are global, as a rule, they affect first and foremost the most vulnerable human populations (not to mention other-than-humans), whose footprint on the earth is the lightest. For example, of the 2 million people who died from weather, climate and water-related disasters between 1970 and 2019, over 91% of these deaths occurred in countries of the Global South. And according to the IPCC, by the end of this century, extreme heat and humidity could expose 50 to 75% of the global population to "life-threatening climatic conditions."

Facing this global predicament is not made any easier by widespread systemic social and political failures, such as the economic growth imperative: modern economies are incapable of functioning without continued economic growth (this leads to recessions and mass unemployment, among other niceties) - and yet, sustaining economic growth requires a never-ending exploitation of land, living beings, minerals, and humans, just to keep the machine humming.

But we could also mention entrenched fossil fuels dependence; rising inequalities; failing democratic processes; or the ongoing colonial plunder and exploitation of the Global South by high-income countries, which continue to drain resources and to enrich themselves through "imperial forms of appropriation," in a bid to sustain their high levels of income and consumption.

As a result of these trends, scientists - including in UN agencies - are starting to explore the possibility of cascading global climate failure, and localised or global forms of societal collapse. This may lead to catastrophic declines in human population over the coming decades, and even compromise the survival of the human species.

What to do?

Tons of books and reports and academic papers have been published on those issues, for decades. Millions of scientists and university students are studying them. So why are we letting all of this happen?! It's not like we don't know!

In fact, hundreds of thousands of organisations, associations, and social movements have also sprung up around the world, in reaction to this situation. And there are countless films, documentaries and websites on these topics out there, too.

But learning about these initiatives, or participating in some of them myself, I kept wondering: Could these ideas and grassroots actions be brought together, to form a more cohesive and impactful global movement? If so, how?

Confusedly, I felt that answering this question would require working on two critical areas of change:

1. Education and consciousness-raising: Many signs point at the lack of awareness, downplaying, or avoidance of these issues among the "general public." Maybe if more people truly came to realise what is happening, in a deeper and more emotionally relevant way, public mobilisation on the scale we need would be easier to launch? This would of course require that we overcome the feeling of powerlessness that comes from the magnitude of these issues.

2. Means of connected mobilisation: Online social networks have become a central feature of our lives. These tools have been hailed by some as central to the development of new popular and democratic movements. But where are the social networks specially dedicated to federating all the grassroots efforts taking place? Why is the crucial information drowned among GAFA-engineered ads and fake news? Can't we do better than hand over our brain-time and revolutionary spirit to our Silicon Valley Big Brothers?!

I decided to set out to bring these two elements together, and explore how online networks can enable radical collective change through social learning.

*Dorian Cavé received his Bachelor's and Masters degrees at the Paris Institute of Political Science (Sciences-po), where he majored in International Relations and specialised in Sustainable Development. He more recently obtained his PhD degree in Educational Studies and Sociology from Lancaster University in December 2023. His domains of expertise are social and informal learning, as related to online networks and communities, and social movements; as well as decolonial studies and emancipatory social theory and struggles.

Simultaneously, he is developing his skills as a facilitator of self-organised groups, and experiments with various practices of mutual and social learning within such processes, to facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence.

Language Translation