When I watch Hollywood movies, I root for the villains. They’re the only ones trying to change anything. They’re certainly the only ones thinking big enough to change something on the scale of ‘the climate’. We don’t need superheroes to ‘stop’ climate change. We’d need supervillains.
You Don’t Want This
Speaking as someone who has lost fossil fuels for months at a time (in Sri Lanka’s most recent collapse), you don’t actually want the climate cocaine to stop. Like any addict, we might need to quit, but we actually don’t want to. Without fossil fuels, I’ve struggled to go anywhere, to cook food, and daily power supply depended on the weather. During our months long collapse, Sri Lanka’s (already meagre) pollution dropped dramatically and people suffered unimaginably. That’s the scale of sacrifice required to even make a dent in the general collapse, but you don’t have to imagine, do you? You’ve been there too.
All of us suffered through COVID-19. COVID-19 was the gods showing us exactly how much we had to sacrifice to fight the greater threat of everything-collapse. We had to stop flying, stop buying, stop growing, and just cower in fear in our homes. That is the scale of sacrifice the gods want, and what did we do after this display of power? Promptly forgot about it and got back to business as usual. Instead of repenting, we rushed to ‘recover’, which of course has the opposite effect on the planet. People say they want to stop climate collapse but when the chips are down, they really don't. People just want to feel better about themselves and make some token gestures. They want to have their climate cake and eat it too. This isn’t a judgment. Me too. I don’t wanna give up my shit any more than you.
What Is Required
What is actually required to ‘stop’ (ie, meaningfully blunt) climate collapse? Like Soulja Boy, the Club Of Rome told ‘em in 1972. Those systems thinkers and computer geeks ran simulations of different ‘runs’ of civilization and found that we were completely fucked in all of them except one. They called it the ‘stabilized world’ but I call it, more accurately, totalitarian climate communism. What’s needed is not Superman to ‘save’ people but a supervillain to subordinate them to the rest of the world. ‘Someone’ would need to take the dial of human growth and ‘crank that’ down to zero.
As Bonnie Tyler sang:
Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
But as Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Alternately, in the Hindu tradition, Kalki is also supposed to come back on a white horse with a sword. In our deeply adharmic, fallen times we wouldn’t recognize either of these reincarnations as heroes. We like our depraved existence and we’d call them villains.
If you’d like a more scientific explanation of what sages have been telling us forever, just ask Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin talked about the inevitable collapse of any creature that grows exponentially in a finite environment. There’s only three options, and they all lead to shutting that shit down. It’s not as picturesque as a knight with a sword, but we get cut off all the same. As Chuck said:
A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.
What Chuck D is saying is that there are only three options. Either your species will get limited by competition with itself, with other species, or by simply running into physical limits. “Otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product.” You simply cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Math, science, god, gods, get to that awareness however you want. Or just look around. Here we are — multiple doubling cycles later— our greed become so disgusting that even the whole planet can’t support our Gross Domestic Product anymore. And we’re talking about Mars. This shit is irredeemable.
Since we cheated Malthusian death by digging up the tombs of ancient gods (fossil fuels), we’re able to pump up to 10 kcal of energy into every 1 calorie we eat, so our own population isn’t internally limited. Since we managed to club every other competing species to death — including pesky microbes with science — we don’t face competition from other species. This leaves us with option number three. Struggle with ‘the physical conditions of life’, as Darwin said. I call it just hitting a wall.
This is where the title of the Club Of Rome’s 1972 book comes from. It’s called The Limits Of Growth based on the still radical idea that we have limits at all. As I said, they ran multiple computer models to see how we could avert catastrophic crash and only came up with one that worked. They called it the ‘Stabilized World’ model, but let’s be real. ‘Winning’ against climate collapse would require winning against human ambition. This would require not a Hollywood superhero, but an absolute supervillain.
The ‘Stabilized’ Run
This is how the Limits Of Growth bloodlessly describes the ‘stabilized run’:
Value changes include increased emphasis on food and services rather than on industrial production. Births are set equal to deaths and industrial capital investment equivalent to capital depreciation.
What does this mean, practically? None of these things would just happen, nor would market forces assassinate themselves. ‘Someone’ would have to take control of the entire global economy and strictly focus it on basic human needs (ie, rationed food and healthcare). ‘They’ would have to ban all unnecessary products (ie, most of them), impose strict birth control, and ban economic growth entirely.
I put the pronoun in scare quotes here because this solution would be terrifying to almost every single human being, especially privileged westerners. What the Club Of Rome is bloodlessly describing is totalitarian climate communism. Not even Mao could do this, you’d need a Super Mao. You’d need what deeply propagandized people would call a supervillain. That’s what’s required to save the world (from us!) and believe you me, there would be blood.
Just imagine, for a second, what this ‘stabilized run’ would actually look like.
What does ‘value changes’ really mean? Billions of people relentlessly propagandized about ‘growth’ and ‘development’ aren’t going to spontaneously change their minds. You’d need even more relentless counter-propaganda, with a lot of beating and a few examples to make it stick. That is, you’d have to kill people to get them to shut the fuck up about the old regime and go along with the new one. You would need, for lack of a better word, a cultural revolution.
What does ‘emphasis on food and services mean’? It would mean a completely planned economy, with any economic activity strictly balanced against the planet. Centrally planned, if you will. Private profit would have to be treated as planetary cancer and ruthlessly cut out. That would realistically involve executing a lot of capitalists, and repeating the process over and over again, cause the cancer has spread so much.
When the Club Of Rome says ‘industrial capital investment [would be set] equivalent to capital depreciation,’ think about what that means. This would mean a completely planned economy, where ‘someone’ knew exactly how much investment was going into the economy as a whole and how much was depreciating (going out). That ‘someone’ would have to mercilessly slap away any invisible hand that tried to take the wheel to keep us in balance.
Finally, think of what ‘births are set equal to deaths’ actually means. If anyone other than the parents is setting this, it’s obviously an imposition.
All of this would be a huge impingement on human freedom, especially the limited western conception of freedom as ‘the freedom of the worst hypothetical person to do whatever the fuck they want’. There would undoubtably be wide resistance to any such climate communism, especially among the upper classes who would have the most to lose. As John Lennon said, this is all easy enough to imagine, but it’s impossible to do. Without superhuman will and force, it would be impossible to do on the timescale involved. Because it also involves time travel.
Given enough time, human societies do change. Values do change, dramatically. The idea of infinite growth is actually a historical anomaly, a weird brain fart of the last 400 years which is now reached toxic proportions. Many societies did live in relative balance with their environments and they had complex belief (ie, value) systems that enabled them to do so. It is possible to do this without killing people and turning over tables. One doesn’t necessarily need a supervillain to change things. Ordinary people, over generations, can do superlative things on their own. The problem, however, is that we don’t have any time left at all.
At the time the Club Of Rome ran their simulation, they posited that all the value changes (and a significant amount of technical magic) would start in the 1975. Industrial (ie capital) degrowth would be slowly phased in until it stopped in 1990. All of these dates, you’ll note, are in the past. When they ran the simulation with a later starting date, it didn’t work. If you start climate communism in 2000 everything crashes. Starting it in 2023 is even more pointless. The crash has already begun. Ergo, our supervillain would need to be a time traveler too. While this might make for a good movie, it just ain’t gonna work out.
Back To The Movies
Time travelling climate warriors is, indeed, the rough plot of Christopher Nolan’s TENET. And they are, of course, the villains. In that film, the future is trying to rewind time because their climate collapsed. They’re just trying to restart the universe cause we fucked up so bad. The hero of Nolan’s film (a CIA agent, also of course) violently stops them. The climax of the film is some billionaire white lady picking up her kid from private school. All is right with the world. The problem of the whole climate collapsing in the future is never addressed . You just get a heavily militarized response to make the future shut the fuck up about it. TENET is a true metaphor for western culture’s response to climate collapse, which is violently delusional.
In the same way, Marvel’s Avengers series culminates with Thanos imposing brutal population controls (I would have him getting rid of the richest 10% rather than a random 50%, but whatever). Thanos is, of course, eliminated for his troubles. This is the general plot of almost all superhero films and TV. A villain threatens the status quo and must be violently punched to death. You may notice that superheroes never do much to change the world, they just stop villains from doing so. They often work for/with shadowy intelligence agencies or the US government, ie the actual villains in the real world. The superhero mythos is propaganda so deep as to be unconscious, but once you see it you can’t unsee it. Which is why I root for the villains now.
The Terrible Scale Required
The scale of change required to fight our future problems would be positively villainous to the present. The power required to do so would be superhuman. So if you’re seriously asking how we stop climate collapse, then that’s the answer. We don’t need a superhero, we need a supervillain. We need a time-travelling Super Mao that travels back in time, imposes totalitarian climate communism, and beats the shit out of anyone that complains about it. That’s simply the only way to get big changes in such a little time. You’d need climate dictatorship, not this dithering bullshit we’re doing now.
None of this is happening, nor is time unraveling, so we end up with something worse. Our descendants are simply going to get hit over the head with actual superpowers, ie the actual climate falling down. Rather than a controlled demolition of this civilization by a supervillain, we’ll get uncontrolled demolition by vacant geological forces, which is worse. At that point, they’ll wish for a supervillain (and curse their grandparents).
As they say, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. The climate — unlike climate communism — is indifferent to our suffering. And that will make its judgement, which is upon us, so much worse than the worst supervillain we could imagine. But hell, it’ll be worse for future people, who are as fundamentally distant as the past. So enjoy your time in the climate-controlled movie theater, while it lasts.