A new hard-hitting documentary draws parallels between the climate crisis and worldwide social unrest.
Jared P. Scott.
Could modern civilization break down? Yes, of course it could. Those who reject such a claim, deeming it ‘alarmist, ought to watch The Age of Consequences.
Let us start on August 23rd, 2005 as New Orleans is hit by Hurricane Katrina. The ensuing flood led to chaos, threatening both safety precautions and society’s ability to regulate itself. What would have happened if several US cities had been hit simultaneously? Could things have spiralled completely out of control, whereby state and civil authorities would have lost their stabilising powers? When such questions are asked, it is easy to assume that they are being posed by environmentalists and green politicians. This time however, the worrying messages arrive from unexpected corners, making it something more urgent to listen to.
Unstable nature. Many assume that the degree of wealth and societal stability is dependent on oil profits, military systems etc – but such thinking only scratches the surface. Society’s long term stability is far more decisive, anchored in state organisations, democratic politics and well-functioning societal and economic structures. However, these factors however are dependent on something much more profound: the stability of nature. This stability is necessary in order for the establishment and long-term existence of sustainable societies. This also holds true for humankind as a whole. During the course of 12,000 years, we have developed outside the framework of a balanced and thus predictable natural habitat.
«There are indications that this state has passed, and that the consequences will grow in strength in the years to come.»
Although Carl I. Hagen pretends otherwise, the climate debate moved a long time ago from questioning whether climate changes are real to more practical questions on the risks we are facing – plus how and with which measures we are able to carry out green change. This is the area where The Age of Consequences posits itself, providing a voice for players other than the ones we normally hear. Testimony and interviews with US military personnel create an important backdrop for the story that unfolds on the screen.
We mentioned New Orleans. Syria is a far more serious example. The focus of political debate has been whether to blame Assad or the rebels, Russia or the USA for all that has gone wrong. The documentary adds the important element of Syria being struck by an extreme, three-year drought in the summer of 2006. In the countryside, people lost their livelihoods, 1.5 million Syrians then quickly moved into the cities. The consequences were unemployment, homelessness and poverty. These overturned societal mechanisms, created both unrest and became a basis for IS recruitment. Syria undoubtedly had some pre-existing problems, precisely the reason why the drought accelerated the situation towards war and the refugee crisis which followed.
«Drought and loss of water resources led to instability, war and humanitarian catastrophes.»
A chain of events spread this wider instability to an increasing number of countries. The more powerful this unrest is, the greater is the risk of an authoritarian response: rather than seeking solutions for all people, you build walls and strive for the nation to be self-sufficient. The interviewees in The Age of Consequences clearly feel that such a reaction will only exacerbate matters.
The film also shines a light on other examples, such as the acute crisis that took place in Egypt in 2010. This crisis is traced back to the Russian drought which led to the deterioration of its national grain production. This had consequences for countries, like Egypt, that relied on the import of wheat. In this manner, a drought created by the climate in one country, can lead to acute lack of bread in another. In a globalised world, these factors are closely linked, and when things go wrong, the disadvantaged will frequently suffer the most. The situation in Egypt created social unrest which accelerated in scale and threatened the societal and state structures.
Further south, the tropical Sahel-belt stretches across the African continent. In large parts of this mostly arid area, drought and loss of water resources have led to war, humanitarian crises and accompanying streams of refugees. An enormous disaster for the residents of the area, but the consequences could also be great for the world as a whole. Another apt illustration of this is the melting glaciers of the Himalayas, which, as of 2017, provides water for one billion people. If this glacial melting continues, the fight for water will escalate in areas where many of the countries losing their most vital resource are nuclear powers.
These examples show how life everywhere from small towns to international areas, are keenly dependent on their natural environment. If climate changes effects continue, the distance from a functioning society to a breakdown of civilisation could be worryingly short. Despite this, habitual thinking makes it hard to adjust course: our lives are so rooted in the use of fossil resources that even strong warning signals are unable to make us change course. We have heard these dire warnings before. But when they originate from retired officers and others connected to the US military and security apparatus, it is harder to shrug them off and pretend nothing is wrong. Many explain that their involvement is about American safety: it is in the national interest to contribute to global stability by securing a continually stable climate. These ideas may trigger scepticism in temper ethics, while those of a more pragmatic disposition will feel that the important thing is that something is being done, regardless of motive.
«Stable nature is a necessary condition for the existence of a sustainable society.»
The Age of Consequences is a film people should see – especially those who want a green shift but only if it does not cost them anything. The film explains that such forms of inaction are in themselves action – with potentially serious consequences.