Last week I watched a classic science-fiction movie called Soylent Green. Released in 1973, it was a good reminder that concern about what we now call “climate change” is nothing new. Scientists back then just used the term “greenhouse effect,” and while the science was reasonably well understood, the consequences were not as clear. Atmospheric CO2 was “only” 325 ppm, below the 350 ppm that is thought to be a “safe” level and well below today’s 395 ppm, and the world wasn’t experiencing its hottest year in recorded history, as it is in 2014.
In the film, set in 2022 (50 years in the future when it was filmed!), climate change, combined with pollution and overpopulation, has produced a dystopian world, with poor people sleeping on the streets, and food in short supply thanks to the climate. Meanwhile a handful of rich people live in luxury, able to obtain food items (like meat and strawberry jam) that the rest can only dream about. The details and degree may vary, but it’s not hard to recognize our own world on the screen.
To make up for the shortage of “real” food, most food is produced from a combination of soy and lentil called “soylent.” Most prized, both for taste and for its protein content, is the variety produced from plankton in the oceans, called Soylent Green. But, thanks to climate change, the plankton are experiencing a mass die-off, and the giant Soylent corporation has had to find a substitute source. If you have heard the film’s closing, and most famous line, you’ll know what it is: “Soylent Green is people!”
We’re not there yet, obviously, and we don’t eat plankton directly (yet, anyway). But in the last decade, very real declines in plankton populations have resulted in large-scale starvation of seabirds including murres and auklets, and, more relevant to human diet, stocks of cod and other seafood have experienced steep declines. Just this week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closed the cod fishery in parts of the Gulf of Maine for six months in an attempt to forestall even greater disaster. If you go to Google News and type in “fish stock decline”, the first five articles to appear describe severe declines in fish stocks in Japan, the Irish Sea, Burma, the Mediterranean, and Fiji. The problem is worldwide.
It’s tempting to think that, with fish populations in the millions, extinction isn’t possible. That’s where part two of the story comes in. Last night I attended a talk by the author of a book entitled “A Feathered River Across the Sky – The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” The Passenger Pigeon is thought to have been the most populous vertebrate species ever to live on the earth, numbering in the billions. Mass flights of the birds, whose territory was the entire Eastern half of the United States, would go on for several days, and were so dense they would blot out the sun and cause temperatures to drop. In 1860 populations were estimated at five billion birds. But just 40 years later, the last bird living in the wild was shot (as were most of the five billion), and the last Passenger Pigeon in captivity died in 1914, 100 years ago this year (hence the timing of the book). It’s the largest known mass extinction of any species, and it took only four decades.
The precipitous decline of the Passenger Pigeon had a variety of causes, but at bottom it was a classic case of what is called the Tragedy of the Commons, a phenomenon which is intrinsically bound up with one economic system – capitalism. Each individual, or each corporation, maximizes their own use of a common resource (like pigeons) and their own profit, without regard to the potential long-term jeopardy their actions place on the entire system. In the case of the Passenger Pigeon, for example, even after numbers were clearly dwindling, each group of hunters decided they had better shoot as many as they could before another group did the same.
Capitalism is capable of some self-regulation. The experience of the Passenger Pigeon led directly to the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, and ultimately to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. But gains like those are ephemeral, with corporations always pushing back against restrictions imposed by government agencies like NOAA or the EPA, and corporate-backed legislators trying to repeal or weaken the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the environment on a regular basis.
Only a social system where resources are managed for the good of all can ultimately be relied on to prevent what happened to the Passenger Pigeon, and what is happening to cod right now. Only that same system – socialism – can be relied on to ensure that the resources that are available are available to all people, and are not just luxuries for the wealthy (and don’t disappear entirely). It’s no accident that Cuba, with its dedication to building just such a socialist society, is the only country in the world which is ranked by the U.N. “sustainable” in its ecological footprint while simultaneously being ranked “high” on the “human development index.” Working for a sustainable world, once perhaps an option, is now an absolute requirement. Socialists used to talk about the alternatives as “socialism or barbarism.” Increasingly, it’s “socialism or extinction.”