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‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention

‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention thumbnail

“We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”

Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his “last will and testament”. His last intervention in public life. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.

From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers’ conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways – only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses – finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged society’s pursuit of economic growth.

When we meet at his converted coach house in London, his classic Dawes racer still parked hopefully in the hallway (a stroke and a triple heart bypass mean he is – currently – forbidden from cycling), Hillman is anxious we are not side-tracked by his best-known research, which challenged the supremacy of the car.

“With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant,” he says. “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

While the focus of Hillman’s thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one – most significantly, children – decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace – such as 20mph speed limits – but we’ve failed to curb the car’s crushing of children’s liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it’s virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children – and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy £20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.

Our society’s failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillman’s view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as “an opinion”. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warm by 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.

Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car.
Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car. Photograph: Lenscap / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100. “This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to climate change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical.”

Global emissions were static in 2016 but the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was confirmed as beyond 400 parts per million, the highest level for at least three million years (when sea levels were up to 20m higher than now). Concentrations can only drop if we emit no carbon dioxide whatsoever, says Hillman. “Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return.”

Although Hillman has not flown for more than 20 years as part of a personal commitment to reducing carbon emissions, he is now scornful of individual action which he describes as “as good as futile”. By the same logic, says Hillman, national action is also irrelevant “because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero carbon it would make almost no difference.”

Instead, says Hillman, the world’s population must globally move to zero emissions across agriculture, air travel, shipping, heating homes – every aspect of our economy – and reduce our human population too. Can it be done without a collapse of civilisation? “I don’t think so,” says Hillman. “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Hillman doubts that human ingenuity can find a fix and says there is no evidence that greenhouse gases can be safely buried. But if we adapt to a future with less – focusing on Hillman’s love and music – it might be good for us. “And who is ‘we’?” asks Hillman with a typically impish smile. “Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown.”

A small band of artists and writers, such as Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain project, have embraced the idea that “civilisation” will soon end in environmental catastrophe but only a few scientists – usually working beyond the patronage of funding bodies, and nearing the end of their own lives – have suggested as much. Is Hillman’s view a consequence of old age, and ill health? “I was saying these sorts of things 30 years ago when I was hale and hearty,” he says.

Hillman accuses all kinds of leaders – from religious leaders to scientists to politicians – of failing to honestly discuss what we must do to move to zero-carbon emissions. “I don’t think they can because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels.”

Without hope, goes the truism, we will give up. And yet optimism about the future is wishful thinking, says Hillman. He believes that accepting that our civilisation is doomed could make humanity rather like an individual who recognises he is terminally ill. Such people rarely go on a disastrous binge; instead, they do all they can to prolong their lives.

Can civilisation prolong its life until the end of this century? “It depends on what we are prepared to do.” He fears it will be a long time before we take proportionate action to stop climatic calamity. “Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”



110 Comments on "‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention"

  1. Davy on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 6:02 am 

    “How stupid, there is no evidence that the average temp of the earth has deviated more than a few degrees plus or minus in hundreds of years. “ No shit Sherlock, but it has deviated much further in the past due to abrupt climate change found in tree ring analysis. The changes are even more extreme in the paleoclimate records of Ice cores. The evidence is huge that carbon levels as they are now with ocean temps heading the way they are that temps will follow dramatically. What we have is the lead lag thing that occurs with planetary phase change. We have oceans saving our asses currently but just about now ready for the payback.

    “That’s why they changed the outcry from global warming to climate change. Yes climate changes, get used to it!!!” Well, I have not called it global warming in years. I have been following climate change since college in 85 when I took classes on ecology, metrology, and geology. Ecology was just starting to be an issue on the radar screen. CO2, pollution, water issues, and soil erosion were becoming better understood in relation to our modern civilization. This is how long I have been following peak oil and climate change. I have been dooming since 2000. So I have been following these topics daily for 18 years.

    The key for us industrial humans is climate instability. It is going to play havoc on the industrial food system and our coastal economics. Much of the world’s economic zones of productive activity lies within a few hundred miles of the ocean. Coast storms and rising sea levels will cost significant dollars. Droughts and floods will increase which are never good for economics. The continental interior is where much of the grain belts in the world are and this is where floods and droughts will take their toll along with high heat. Rain makes grain we say here in the Missouri which is true until a sun scorching summer rolls around.

    The real issues with climate change is instability and even more the rate of the increase in instability. This is what matter to us here and now discussing this topic. For the kids it is a different story because the cumulative effects of 30 years of increasing instability from today will likely be profound. It is likely over that period that the crossing of dangerous systematic boundaries will have been crossed. What is even more significant is these boundaries are not only climate related. There are multiple other boundaries that will likely be broken in the next two decades. We here probably have a decade or two of normal before the dangerous stuff hits that makes what we have now unsustainable. We old men can watch this play out but it is the younger ones that will be living it out. This is of course just my opinion because there is so many unknowns that play out over decades. We may kill our civilization in war in 5 years which changes these dynamics.

    What I am pointing to is the normal we are living now has a shelf life in my opinion for a variety of reason and especially because of climate change. The techno optimist and fake greens seem to think renewables and technology will save the day. I will tell them technology and the blind pursuit of efficiency without regards to diminishing returns and the disregard for the wisdom of less will be slapping them in the face in just a few years. At some point more people and more consumption does not work. The problem with technology and overpopulation is slowing it or turning it back. With population what do you do kill people off? We are talking a generation of 200MIL deaths over births on average to get down to 1BIL again. 1BIL is an ideal population level in my opinion especially considering planetary and resource decline. Technology advancements cut the cords of pervious ways of life lost in the advancement. When technology fails we no longer have a plan B of previous ways of life pre complexity and high energy living.

    If we can keep from killing ourselves in wars we may have a decade or two. Our kids have little future based upon what we have now. This is why we should be teaching different knowledge to this generation. I am talking the 20 something and under. They will be the leadership in 30 years.

  2. onlooker on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 6:25 am 

    I see we are being infested by climate deniers. Steve, the entire planet has been breaking high temps on a regular basis for the last decade. And the Arctic has shown phenemonal warming over the past decade. Duh.
    And Jess stop skewing the numbers. CO2 concentrations are the highest they have been over millions of years. No truncated graphs can distort that

  3. MASTERMIND on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 6:35 am 

    Tesla Doesn’t Burn Fuel,It Burns Cash

  4. onlooker on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 6:42 am 

    haha sounds like the Shale/fracking a losing economic proposition from day 1

  5. Don Judice on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 8:44 am 

    we can fix the problem but i need help with solving issues contact me at

  6. Boat on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 11:00 am 


    It took you 5 years for that post to develope. I admire your ability to modify your stance. I still think a longer time frame will unroll before 200 million deaths above birth rated is recorded but agree climate instability will intensify significantly over the next 20 years.
    Tech optimists and fake greens. Who are they and do you know any. Many times renewables/the electric economy/tech and efficiency have been presented as a many decade proposition. How is that fake. It’s a trend. It will happen at the speed as these trends become CHEAPER than their competing FF. That’s capitalism at work not optimism.
    In the end greener trends won’t save billions of humans but will be a better energy system for those who do live and work.
    Nobody knows how the upcoming 100 years will unfold but there is no guarantee of total collaspe. I would want my family to be surrounded by the latest in tech and efficiency if they were to make it.

  7. MASTERMIND on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 11:20 am 

    Oil Hedge Fund Manager Says $300 Oil ‘Not Impossible’

    300 oil would create 10 gallon gasoline…….(Shoots himself)

  8. fmr-paultard on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 11:36 am 

    this dude seems like a hermit or a caveman lost in the modern world, i mean look at him!
    yes i admit the guy is the stuff women want and i said i don’t score.

    but the system pluck these guys out of their hiding rock and promote them. it’s a funny or sick game depends on how you look at it.

    they used to promote emerson, thoreau, etc.

  9. Boat on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 12:25 pm 


    Peer reviewed study says water in the ocean will rise 1′ by 2050. A number we can live with.

  10. Kenneth Hranicky on Mon, 30th Apr 2018 2:01 pm 

    I totally understand where the good professor is coming from. Our ‘civilization’ is not formed or equipped to respond to this issue. I honestly think that the aliens responsible for advancing our species is in a LOT OF TROUBLE. Their ‘experiment’ has gone awry and is destroying all life on the planet. In other words, you can blame it on anything you want now. It IS going to be interesting to see how culture adapts to the understanding that humanity is doomed. Are rich people REALLY that safe? I’m old and don’t have kids. Thank my god(s). As for the rest of you. Sorry. This guy here tried to warn but we needed our stuff 🙂

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