The End Of The World As We Know It (and I feel fine)

In my head I play out a narrative of salvation from the climate crisis: it’s like we are at the point in the movie when the heroes are incarcerated, the villains are running amok, and hope seems lost. Our job is to write the rest of the story, the arc that leaves us with a happy ending of a sustainable and equitable world. The window may be closing but it is still open, and if we all get it together and quick we can save human civilization from doom.

Because it is so deeply interwoven with my work, that narrative has been stressing me out due to the dissonance between what the science deems necessary and what the politics deems possible. So maybe it is time to challenge the underlying assumption that there is still time to run out and get a popcorn refill before the heroes save the day. What if our story, the human story, is a tragedy not an action adventure? Could a tragic outcome be already foretold, written in parts per million of carbon dioxide that have set in motion events beyond our control? So even if we were to get a global consensus on climate action this year, the death spiral may already be slowly but inevitably unfurling.

I’m indulging my gloom here, and like that band of rebels down on the forest moon maybe we’ll figure something out in the nick of time. But we cannot ignore the reasonable probability that we are deep in denial. The latest outcomes (temperature, sea ice, glaciers, drought, freak weather) paint a more devastating portrait than our most pessimistic scenarios a decade ago. Already, it is becoming clear in some parts of the world that the climate people live in is not necessarily the one they thought they had, nor the one their infrastructure was built to accommodate. One day you are going to work in downtown Brisbane, the next day that downtown is underwater. One night its Mardi Gras, the next the Day of the Dead.

We are pretty much locked in for a 2 degree warmer world, and if that is indeed the threshold for runaway climate change, it is just a matter of how long it takes to play out humanity’s final chapter. Somewhere between 50 and 200 years seems to be the ballpark. I’ve been publicly censoring myself around these dark thoughts, tempted by the keyboard to blog, then pulling back. I’d rather communicate a message of optimism, not be Dr Doom, but the science is indeed grim.

Bill Rees says we humans, like any species, are hardwired to grow to consume all available resources and take up all available space. The difference is that we have a capacity for assessing our situation intelligently, and planning to change that future. I’m still working on change primarily through a mitigation (GHG-reducing) lens, but I see the next level being a more concerted effort to think about the implications of adaptation, what resilience really means, and what our responsibility is to those fleeing disaster that head for our shores, or who never make it in the first place.

I certainly prefer a story that major climate disruptions catalyze the political will to effect major changes in how we live, work and play. And that story is worth fighting for. But in the meantime, perhaps the Queensland flood, summer droughts, and Canadian winters in Europe are the new normal, part of a growing feed of weather porn the lucky ones will get to watch in real time online. Even if global action happens in the years to come, the story is steadily shifting from if to when. No one really knows for sure, but all fingers point to a planet increasingly less habitable for 7 billion.

Accepting the inevitability of death may be the crux of how we should respond to dismal futures. Like our own bodies, we can live well and have a long life or live fast and die young, but there is no denying the bottom line of mortality. So it may be for human civilization. Faced with that, denial is to be expected; others will pray for The Rapture to save the righteous souls (hope you chose the right religion). Still another path is to rock the party even harder; it’s better to burn out than to fade away, as the song goes.

Alternatively, and paradoxically, perhaps acknowledging the possibility of apocalypse could come as a relief, a catharsis that instead asks us how we live the Good Life in the here and now by building community and serving others. We are all going to die eventually, but how are we going to live?

Another part of this is getting over our anthropocentrism, our tendency to think that we are the world and it is all about us. The World Without Us describes a thought experiment about what would happen to Earth if one day the humans were gone. The answer: life invariably recovers. Yes, we may take ourselves and many other animals and plant species with us. But the crisis is about saving the humans not saving the planet. As it has for millions of years before we stepped onto the stage, life will go on.

I can make spiritual peace with that. We can still strive for a life worth living, to discover, to connect, even if death always wins. Does that make the music any less sweet, the view from the mountaintop less ecstatic? In fact, it is in the moments of proximity to death – a near-miss, the loss of a loved one – that we realize how precious life is. Accepting the end of human civilization may make us reshape that civilization in a way that celebrates life rather than exploiting it.

We still have to write that final chapter. How we live it out will test the best parts of what it means to be human. Can we still build that New Jerusalem even if we know it will one day fall, or it is like Stephen King’s Under The Dome, where uncertainty and fear provide the fuel for fascism? Can we instead adapt and preserve our best values; to resist nihilistic impulses; to live, really live, with grace and style; to enjoy the party without trashing the house. It is our story to write.

10 comments

  • Unfortunately I think your necessarianism (which verges on Scientism) is just as problematic as the current wave of political technocratic limitation. Science is, and always has been as much absorbed in ideology as any part of human endeavour, and like church fathers of the middle-ages they imagine they are beyond its grasp. People will not (and perhaps should not) do something because a class of scientists tells them it is ‘necessary.’ They should do things that are ethically correct, and necessarianism never seems to be a primary motivating factor in mass behavour. I don’t mean any of this in a disrespectful way, you obviously are sincere in what you say. But I think for meaningful change to happen we have to get beyond scientism as much as the traditional political paradigm. I think this is real meaning of the work of Paul Feyerabend, the great philosopher of science who was a mathematician and taught at Berkley.

  • OK, I think Kirbycairo’s position is . . . not nonsense, exactly, but a result of postmodernists seizing on some genuine issues and running with them until they utterly lose touch with reality. Science has some ideologies involved, and that does have some impact on the work done, but by and large that doesn’t actually stop it from successfully describing the world as it is. And I have no idea what he thinks he means by “necessarianism”. The world is real, and physical phenomena one describes in it are either happening or not. Global warming is happening.

    On the other hand, I think this article doesn’t remotely follow from that. Sure, the globe is (on average) warming, the climate is changing, and people who say “Oh, that’s all right, bad effects and good will be a wash” are fooling themselves. So yes, bad stuff is going to happen and lots of people are going to die; there will be war, famine, pestilence and death.
    That doesn’t mean that the species will go extinct or even that technological civilization will disappear. There just won’t be as many of us. Look–humans have demonstrated their ability to survive in almost every climatic region of the globe. Before the industrial revolution ever came there were humans in the Sahara, humans in the Arctic, humans in the mountains, on the plains and on the islands. Nobody self-supporting in Antarctica, I believe nobody in the middle of the Gobi desert and one or two other very arid places, but that’s about it. If the climate changes, there will be a few new places people don’t go–new extreme deserts. And there will be a lot of places where people are sparser.

    But that’s all. Ecologically speaking, species don’t disappear unless they can’t handle the climate, there’s no niche for them or something comes along that can beat them in that niche. Well, humans can handle every climate, we’re the top predator, there’s always a “top predator” position, and nothing that lives is capable of beating us out of that position. We’re not going away just because we fucked up, no matter whether we deserve to or not. We’re actually exactly the kind of species that generally does pretty well in these disasters–opportunistic and unspecialized, like coyotes and raccoons and crows (critters that have adapted very well to the ecological disaster of urbanization).

    There will be mass extinctions, and that will reduce the size and richness of the ecosystem, and we in turn will be diminished in numbers from that. But there have been mass extinctions before. Some stuff always survives. And species humans use for agriculture will survive pretty well because we will make sure they do, and because we can shift what regions we plant which crops in as fast as the climate can shift, something many natural species may not manage.

    The reality of global warming is a scientific fact. The idea that we may not stop or reduce it and runaway warming will take place, and along with all the other massive stresses we put on the world this will cause huge ecological catastrophe and mass extinctions is very plausible, indeed quite likely. The leap from “We’re not gonna manage to stop runaway global warming” to “we’re all gonna die and the species will go extinct” is utterly unwarranted–there is no science behind it that I can see.

  • Interesting discussion. We have evolved to the point where we have the science to tell us what we are doing wrong, and the technology to change our ways. The big question seems to be have we evolved to the point that we have the motivation to do what is ethically correct? Are the strongest of us willing to sacrifice to help the weakest?

  • There’s an awful lot of religious language in this post for someone who has no use for a real God, if I’m not mistaken. And no offense intended.

    I don’t think Marc Lee is looking for a public discussion of these, his very personal, thoughts. But I can appreciate his urge to overcome an internal censor that he feels is out of bounds. Why can’t he say what he thinks?, even if it’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t get said, normally.

    The liveable earth has been taken out by lunatics – sort of. However, This isn’t a Hollywood drama and it’s not about the thrilling last minute saving of the liveable earth by whatever.

    Bear with me. You either believe there is a God or you don’t. I have zero desire to bug people who disbelieve and zero desire to bug disbelievers until they believe. I tend to care about those who care anyway. These days, I’m having a hard time caring, period.

    Since the subject’s up; God isn’t confused. He knows what he wants, what’s he’s done and what he’s doing. Project earth was not mankind’s project. Makind was the project. We can’t thwart God’s will. We can’t kill his project. We can only decide whether we want to be a part of his family or not. And then, even when we decide that we’d like to remain in the planetary home he created for us, there’s a bit of work involved (especially under the circumstances) in being approved for that. You can be a good person who wants to be approved for life (‘in’ the ‘new earth’, which is this one, rebuilt, with some assistance, which we’ll need) but if you do the things you know you shouldn’t do (because you’ve been educated), namely things that will make you disapproved for citizenship ‘under’ the New Jerusalem (which means ‘government’, which not all of God’s people will be in), then you may not get what you want. That could be me with some of my bad habits, for sure. Hopefully it isn’t.

    People have to be free to believe ‘the way’ they want to believe so that they can be judged. If they have to be free to believe the way that they want, then, to a great extent, they have to be free to ‘act’ the way they want to act. The two go together and that goes a long way toward explaining why things are such a mess on this dying planet.

    “Further, God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28)

    “”For the thoughts of you people are not my thoughts, nor are my ways your ways,” is the utterance of Jehovah… For just as the pouring rain descends, and the snow, from the heavens and does not return to that place unless it actually saturates the earth and makes it produce and sprout, and seed is actually given to the sower and bread to the eater, so my word that goes forth from my mouth will prove to be. It will not return to me without results, but it will certainly do that in which I have delighted and it will have certain success in that for which I have sent it.”” -Isaiah 55:10,11

    “So that is why God lets an operation of error go to them, that they may get to believing the lie in order that they all may be judged because they did not believe the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:11,12

    *I place the scripture in parentheses when I only partially quote it.

  • I do think Marc hase it about right, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock being the science, post modern debates or modernists critiques of science aside, any idiot can figure out that given the massive shock of carbon dioxide, we are in for a troubled paradise.

    The hard place is the cultural capacity to do much oconstructively about the dire straits. It will have to get wor for anything to get done on A requisite scale. Once those huge streams of profits are jeopardized, then and only then will we see action.

    Somehow we must inject the destructive effects which are seemingly externalities, deep inside the profit machinery.

    It is that last act that I think Marc is referring to rather than those mention above.

    I also think that the planet may actually be a little more robust in terms of life supporting captivity than what we have been led to believe. The window is not closed yet, but time for action was 50 years ago.

    This next oil shock may be just what we need to get us over the oil dependency hump. Sadly it will starve many people to get us there, as food costs will be effected until we make the transition a lot smoother, price shocks are the only way markets can deal with such.

    Pt

    One critiq

  • I don’t here much talk at work about the terrible disaster in Brazil, Australia or Colombia/Venezuela. Why? Because we know our Western, individualistic, consumer life style is to blame but we are so caught up in the latest deal on Ipods and sharing gossip and picks on Facebook that we cannot bear to confront reality. So instead we tell ourselves comforting things like, “it will be great to have less snow” and “Canada will be one of the few countries to come out of this better off” blah, blah.
    I realize this is not deep thinking – just pointing out the obvious.
    But the fact that so few of our friends, neighbours and family are willing to deal with the facts should not prevent us from embracing what Marc Lee suggests – let us start living like “socialists” now – living simple, caring lives, in solidarity and cooperation.

  • The world is heating up because of the carbon gases industrialization has pumped into the atmosphere.

    Crops are going to fail. Coastal areas will be flooded.

    Our current political-economic regime is incapable of even acknowledging this reality, let alone dealing with it.

    In fact, the response of the leaders of the world so far has been to double-down on their suicidal behaviour.

    We need a revolution.

  • Under current circumstances, optimism re outcomes does indeed seem facile.

  • We humans always find a way to escape our own idiosyncrasies — such as putting the focus on the planet. This planet has been around for billions of years so I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.
    It is us who we need to worry about — we need to look at ourselves and re-evaluate our conducts and behaviours.

    I too feel fine.

  • Well, thanks, Purple Library Guy for suggesting that, while I am not spouting nonsense, I have “totally lost touch with reality.” This argument is too long to have here but suffice to say I believe you are not only wrong but dangerously so. And there is no need to simply invoke “postmodernism” etc for this postion though I have enjoyed seeing a number of remarkable ‘postmodern’ philosophers debate these kinds of issue including Derrida whose intelligence and scope is almost shocking in its depth. You only need to appeal to Hume for a defence of this position. In simplest terms – facts are not instructive. Period. You may seek to find instruction there but there is simply no objective imperative. Furthermore, the great work of Feryabend (who is distinctly not a ‘postmodernist’) really demonstrates the thick ideological basis of science as we commonly call the dozens of methodologies (sometime conflicting ones) that we refer under the umbrella of that name. Suffice to say that, though there is no space to make a thorough argument here, I believe that you are wrapped in an ‘modernist’ ideological response that is just as much part of the problem as the capitalist one.

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