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.Â 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 â€“ a near-miss, the loss of a loved one â€“ 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.