This essay was originally published at ActivistLab on December 18, 2017
[All degrees in Celsius]
I’m a downer. Due to frequently writing and sharing doom articles, I am not very popular on social media (15 twitter followers as of publication). Or in real life, probably. Most conversations I have about anything with anybody eventually alight on humanity’s imminent violent demise. Many things could wipe all people off the planet: meteorites, supervolcanoes, nuclear wars, aliens. But the mass death that I always go back to is the one that seems most certain. Which is climate change. I study climate and energy politics, so it is my job to think about these terrible, mostly hopeless things everyday.
Climate disruption is the immense boulder beginning its roll down a slope, picking up speed as it careens inexorably toward the interdependent global hamlet we all reside within. Human-caused climate disruption will very likely proceed until it triggers unstoppable feedback loops and tipping points, some of which include melting permafrost, ocean anoxia, forest diebacks, albedo-destroying ice melts, and ice-sheet collapse. These processes have already begun. When they reach tipping points, some of which could happen any day now, we won’t know how to stop them, and they will quickly make the planet uninhabitable for humans and most other life. Massive sea level rise is currently threatening to flood every major coastal city on the planet – inundating the more than a billion people who live in them – which could happen in the span of a couple of decades.
During the Permian–Triassic extinction event 252 million years ago, climate change warmed the earth by five degrees; this killed 97 percent of life on the planet. The earth is currently warming at a much faster rate than it did during that extinction event. We’ve already warmed the planet 1.2 degrees in barely a couple centuries and will likely hit two degrees by midcentury, according to conservative estimates. This five-degree temperature shift can happen in a thirteen-year timespan, under the right circumstances.
If the global economy does not stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately, we are on track to hit at least six degrees. This will kill us and, again, at least 97 percent of life on the planet. So that means, for the people who love dogs and cats more than people and wildlife, all the dogs and cats will also die terrible deaths.
This is not yet inevitable. We could maybe still stop this mass death and, regardless of the hopelessness, we should all be trying.
But its inevitability is very, very close, and very, very likely. To prevent these feedback loops from reaching tipping points, we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately. But we’re not. The year 2017 is on track to set record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There’s no reason to believe that the next few years will bring declines in greenhouse gas emissions. Just the opposite is likely: emissions are still rising and they probably will continue to for the forecastable future.
The reason for this is that fossil fuels are too thoroughly embedded in the capital-heavy economies that cover the planet.
The idea that carbon capitalism is the best and only possible form of economic production is too thoroughly embedded in too many minds across the globe.
Worldwide, Baby Boomers and Gen X have been collectively, almost unanimously, indoctrinated to maintain an unshakable faith in the neoliberal orthodoxy that drives carbon emissions. Meanwhile Millennials—some of whom are beginning to call the bluff on the trickle-down scam in large numbers—are too poor and powerless, by design, to swing nations and economies to more reasonable, lower carbon trajectories. And even those radical few calling for a turn toward democratic socialism are not saying much about the necessity of decoupling some fairer postindustrial economy from carbon energy. They seem to assume we can fund a social welfare state with oil money, like Norway does.
Given that I constantly dwell on this end to all tomorrows, more than a boulder, for me this nearing and seemingly inevitable apocalypse is a ghost. Always rattling cupboards, cooling the room, wailing at night, like (spoiler) Shyamalan’s Bruce Willis brooding on my furniture. Think about climate change long enough and it will begin to loudly haunt one’s most intimate spaces. On days when I seclude myself too long in my studies, inundated with climate data or news of hopeless political battles, there are moments when I walk down the street and look around at the people there and I feel surrounded by shades: mangled corpses, distracted slaves of an indifferent Hades, forgotten dust drifting placidly. I feel like I am meandering among crowds already passed into a dim underworld. Those are bad days. Perhaps this feeling is difficult to relate to; allow me to illustrate with analogy:
Imagine there is a comet hurtling toward earth. The world’s scientists have studied the comet’s trajectory and know with clockwork certainty that it will hit the planet and will kill most life on it, including all humans. So they pen a letter to humanity warning of this imminent catastrophe. The world’s nations could adjust the comet’s path, they proclaim, so that it does not hit earth. We have the technology to stop our impending death. The comet is a pale pea in the sky, sitting constantly up there with the moon, sun, and stars, glowing in the day and night. Every time you look up into the sky, you see that pebble rumbling toward your body, tumbling everyday to your destruction.
But instead of a global effort mobilizing to stop the comet from hitting earth and killing everyone, everybody ignores it. Instead of panicked prophets shouting from street corners and a heroic, coordinated fight, people go about their days, oblivious. No Bruce Willis – Bay’s – to blow it up. People relate to the problem by refusing to look up at the sky.
But you view the comet daily, standing there on the street looking up like a fool. You feel alone. You feel misunderstood. You feel stuck in the solipsistic hell of the future wasteland you currently inhabit, arriving to the party moments before the contented folk around you. So to avoid going mad, you drag every conversation you have with all the people in your life to the comet.
Look! You say, Look up! I’m not insane, there’s a comet hurtling toward every one of us, and it’s coming soon, and it will kill us and our children, forever. Look up!
And your friends and family glance to the sky a moment, eyes suddenly blind as sight self-protectively retreats inward, and to placate you they say, Yep, damn, we’re screwed huh champ. And that’s all. Move on to the weather. What are they if not already dead? What are they if not residing in an entirely different reality, like a lot of insane people?
And this is an imperfect analog as accidental death by comet is somehow less tragic than suicide by industrial pollution. Suicide is harder to talk about than a tragic accident. So it’s easy in those brief conversations not to press on, easier to capitulate and remain detached. It’s much harder to get earnest, to linger on the topic and say:
No wait, let’s talk about this, let’s discuss what this means, let’s discuss the loss of significance to any task when there is only one confined future of perpetual violence and complete death looming, let’s talk about the futility of saving for retirement or having children – or having children – or creating art with any permanence, let’s talk about our complicity in organizing this holocaust, let’s talk about the villains most responsible for it, let’s talk about what we can do collectively to try to make the world’s nations stop this disaster from killing us all, for eternity.
Any discussion of death is difficult, with all its permanence and inevitability. But posterity, one of those safeguards defending against death’s futility-making, easing the permanence a bit—if FOMO-inducing—knowing that others will carry on, is also on the chopping block. Infinitely harder, it seems, to discuss the death of all peoples and all futures. Is there value in having this bleak conversation?
This conversation may not do much to inspire political mobilization. Decades of scientists and activists telling the world about imminent climate apocalypse has done practically nothing to spur people or governments to action. When climate change gained public attention in the late 1980s, many believed that simply sounding an alarm would compel institutions to action. It didn’t. Even after desperate calls from scientists and activists, Americans just do not care much about preventing climate change. Other affluent nations who feel falsely insulated from its effects are also failing to prioritize solutions. And meanwhile in some hotel lobby some oil executives who spent millions of dollars to obfuscate climate data for decades bark out cruel laughter as they croak, Shit, didn’t think people would be this damn complacent all on their own, we didn’t need the propaganda after all.
But what if we discuss it without the endgame of convincing and mobilizing and compelling others to action? Is there value in talking about this with the people in our lives simply to commiserate, communally, on this impending demise?
What if we talk about this hurtling climate devastation just to share the burden of that heavy knowledge? My mind is deeply mired in thoughts of imminent mass death. I think everyday about the death of our whole species, everyone I know and love, everyone I could know and love. Everyone who could write a novel, design a building, sing a song, discover a cure, explore Mars, is about to die. The feeling of isolation, meaninglessness, and futility that follows this thought pattern is powerful. The only two things seems capable of pulling me out of this sticky maelstrom of helpless woe: interpersonal connection and working for the cause. Meditation doesn’t do it. Entertainment doesn’t do it. Exercise doesn’t do it. Whisky doesn’t do it. Real intimacy seems to ease that burden, but only temporarily; and feeling like I am doing something, anything, to stall this catastrophe provides short respites from the despair.
Maybe if we talk about it we could forge some meaningful communion. Modern labor and the lifestyles it demands isolate so many from one another. The ephemerality of jobs, transience of our habitation, competition for scarce crumbs swept off billionaires’ gilt tables, the solitude of our screen-studded tiny apartments all conspire to erode the basic human bonds stretching between individuals. Maybe discussing this apocalypse could ease some of that isolation, too. Maybe by confronting this future, we could forge real bonds of shared struggle, for a little while. Perhaps, for those of us immersed in this reality, it is the only way full intimacy is really possible. So many people today are beset by spasms and bouts of meaninglessness. Even in the near hopelessness of climate apocalypse, maybe we could begin to find a sense of purpose and meaning by confronting this looming disaster and banding together to face it.
What if during this Christmas season when we all go to see our families, we talk about this disaster? We don’t want to ruin the nice mood of the festivities, of course. But how about instead of using the holidays as yet another excuse to not talk about it, we grow some spines and risk ruining the mood. And maybe instead of ruining everything, we would find camaraderie over fruitcake and booze in the shared pain of the common fate and struggle of a grim future.
But most people don’t know much about climate apocalypse, only sense that it’s a vague shadow cast over a distant tomorrow. It has taken me years of study to get to this point of fully comprehending the immediate immensity of our plight. But I’m slow and I think it is possible to get anyone to engage with the issue quickly, even the challenging ones like skeptics, the less informed, the low attention spans. I think the following five brief declarations can get anyone from ignorance of climate change to comprehension of our imminent annihilation.
Starting with the tangible fact of greenhouse gases can give the uninitiated something to hold onto. It’s a benign, concrete doorway into a brutal abstraction. Humans have known about the greenhouse effect for almost 200 years. It was first described in 1824 by Joseph Fourier. It is as established scientifically as just about any phenomenon. You can demonstrate it at a micro scale. If your skeptical Uncle Brad has a greenhouse (probably doesn’t), he can pump carbon dioxide into it to make it hotter, pump it out to make it cooler. It’s very simple, elementary science. Certain gasses in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun due to the nature of the gas.
Carbon dioxide is the most ubiquitous of these greenhouse gases. It has many sources and can hang around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Burning coal, oil, gas, and organic materials releases this chemical into the atmosphere in large quantities. The amount in the atmosphere has grown exponentially since we started using coal, oil, and gas to fuel the economy a couple hundred years ago. That amount directly correlates to rises in global temperatures. One facility that measures the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is in Hawaii,“You can go visit it to verify, Uncle Todd, and get a piña colada at the same time,”you might say to your skeptical uncle. Again, this is basic observation of physical reality, not complex future modeling.
The average temperature of the globe is not stable and never has been. It has changed a lot through history. When it’s higher, certain things happen; when it’s lower other things happen. We know about how hot and cold it has been at different times in the planet’s history and how those changes affected ecology. When it got colder, northern latitudes got covered in giant ice bricks. When it got hotter (see above), 97 percent of things died. Seas rose. Icecaps and glaciers melted. Deserts expanded. Rainfall patterns changed. We know this from data gathered by many fields of inquiry like archaeology, climatology, paleoecology, chemistry, physics. When the climate has changed in the past, the greenhouse gases that drove it came from many“natural”sources like rotting organic matter or volcanoes. Today it is coming from greenhouse gasses that human industry emits. Inevitably, warming will have a similar ecological effect now and in the future as it did in the past. This means vast changes in ecology will occur: coastlines will sink into the sea, deserts will grow and gulp up formerly fertile lands, rivers will dry, floods will sweep away forests. We know this because it has happened before.
We also know what happens to civilizations when even relatively minor ecological shifts occur: war and collapse. Climate change is not a minor ecological shift. It is immense, global, and millennial. What will happen to the 200 million people who today depend on glacier water to survive when the glaciers all melt? All the glaciers are melting fast. We can see it with our living eyes. What will happen to those people? They will move. When they move, people will fight each other for space and resources. People have always done this. Five million Syrians moving has proved sufficient to destabilize geopolitical dynamics. What happens when droughts, expanding deserts, and famines ravage every continent? Hundreds more millions of people will move. When they move, war. At least a billion people are threatened by rising oceans. Those billion plus people will move. War. Any one of these ecological disruptions is sufficient to spark world wars. But with the compounding of all of them at the same time? Many nations will collapse. Those collapses will be swift and violent.
After collapse and war, finally there is death. Suicide by climate change could come from one main culprit: the world could simply grow too hot for the human body to survive. Or the atmosphere could fill with unbreathable gases, like what happened to Venus, which was once more similar to early earth before runaway climate change made it uninhabitable.
Or it could come from the convalescence of many factors, like for instance:
+ Nuclear warfare sparked by collapse destroys advanced industrial economies while mass migrations make international trade and diverse economies impossible.
+ Without industrial fossil fuel economies, we must inevitably revert to feudal, agrarian slavery. But the high temperatures make agriculture in most parts of the world increasingly impossible while ocean acidification and anoxia kills all the fish, collapsing major food sources and starving most people.
+ Pandemics of infectious diseases, spreading faster and further afield thanks to warmer temperatures, take out another big chunk of us, finally reducing population densities to the point that we revert again back to small hunter-gatherer groups, surviving on wild food sources.
+ But the sixth mass extinction we are causing now will have collapsed ecological systems all over the globe. It’s plausible to imagine that fast, intense warming will kill off the megafauna, familiar birds, reptiles, and large prey mammals and make edible plants so scarce that only a few of us could survive.
+ The last few people will then probably kill each other, to cannibalize.
At this point in the conversation, after the alcohol has long since flooded every nervous system, if anyone has managed to resist the temptation to shy away and stare at the smartphone notification, if anyone is still looking the comet square in its icy eye, this dim question will likely arrive: are humans worth saving?
Of course Uncle Kevin says no.
But why not press on? Don’t let him have the last word. The first line of defense against Uncle Mark’s postmodern Boomer cynicism is to point out the exceptional capabilities Homo sapiens possesses. Language, art, science, philosophy, technology, compassion. Of course, the closer we look at animal behavior, the more we see these characteristics represented there. Whether in the complex vocabulary of corvids and hyenas, or the inventive tool use among primates and some birds and fish, or elaborate works like weaver bird nests, beaver dams, puffer fish sand circles, and termite towers, or the compassion among elephants mourning their dead or humpback whales saving seals from predation, our special traits seem less special. Sure, animals don’t have books or cake. Penguins are entirely bereft of pizza-making technology. But they also don’t have genocides. Wolves have not caused a mass extinction.
In her dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood invents a fictional game in which the historical achievements and atrocities of civilization are weighed against one another:
The exchange rates – one Mona Lisa equalled Bergen-Belsen, one Armenian genocide equalled the Ninth Symphony plus three Great Pyramids – were suggested, but there was room for haggling. To do this you needed to know the numbers – the total number of corpses for the atrocities, the latest open-market price for the artworks; or, if the artworks had been stolen, the amount paid out by the insurance policy.
The protagonist later ticks off more feats of creation:
The Divine Comedy. Greek statuary. Aqueducts. Paradise Lost. Mozart’s music. Shakespeare, complete works. The Brontës. Tolstoy. The Pearl Mosque. Chartres Cathedral. Bach. Rembrandt. Verdi. Joyce. Penicillin. Keats. Turner. Heart transplants. Polio vaccine. Berlioz. Baudelaire. Bartok. Yeats. Woolf.
Against more feats of destruction:
The sack of Troy…The destruction of Carthage. The Vikings. The Crusades. Genghis Khan. Attila the Hun. The massacre of the Cathars. The witch burnings. The destruction of the Aztec. Ditto the Maya. Ditto the Inca. The Inquisition. Vlad the Impaler. The massacre of the Huguenots. Cromwell in Ireland. The French Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The Irish Famine. Slavery in the American South. King Leopold in the Congo. The Russian Revolution. Stalin. Hitler. Hiroshima. Mao. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Sri Lanka. East Timor. Saddam Hussein.
Atwood, by necessity, left out a million other atrocities – and miracles – known and forgotten. Still, the weight of the pain inflicted seems to eclipse the joy evoked by human hands.
But while wolves have never organized genocide, nor has one nursed to health a sick sparrow, or sacrificed her life for the member of another pack. No stick-wielding raven has hopped around in outer space. Elephants may never forget, but nor do they likely envision fictional worlds or some distant future. Birdsong may display variety and virtuosity, but it has not spread wisdom or moved mountains. Much of the abundant diversity of animal behavior can be found in the lone skull of a single bipedal primate. We indeed contain multitudes. The dances of a bird of paradise, the fashion of a peacock, the ingenuity and language of a magpie, the song of a loon, the compassion of a cetacean, the social coordination of wild dogs, the agile grace of a cat, the curiosity of a bear, engineering of a beaver, and all of it vastly bigger, more complex, reside in our daily acts. But are we just creative, destructive Frankenstein mammals, animal capabilities—good and bad—stitched together and pumped with steroids? Might we be more than our glittering instincts?
The wild potential of our species to safeguard life in this corner of the galaxy, or to explore other corners, truly is unique. There is a beautiful aptitude, maybe, we could achieve in which we protect life on the planet, from us and from threats without—like a comet—and in which our polities nurture the potential of every citizen and creature. There may be a future in which we continue evolving, grow into our compassion more fully, ascend to heights of creation we can barely imagine now, record on faraway worlds the novel colors of their skies to be used in our art, document new smells of those fresh places for our literature, witness and respect the unusual dance of their life, playing out upon our imaginations, one thriving aspect of an observant universe.
And maybe this is the one promise we might fulfill capable of justifying human exceptionalism: the potential to help midwife the offspring of a million generations of a million species on earth, and then go on to protect and promote the capacity for life on other worlds, wander as a cold universe’s Johnny Appleseeds planting carbon, amino acids, and proteins on terraformed former wastelands; not colonizing and destroying, but rambling and cultivating. Could we manage to give up indulging in the grotesque self-interested delusions of spreading virtue—e.g., colonial powers claiming to bring democracy and development to other lands—but for once, for the first time, actually do it? Is consumption and destruction too deeply embedded in our simian DNA, or might we transcend even that? The hard justice of it is: we can only survive to achieve this future when we are worthy of it.
But then Uncle Mark bellows to remind us of the endless expansion of the universe, the unstoppable dissipation of heat and energy, sun death, and the ultimate freezing blackness looming in the deep future of existence. And he says, Sure we could go on existing for some more millennia, but so what? In the end, we’re all ice cubes. Why not burn out now?
Why not? What might we see in those millennia? In those many seconds, we could still marvel insignificantly, we could still pile rocks into a cairn, could still hum into a lover’s hair, stitch a wound, watch a fire, teach the young, grow old. We could still fight, still forge, go kicking and screaming into that good night. Spy a dawn.
So death comes for us all. So what?