Planning for the future in the face of imminent catastrophe

Sorry everybody – this is a downer of a post. If you’re feeling that kinda tip, here’s some mood music to accompany yr reading.

It must take the patience of a saint and the optimism of a puppy to be James Hansen.

Hansen, as you may know, was a climate scientist with NASA up until a few years ago, when he quit his job to become a full-time Cassandra, travelling the world warning everybody who would listen about the perils of climate change. His predictions on the rapidity and severity of temperature and ocean level rises have been repeatedly dismissed as fringey and extreme, until they turned out to be prescient. (For instance, check this New York Times article about Hansen’s testimony to Congress on the threats global warming posed to the world…from 1988.)

A man like that could be dour and defeatist. After all, he’s been ringing the alarms on this issue for three decades, with only the most minimal of impacts. But Hansen continues to push people and governments to wake up to the extremity of the situation.

This week he announced the release of a new study showing that Antarctic glacial ice is now likely to melt at a rate for more rapid than had been previously predicted. The upshot is a ten-foot rise in ocean levels over the next half-century.

Hansen’s study does not attempt to predict the precise timing of the feedback loop, only that it is “likely” to occur this century. The implications are mindboggling: In the study’s likely scenario, New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left. That dire prediction, in Hansen’s view, requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”

We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

The science of ice melt rates is advancing so fast, scientists have generally been reluctant to put a number to what is essentially an unpredictable, non-linear response of ice sheets to a steadily warming ocean. With Hansen’s new study, that changes in a dramatic way. One of the study’s co-authors is Eric Rignot, whose own study last year found that glacial melt from West Antarctica now appears to be “unstoppable.”

Hansen says he’s hoping that this fall’s climate change negotiations in Paris will be a tipping point for the world, that we’ll finally and rapidly and efficiently and effectively start to take action on this issue, and that we’ll be able to avoid the worst-case scenarios (which seem to get worse every year). And I guess that being hopeful is about the only way you could possibly motivate yourself to keep thinking and talking about this doomsday sort of shit, so kudos to him.

I usually try to avoid news like this. I’ll be perfectly honest, I find it soul-crushing and dispiriting and just awful, and I don’t want to think about it.

But I read the above-linked article yesterday, for better or worse, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

I mean, this is a crisis without parallel in human history. Many of our largest cities, our most fertile farmland, our most precious habitats, are facing near-certain elimination. The ripple effects of such a disruption, of the climate refugees, of the increasingly scarce resources, are sure to have a massively detrimental effect on societies around the world.

And humanity collectively has pretty much thrown up its hands and said, “Eh, what can we do?”

And turning all this over in my head today, which was another perfectly normal day at work, a day of flipping eggs and cooking potatoes and making small talk with my co-workers, my mind went to a place it’s often been before – a pretty selfish place, truth be told.

What’s going to happen to me?

What’s going to happen to the people I care about?

It’s so damn difficult to try to plan for your future if the stability of civilization over the next few decades is uncertain. Should I go back to school? What good would a graduate degree be in a post-collapse society? Should we try to buy a house in the country, grow some food? I don’t know the first thing about farming! Should we have kids? (God, imagine the kind of life they might have if things go really bad!) And what really is the point of toiling away at a regular ol’ job and trying to save money if there’s probably gonna be food riots here in Canada in my lifetime? Is there even any point in saving for retirement, for instance?

And then sometimes I think about the animals, all the animals that are going to disappear from the face of this earth before I do. The tigers and the rhinos, sure, but also the ones I’ve never heard of, the small ones, the rodents and the fish and birds and bugs. I think about all the suffering that we as a species have caused and are going to cause, and I feel just paralyzed. Helpless.

I can’t do what Hansen did, quit my job and work full-time trying to stop this catastrophe. I have no special knowledge, no scientific skill. I’m just a line cook with a politics blog. There’s a catastrophic tragedy about to happen and I’m powerless to do much more than watch.

Sure, I can minimize my carbon emissions – but shorter showers won’t solve this crisis:

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption — residential, by private car, and so on — is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”

Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

(Please, please, read the whole thing. It’s A+ shit.)

When I think about this too long I get filled with an incoherent burning rage against capitalism.

Because we know what the solution is. We have to stop spewing so much toxic shit into the air. We have to stop burning oil. We have to stop making so much disposable crap and shipping it halfway around the world. These are straightforward propositions.

The reason they aren’t enacted is that relatively few extremely wealthy people make their living on these very activities, and they won’t let us stop.

Capitalism is the problem, essentially. And it’s going to kill us all. As Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

And we won’t take decisive action to stop this problem. Or at least we haven’t shown any seriousness about making it stop yet – although on my better days I’m optimistic.

As a student of history, I know that the plot can twist in ways nobody can predict. I don’t know what life will be like in fifty years. I hope I’ll live to see it.

But honestly, trying to figure out what I should even attempt to do during that time is a daunting task. We don’t know exactly when things will get bad, or where, or how quickly. But we do know, with as much certainty as we can manage, that bad times are coming. And that’s a terrible ominous cloud to be living under, and it makes it beyond difficult to try to plan for your own future.

How do you keep hopeful about the future? Or do you? If you have any tips for thinking about climate change without feeling super-low for the next several days, I’d really love to hear them. I know this stuff is super-important, but I find myself ignoring it as much as I can.

Which is ironic, because that’s the exact sort of short-term self-interest-maximizing head-in-the-sand-ism that got our species into this mess to begin with.


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Hey Matt,
On the question of hope, I have two offerings. First, I’ve found it helpful not to try and escape the despair. I’ve reveled in it a bit and let it make me stronger, more resolved. From there, I’ve increased my involvement with some climate justice organizations. There are so many collective actions we can all take to pressure governments, political parties, corporations and people to stop our massive investments in fossil fuel extraction and consumption and start paying attention to the beautiful visions out there of what a just future looks like. I find direct action and other organizing is a good antidote for despondency. Secondly, my grandmother told me the other day about how in the 1950’s she and her friends were all debating if they should have kids or not because the imminent nuclear wars would make the planet uninhabitable for the next generation. I’m glad she decided to have kids anyways. At some point we all have to acknowledge that we are not in charge, that on a very real level we are and always have been powerless. We can’t predict the future so instead we kind of have to live onon some sort of faith. That’s easier for some than others depending on if one thinks there is power at work in the universe beyond what humans get up to. Nevertheless, if we have the ability in this moment I think we should try and be our best selves. Invest ourselves in education, in children, and building our communities. We may as well be the best we can for as long as we possibly can. And hey, if everyone does that maybe we will make it to the next century intact..and then call it a miracle.

    The Cold War example is a powerful one, and I hope a relevant one. Both of my parents were born in the years just after the Cuban Missile Crisis – and I gotta say, it must have taken a lot of faith and hope to carry on starting a family and building a career in times like those. And I worry that climate defeatism is going to be our ultimate downfall, that so many people will just give up hope for the future that any chance at meaningful change will be missed. So I suppose I agree, we ought to make our best effort to build the kind of future we want to see – but it is gonna take a miracle! Thanks for your words of support 🙂

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