It's an odd feeling, beginning this new decade. I start by realizing it could be my last, and almost certainly is my next to last decade. During the next ten years, I could well make the transition from late middle age to old age, that is to a certain frailty and disconnection. Not that I know really what to make of this, but it all gives a different sort of significance to this change of the calendar, compared to past decade markers.
The decade begins also as I'm beginning to read David Orr's new book, Down to the Wire. He starts by saying straight out what climate scientists seldom say very clearly (clotting it all with scientific caution and jargon) and politicians won't say: that we've already done so much damage to our atmosphere that the climate of the planet will be inevitably and seriously changed, and no matter what we do, the change will persist for thousands of years. Human civilization will have to adapt to "'a different planet,' one we won't like," or it will fall. Moreover, human civilization will have to change quickly and deeply to avoid causing an even hotter world, which would bring near certain doom, not only for humanity but for much of the planet as we know it.
Basically this is the same message I've been passing on here and elsewhere, except that Orr interprets it all in terms of time. It's that "thousands of years" that takes my breath away. He also quotes the UK's senior scientist Martin Rees as writing that human civilization has a 50% chance of surviving this century. James Lovelock is not even that generous. So I must consider the enormity of this: that this human civilization, which has sweated and bled its way to this point for several thousand years, could be gone in nine decades. Which likely means that it will be seriously unraveling, in blood and tears, in--what?--fifty years? Two decades? Some would say it has begun down that road already--in drought-stricken, war-torn parts of Africa, for instance. This is another head-spinner, and heart spinner, too.
Orr's book is about what needed for political and other kinds of change to avoid the worst: "I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would create runaway climate change; otherwise there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge."
But Orr also writes that preventing the worst--or even some of what is now inevitable--would have been easier and cheaper 30 years ago, or 20, or 10. But from now on, it gets harder and more expensive, and more uncertain. Very much harder, and very much more expensive.
I've also been saying this for awhile: that the climate crisis presents humanity with its greatest evolutionary challenge: can we as a civilization think and act in the more complex and sophisticated ways required by the nature of this crisis? If we can and do, we're fit for the future. If not, it looks as if civilization won't continue. So far, on balance, we're flunking the test.
Looking back on the past decade from the future, if there are historians to do so, the defining moment for humanity may well have been the theft of the presidency by the forces of G.W. Bush, and all that followed (apart from preventing the presidency of the man who has since won a Nobel Prize for his championing of climate crisis awareness.) In his latest column in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne writes:
"Certain decades shape the country's political life for generations by leaving behind an era to embrace or, at least as often, to scorn...I'm afraid that the past 10 years will be seen as a time when the United States badly lost its way by using our military power carelessly, misunderstanding the real challenges to our long-term security and pursuing domestic policies that constrained our options for the future while needlessly threatening our prosperity."
But that isn't the half of it. The lost opportunity to build a consensus and begin addressing the Climate Crisis ten years ago may well be the fateful failure. Then again, it wasn't done in the 90s during the Clinton administration either.
And I look at what Orr and others are saying, and realize that I personally didn't do enough in the 90s and the past decade to make the stakes clear, to communicate clearly and well enough to cut through the denial and cognitive dissonance, the public relations smog engineered by fossil fuel profiteers, the sensationalistic distractions (if someone had an unbelievably profitable oil business and no conscience, might they not consider funding violent terrorists of any persuasion?) There's responsibility enough to go around.
The drumbeat of denial is comfortably part of our devolved politics (which even a right of center columnist like David Brooks notices, though he barely scratches the surface of it.) It plays into comfortable if tragically false analogies, like this op-ed piece which tries to compare the Y2K panic of 2000 to alarms over the Climate Crisis. The Y2K panic never smelled right to me--it is actually more like the panic over terrorism. We don't need panic. But we do need a crisis response. The evidence for the Climate Crisis has built up for more than 30 years, especially when contributing factors are considered (global population, loss of land and water, depletion of biological diversity, poisoning of the environment.) Even in the old story of crying wolf, the wolf finally came.
"It should not surprise us that the battle for the future will be shaped by struggles over the past," Dionne writes. But that's one of the traps we fall into--we fight the battles of the past, and lose the future. I for one am going to devote some time to trying to get my head around these timelines: the personal ones, within the context of the human prospect.
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