Movie still from The Road (2009), adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. (Photo courtesy of Boomtron.)
“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”
I really don’t know where to go with this one. Suffice it to say I’m feeling quite scatterbrained lately, what with the horrifying events unfolding in our tumultuous world, and the lack of recognition they receive.
Let me just start by saying that this will be a bit of a more detailed rant, though one of a kind I think is needed.
I am increasingly at odds with the route global civilization has taken. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the fruits of civilization—penicillin, microwave ovens, tequila, curry, the Internet, and movies, etc. etc.—but rather that the direction it has moved has become increasingly more and more dangerous as time goes on. Perhaps in order to bear those fruits.
Does that make me a hypocrite? That I see the problem rooted in mass-production (among other things), yet buy into coporatocracy?
I will be frank: We are on death’s doorstep as a society. The human enterprise called civilization is, in retrospect, beginning to look little more than a fever dream, a lot less than anything one might call “civilized.” Guy McPherson, often considered one of the most pessimistic climate researchers—McPherson spearheads the “near-term human extinction” (NTHE) movement—calls industrial civilization a “death cult.” I hate to agree with him on that, but it really does seem to be the case nowadays. Even Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, warns that current consumption patterns constitute a “global suicide pact.”
Yes, we have many luxuries and conveniences, all born of the cooperative efforts civilization has won us—but at what cost?
We live with the delusion that these “hard-won” luxuries are everlasting, or at least long-lasting, but neither is true. The fact is that today’s society steals from the future, and exists at the expense of many future generations. (If they should live to see what has become of the world.) This is evidenced by an annual global resource overshoot, which occurs earlier and earlier each passing year.
In the process of extending our ecological footprint, we also destroy the very bedrock of our global civilization. All wealth ultimately comes from “ecosystem services” provided by a healthy environment, and a stable climate. We have natural capital there. We have the food and water and shelter on which we all depend. Yet deforestation, for instance, now occurs on an unprecedented scale. Not to mention the dire state of the world’s oceans, now being acidified by atmospheric carbon uptake on a level never before witnessed.
We all, in our own ways, pursue freedom. And I think we should. The law of liberty is all-encompassing. Humans are hardwired to pursue happiness. But what kind of happiness would it be, should we not be allowed to fail every once in a while?
Problems arise, however, when so very many people make so very many bad decisions on such a regular basis that their pursuit of freedom, individually—in their own lives—is consistently irresponsible, and destroys the opportunities that would otherwise be afforded to future generations. The kind of food and water insecurity that unabated climate change will reap, for instance, will all but make sure that future generations do not have the time or resources to pursue their passions with the same level of opportunity, the same range of options (or “luxuries”) that we now have.
Let’s be clear about this, once and for all: Anthropogenic climate change, especially when compounded with other types of environmental destruction (overpopulation, resource mis-allocation and over-consumption, land degradation, pollution, etc.) represents the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. The problem is so vast and multifaceted. It is one precipitated by both personal and societal choices, by stubbornness on the part of politicians, greed on the part of stockholders and investors, selfishness on the part of individuals, willful ignorance on the part of corporations, and so on.
Anyway, in the spirit of brutal honesty and existential dread, here’s a little more data:
The United Nations’ UNFCCC’s COP21, a pivotal meeting to take place in Paris later this year (from November 30 to December 11), is intended to rein in humanity’s carbon emissions so as to keep the world under 2C warming (above the pre-industrial average) this century. However, current pledges by the world’s countries (INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) fall incredibly short of an adequate goal, perhaps by 19 or more gigatons of CO2. While all the world’s countries are expected to submit some kind of binding pledge, only a fraction (as of 9/11/2015) have stepped up to the plate, even though little more than 2 months remain before the conference gets underway. Current pledges (which aren’t even guaranteed to be carried out) only account for about 59.4% of global carbon emissions.
Science writer David Auerbach called the UN’s work on climate change “a nice gesture, but hardly a meaningful one.” I would tend to agree. He also concludes, echoing the notion of Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner, that humanity will be extinct by 2100 due to climate change and dwindling resources.
It’s also worth mentioning that 2 degrees of global warming may itself be considered quite dangerous, according to a number of scientists, including James Hansen (one of the world’s greatest authorities on climate science, known for raising awareness of dangerous climate change in the 1980s). It certainly wouldn’t bode well for Pacific island nations, many of which prefer a 1.5C goal—one that is essentially impossible to achieve without some kind of miraculous technology, or an unimaginable shift in global trends. Some of the world’s biggest emitters (including Brazil and India) have yet to submit an INDC.
As it stands, a 4C or greater warming scenario is the most likely for this century. That kind of change in temperature will lead to a world that is unrecognizable by today’s standards, and one in which civilization may itself find no quarter. The Earth’s atmosphere currently contains above 400ppm of CO2, and about 2000 ppb of methane. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising by about 2ppm per annum. The last time the Earth saw 400ppm CO2, sea levels were between 15 meters and 25 meters higher than they are today. (~50-~82 feet.) 350ppm (ideally less) is often regarded as a “safe operating space” for humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. We are on track for far more greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere. We need to go “negative,” and yet residual CO2 (that which is not absorbed by the oceans—itself the cause of ocean acidification) continues to build up in the air, remaining there for potentially hundreds of thousands of years.
Couple climate change with other forms of environmental devastation and resource wastage, and you have a “perfect storm” of future holocausts. Nearly 10 billion people are projected to live on this planet in 2050, consuming ever more resources at an ever-more unsustainable rate. (Consider that India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, are consuming more and more resources in a more hedonistic “Western” fashion.) Of course, with the effect climate change may very well have on crops (not to mention water availability), I think we will likely see a massive cull of the human population over the course of this century. According to a co-national, government-funded study (developed by Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute), global catastrophe may plausibly occur over the next 30 years if humans don’t change their ways.
All this being noted (though it’s ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the larger reality of what we’re doing to ourselves and the planet’s ecosystems and climate—and I could continue on much, much longer), it is high time—it has been high time for quite a while—that the human race consciously shifts its patterns of consumption and pollution in a dramatic fashion. Environmental destruction can only continue so long. Our species is in the business of fouling its own nest, and frankly it’s damning to ourselves and all future generations. It’s reprehensible, dastardly, evil on an unimaginable scale. It’s us running up against the edge of our Petri dish, and only then wondering where the agar went. And this at the expense of almost everything we know and care for.
The horrifying reality of our situation comes down to this: ECOCIDE IS OMNICIDE. That is, you cannot plunder and squander away the very basis of your life, the source of all that sustains you, without destroying yourself in the process. There’s really no other way to put it. Yachts and McMansions just don’t cut it, especially on a planet carrying what will soon be 10 billion people, already stripped of many of its finite resources.
So, considering that humanity seems less than inclined to change its course, I think the best advice we can take—in these most insane and soon-to-be-awful of times—is to “participate joyfully,” as it were.
Of course, life has never been peachy perfect. We all suffer in our own way. But we also have the option to make the very best of our circumstances, come what may. If we cannot change our destructive habits, and will ultimately destroy ourselves in the process, we ought to at least do what makes us happy. Hell, we ought to be doing that anyway. That’s always been, if anything, the perennial truth. To again invoke Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss.” Cliché, yes—I’m sure you’ve all seen an image macro, or side of a hippie Volkswagen, featuring that line—but as meaningful as ever. It has always been crap out there in some form or another, but that doesn’t mean we can’t carry a great light on our journey through the darkness. It doesn’t mean we can’t, at the very least, smile before the end—untimely or not.