Mar 30, 2012
In a letter to Ernest de Chabrol dated 9 June 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring it?”
Nearly two hundred years later, de Tocqueville has been vindicated not only as a superb social critic but also as a forecaster. Knowing nothing about de Tocqueville, the ten-year-old son of a friend put his own spin on recent history: “Mom, I think people value Father Time more than they value Mother Earth.” His words sting me like freezing rain, squeezing tears from the corners of my eyes. There’s nothing new there for me, except the perspective of youth: I often weep when I think about the hellishly overheated world we’re leaving him and his young friends. We’re destroying this world in large part because we care more about chasing fiat currency than we care about the living planet and its occupants.
Although it seems unlikely they met, de Tocqueville was writing during the time of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. As if he, too, could see the future, Kierkegaard was plagued with anxiety. However, Kierkegaard didn’t call anxiety a plague: As he pointed out, anxiety is fundamental to our sense of humanity. Although I’m tempted to discard Kierkegaard’s every thought based simply on his ludicrous leap of faith, I can’t convince myself to disagree with him about anxiety. His writings about anxiety resonate with me as strongly as anything I’ve read by Lao Tzu, Schopenhauer, or Leopold.
It’s small wonder I’ve slept so poorly since August of 1979, when I reached a vague, subconscious understanding of the dire straits in which humanity is immersed. More than three decades after that summer of my nineteenth year, “my distress is enormous, boundless,” and growing by the day. I envy those who know about ongoing climate change and yet can remain comfortable with that knowledge. If you’re among them, perhaps this essay will drag you with me, into the abyss of despair. If so, I encourage you to abide the prescient words of Edward Abbey: “Action is the antidote to despair.”
According to NASA, anthropogenic climate change is primarily due to human actions. The ongoing crisis is intensifying, and much of North America is experiencing summer in March. Ninety degrees in winter is not normal, climate-change deniers notwithstanding. Ditto for this year’s Silent Spring.
If you’re under the age of 35, you’ve never experienced “normal” temperatures despite a weakening sun. In fact, February 1985 was the last time global mean monthly average was below the twentieth-century average. Already, climate has shifted to a new state. That state can only be described as dire. And yet because Earth’s climate system behaves in a nonlinear manner, future changes could occur very rapidly, making it seem as if more than three decades without a below-normal temperature reading were the good ol’ days.
What does the future hold? First, a warning: Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
A global average rise in temperature of 2 C is now optimistic, according to French scientists. Climatologist Matthew Huber agrees. But even that seemingly modest increase in temperature raises sea level 40 to 70 feet. Meanwhile, the OECD concludes we’re headed for an average temperature increase of 3-6 degrees Celsius by 2050 (full original report is here). Supporting documentation is far more abundant than revealed by these recent headlines:
Climate change is shaking the world, literally
Global warming borders is close to being irreversible, according to conservative scientists
After all, a carbon time bomb has been dropped in the Arctic
At the other pole, an iceberg the size of New York state is about to break away from Antarctica
For many years, people have been metaphorically stealing glaciers to put into cocktails. Now they’re literally doing it.
Habitat for millions of people will disappear with flooding from the oceans
Water, water, everywhere, but the world’s rivers are failing to make it all the way to the oceans
As I also pointed out, at the same time under slightly different name, ‘Compost bomb’ is latest climate change ‘tipping point’
According to tables of flowering dates in 1840s Massachusetts, average temperature already has risen 2.4 C in Concord since the industrial revolution began
Elsewhere in the United States, the heat is unprecedented, with 7,000 record high temperatures so far this year
A vital species of tree killed by climate change brings to mind one my favorite lines from Derrick Jensen: “Forests greet us and deserts dog our heels”
The abundance of dire information and a slow news days causes even ABC “News” to point out the weather weirding
How bad is the situation? Desperation is leading to long-shot technical “fixes.” Naturally, these do not include changing the behavior of people in the industrialized world. As usual, Americans, still affluent relative to people in other nations, can’t be bothered because they’re too concerned about the industrial economy to worry about persistence of Homo sapiens. The occasional thoughtful American writes a letter of apology to his grandchildren, preferring the ease of an apology over the difficulty of action. On the other hand, President Obama continues to ignore the issue, even though he certainly knows he is committing his family and young children to hell on Earth.
If we didn’t already have enough reason to terminate this absurd set of living arrangements, human extinction might do the trick. It might be too late, of course: More than two years ago Tim Garrett pointed out that only collapse of the industrial economy prevents runaway greenhouse. In those two years, we’ve set records for carbon emissions on this overheated planet. But if we act as if it’s too late, our actions become self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the spirit of Edward Abbey, let’s channel some Kierkegaard-inspired anxiety to act as if the future matters. Let’s act as if we have a future. Let’s act now, while the idea of a future still persists. Before it’s too late. Before there’s no tomorrow for our entire species.