Image: Lonesome Farewell - by Mr. Fish
Princeton, N.J. — As I write this, the sun is a hazy reddish orange orb. The sky is an inky yellowish gray. The air has an acrid stench and leaves a faint metallic taste in my mouth. After 20 minutes outside, my head starts to ache, my nose burns, my eyes itch and my breathing becomes more labored. Streets are deserted. The ubiquitous lawn service companies with their machine mowers and whining gas-powered leaf blowers have disappeared, along with pedestrians, cyclists and joggers. Those who walk their dog go out briefly and then scamper back inside. N95 masks, as in the early days of the pandemic, are sold out, along with air purifiers. The international airports at Newark and Philadelphia have delayed or canceled flights.
I feel as if I am in a ghost town. Windows shut. Air conditioners on full blast. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is checked and rechecked. We are hovering around 300. The most polluted cities in the world have half that rate. Dubai (168). Delhi (164). Anything above 300 is classified as hazardous.
When will the hundreds of forest fires burning north of us in Canada — fires that have already consumed 10.9 million acres and driven 120,000 people from their homes — be extinguished? What does this portend? The wildfire season is only beginning. When will the air clear? A few days? A few weeks?
What do you tell a terminal patient seeking relief? Yes, this period of distress may pass, but it’s not over. It will get worse. There will be more highs and lows and then mostly lows, and then death. But no one wants to look that far ahead. We live moment to moment, illusion to illusion. And when the skies clear we pretend that normality will return. Except it won’t. Climate science is unequivocal. It has been for decades. The projections and graphs, the warming of the oceans and the atmosphere, the melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts and wildfires and monster hurricanes are already bearing down with a terrible and mounting fury on our species, and most other species, because of the hubris and folly of the human race.
The worse it gets the more we retreat into fantasy. The law will solve it. The market will solve it. Technology will solve it. We will adapt. Or, for those who find solace in denial of a reality-based belief system, the climate crisis does not exist. The earth has always been like this. And besides, Jesus will save us. Those who warn of the looming mass extinction are dismissed as hysterics, Cassandras, pessimists. It can’t be that catastrophic.
At the inception of every war I covered, most people were unable to cope with the nightmare that was about to engulf them. Signs of disintegration surrounded them. Shootings. Kidnappings. The bifurcation of polarized extremes into antagonistic armed groups or militias. Hate speech. Political paralysis. Apocalyptic rhetoric. The breakdown of social services. Food shortages. Circumscribed daily existence. But the fragility of society is too emotionally fraught for most of us to accept. We endow the institutions and structures around us with an eternal permanence.
“Things whose existence is not morally comprehensible cannot exist,” Primo Levi, who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, observed.
I would return at night to Pristina in Kosovo after having been stopped by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels a few miles outside the capital. But when I described my experiences to my Kosovar Albanian friends — highly educated and multilingual — they dismissed them. “Those are Serbs dressed up like rebels to justify Serb repression,” they answered. They did not grasp they were at war until Serb paramilitary forces rounded them up at gunpoint, herded them into boxcars and shipped them off to Macedonia.
Complex civilizations eventually destroy themselves. Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments,” Jared Diamond in “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress,” detail the familiar patterns that lead to catastrophic collapse. We are no different, although this time we will all go down together. The entire planet. Those in the Global South who are least responsible for the climate emergency, will suffer first. They are already fighting existential battles to survive. Our turn will come. We in the Global North may hold out for a bit longer, but only a bit. The billionaire class is preparing its escape. The worse it gets, the stronger will be our temptation to deny the reality facing us, to lash out at climate refugees, which is already happening in Europe and along our border with Mexico, as if they are the problem.
Wright, who calls industrial society “a suicide machine,” writes:
Civilization is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps. A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn’t easily moved. This human inability to foresee — or to watch out for — long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.
We will frantically construct climate fortresses, like the great walled cities at the end of the Bronze Age before its societal collapse, a collapse so severe that not only did these cities fall into ruin, but writing itself in many places disappeared. Maybe a few of our species will linger on for a while. Or maybe rats will take over the planet and evolve into some new life form. One thing is certain. The planet will survive. It has experienced mass extinctions before. This one is unique only because our species engineered it. Intelligent life is not so intelligent. Maybe this is why, with all those billions of planets, we have not discovered an evolved species. Maybe evolution has built within it its own death sentence.
I accept this intellectually. I don’t accept it emotionally any more than I accept my own death. Yes, I know our species is almost certainly doomed — but notice, I say almost. Yes, I know I am mortal. Most of my life has already been lived. But death is hard to digest until the final moments of existence, and even then, many cannot face it. We are composed of the rational and the irrational. In moments of extreme distress we embrace magical thinking. We become the easy prey of con-artists, cult leaders, charlatans and demagogues who tell us what we want to hear.
Disintegrating societies are susceptible to crisis cults that promise a return to a golden age. The Christian Right has many of the characteristics of a crisis cult. Native Americans, ravaged by genocide, the slaughter of the buffalo herds, the theft of their land and incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps, clung desperately to the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance promised to drive away the white invaders and resurrect the warriors and buffalo herds. Instead, followers were mowed down by the U.S. Army with Hotchkiss MI875 mountain guns.
We must do everything in our power to halt carbon emissions. We must face the truth that the ruling corporate elites in the industrialized world will never extract us from fossil fuels. Only if these corporatists are overthrown — as proposed by groups such as Extinction Rebellion — and radical and immediate measures are taken to end the consumption of fossil fuel, as well as curtail the animal agriculture industry, will we be able to mitigate some of the worst effects of ecocide. But I don’t see this as likely, especially given the sophisticated forms of control and surveillance the global oligarchs have at their disposal.
The awful truth is that even if we halt all carbon emissions today there is so much warming locked into the oceans deep muddy floor and the atmosphere, that feedback loops will ensure climate catastrophe. Summer Arctic sea ice, which reflects 90 percent of solar radiation that comes into contact with it, will disappear. The Earth’s surface will absorb more radiation. The greenhouse effect will be amplified. Global warming will accelerate, melting the Siberian permafrost and disintegrating the Greenland ice sheet.
Melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica “has increased fivefold since the 1990s, and now accounts for a quarter of sea-level rise,” according to a recent report funded by NASA and the European Space Agency. Continued sea level rise, the rate of which has doubled over three decades according to the World Meteorological Organization, is inevitable. Tropical rainforests will burn. Boreal forests will move northward. These and other feedback loops are already built into the ecosystem. We cannot stop them. Climate chaos, including elevated temperatures, will last for centuries.
The hardest existential crisis we face is to at once accept this bleak reality and resist. Resistance cannot be carried out because it will succeed, but because it is a moral imperative, especially for those of us who have children. We may fail, but if we do not fight against the forces that are orchestrating our mass extinction, we become part of the apparatus of death.
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