It’s really happening. We’re cooking the world to maintain our convenient and comfortable lifestyles. Every gallon of gasoline we burn is eight more pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The first big crop failure from climate change is happening right now with corn and soybeans in the American Midwest. The permafrost in the Arctic is melting accelerating the release of heat-trapping gasses.
Accelerating: that means all the bad changes we’re already seeing will happen faster and larger than the changes we haven’t really adjusted to, so far, in this frustrating fantastic journey that our “modern economy” is taking us on.
We all love being in rich, relatively free societies removed from the drudgery and pain of pre-industrial agricultural economies – yet my work as an amateur historian leaves me convinced that every major industry has “developed” by using the ability to dump their wastes cost-free into the global environments that support us, and every living thing. The dumping of fossil fuel waste into our atmosphere, unfortunately, has the consequence of heating the planet so we can’t live comfortably on it any more.
Extreme weather events, heat spells covering continents for months, floods we can hardly imagine, beyond-Category-5 hurricanes coverings 800 miles, the collapse of the Pacific fisheries, or simultaneous failures of global wheat, rice and cassava crops. Can you imagine the spectacle if Miami gets an 8-foot hurricane surge that doesn’t want to leave?
I’m pushing 70, I’m thinking of the crap I’m leaving my children. If you’re 50 MAYBE the world lasts long enough for you to retire for a few years with a semblance of today. If you’re 40 or under it is YOUR LIFE that is at stake.
The scale of the potential catastrophe – essentially, our suicide as a “civilization” leaving only a few hunter-gatherers if any of us at all – is so great that we, as individuals, as members of families and communities and citizens of nations have to fully confront the question: Does Anything Else Really Matter?
In the face of the existential/extinction crisis facing us as individuals and as a species, I can safely say that your games and TV shows certainly won’t matter, your social media triumphs and tragedies, the stuff you’ve saved on your phone, none of those things will matter. Your jobs, your savings and properties, your money will matter a lot in the run-up to the final crises – but they won’t matter if there’s no food or water to be bought. Your personality preferences and your politics – to the extent that they’re not focused on reversing the emergency – won’t, in the end when it all collapses, matter. Your loves, your sex drives, your feelings for your children and your grandchildren (or your possible children and grandchildren), none of that will matter – because hardly any of them, any of us will survive the disasters — if we can’t get it together to stop and reverse the climate emergency. The systems we have created that enable our wonderful lifestyles are not going to matter in the end, because to the extent they depend on fossil fuels or other pollution outputs, they are actively creating the agents of their own, of our own, destruction.
I’m trapped in it too, I can’t stop driving myself around to fulfill the three jobs that keep my family going economically. Two of those jobs are with the businesses run by my handicapped wife, I can’t get out of the many chores I have each day to help her keep going. At age 68 and nowhere-near-retired, I’m trying to convince myself that it’s a good idea to invest a big chunk of my retirement savings in an electric car and a lot of solar panels for the house. I love my comforts and conveniences as much as the next privileged person, yet it’s getting clearer and clearer that many things will have to change greatly if any global societies, either privileged or underprivileged, are to survive at any economic level resembling today’s.
Yet it’s also becoming clearer that significant change is exactly what our government and economic leaders are not willing to, or feel they are able to, allow. Any Progress can only be allowed at the slowest speed, with retrograde urges from the already-privileged at every step.
The business and technology tycoons of the richer, freer countries, and the governments they support, and the even more selfish and more ruthless government dictators and privileged elites that control the two-thirds of the world that is less rich and less free, have apparently decided that maintaining their selfish comforts as long as possible is far more important than the survival of large populations enjoying stable food, water and housing supplies.
On the hopeful assumption we haven’t already burned ourselves, how many years can we keep dumping trillions of tons of heating gases into the atmosphere before we fatally condemn our future? 3? 5, maybe 7? I admit I’m just guessing, but 11 years to 2030 sounds way too long to me, and to think that setting goals for 2050 can be significant is a ridiculous fantasyland.
So the challenges are severe, nearly impossible. We have to remove (or bring very major changes in the behavior of) the most selfish, most powerful people in the world, the plutocrats, the dictators, and all their servants including the Republican Senators in America. The intelligent and altruistic persons in our world will have to overcome the selfish and short-sighted persons, something which is all too rare in human history.
There are no pat answers, and I don’t want you to fall shivering and helpless in hopeless pessimism. We all do need our entertainments and diversions, we all certainly need to spend time maintaining and improving our love and family connections. This is a capitalist world and all us non-plutocrats have to struggle to put food on the heated, well-lit table every night. But in World War II our parents and grandparents and great-grands had rationed food and gasoline. Are any of us ready to face that in an emergency? And gasoline and all fossil fuels need to get out of here posthaste anyway.
Yet my work as an amateur historian has led me to one big idea, a sort of “learning aid” for making sense out of all the crazy and conflicting data about human beings, helping connect our everyday actions to the basic social sciences so every person can try to be “your own best social scientist” in figuring out what people you know and see in your environment are doing and why they’re doing it. (It’s a 20-page book longform presentation, in my website that is a small book with my current articles and historical/autobiographical information, hope you can check it in a relaxed state of mind.) And the conclusion I’d like to share here is that we are not helpless in the face of this emergency.
We can (and we often do anyway) change our psychologies, our personalities and our personality structures, we can make the sacrifices and do the work that we’re going to have to do to save a world for ourselves and our children.
We can (and we often do) change our “explanations,” our sciences, our religions, our philosophies, and we can make sure our explanations of why things are the way they are, fit the reality we are finding so that we can find realistic solutions for immediate problems.
The realm of politics, our natural tendency to judge and rank others in our communities and to create status and rank, which has “crystalized” in our world into some 190 very specific nation-states, all with specific government structures to carry out their mandate of power over public behavior, yet all these government structures in their ways can be seen as very specific cliques with clear rules of behavior for joining and advancing in government structures, and the vast majority of them are too often ready to disregard their “citizens” at a moment’s notice (and even the best ones can end up disregarding their citizens on various issues).
Yet we can (and we do) change our judgements of who we honor in our daily lives and in our communities, and we can (and we do) change our ways of working with (or avoiding, or working against) our specific national and local governments, according to how they are aggravating or working to reduce the climate emergency (and how and when one may safely oppose their jealous government).
And in the realm of economics, our systems of value and our creation of goods and services to fulfill those values, we can and do change the most easily of all. Getting out of gasoline in X years will be very tough, it will require a lot of personal sacrifices by a lot of people. How do we make them happy about saving their children’s lives by giving up that comfy SUVin America, or the noisy, dirty 2-stroke vehicle that spells convenience for hundreds of millions throughout rural and urban India, Thailand, the Philippines, and others?
Yet we have been adapting to economic changes every season since our times as hunter-gatherer tribes, our consumer cultures can spin things very quickly, can we use psychology in economics to make it “cool” to use as little energy as possible?
Because of the tremendous opposition we face, two of our best resources are our creativity, and our communities. We plan against doomsdays by cultivating community resources of persons and goods and services and mutual support, we use our creativity to overcome all the persons and institutions that are stuck in the past.
It’s a heck of a load of work we face, and it’s going to have to be done together with a whole lot of other political and economic struggles, but if you plan on living much past 2025 or 2035, it looks like The Climate Emergency is going to be, in far too many times and places, the only thing that Really Matters.