Thursday 12 March 2020

It's ok, finally, to freak out

'The Uninhabitable Earth' by David Wallace-Wells is not a read for the faint-hearted.  Here we are floating in space. So alone. Our existence 'utterly improbable':

"This is among the things cosmologists mean when they talk about the utter improbability of anything as advanced as human intelligence evolving anywhere in a universe as inhospitable to life as this one: every uninhabitable planet out there is a reminder of just how unique a set of circumstances is required to produce a climate equilibrium supportive of life. No intelligent life that we know of ever evolved, anywhere in the universe, outside the narrow Goldilocks range of temperatures that enclose all of human evolution, and that we have now left behind, probably permanently." (p.42-3)

For thirty years or more science and business have understood the nature of what is happening to our planet. Businesses did not want to tell us, as their destruction of the planet is necessary for the generation of wealth. Science was reticent, they did not want to tell us because they did not think people could be trusted:

"The terms are slippery, like any good insult, but serve to circumscribe the scope of 'reasonable' perspective on climate. Which is why scientific reticence is another reason we don't see the threat so clearly - the experts signalling strongly that it is irresponsible to communicate openly about the more worrisome possibilities for global warming, as though they didn't trust the world with the information they themselves had, or at least didn't trust the public to interpret it and respond properly. Whatever that means: it has not been thirty years since Hansen's first testimony and the establishment of the IPCC, and climate concern has traversed the small peaks and small valleys but never meaningfully jumped upwards. In terms of public response, the results are even more dismal. Within the United States, climate denial took over one of the two major parties and essentially major legislative action. Abroad, we have had a series fo high-profile conferences, treaties, and accords, but they increasingly look like so many acts of climate kabuki; emissions are still growing, unabated." (p155-6)

The supposed progress some countries have made in reducing carbon emissions has been like gathering the low-hanging fruit. The move to renewable energy sources is just the tip of the iceberg where behaviour change is concerned for the human race:

"That task, he continues, is smaller than the challenge of reducing energy demand, which is smaller than that challenge of reinventing how good and services are provided - given that global supply chains are built with dirty infrastructure and labor markets everywhere are still powered with dirty energy. There is also the need to get to zero emissions from all other sources - deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills. And the need to protect all human systems from the coming onslaught of natural disasters and extreme weather. And the need to erect a system of global government, or at least international cooperation, to coordinate such a project. All of which is a smaller task, Steffen says, 'than the monumental cultural undertaking of imagining together a thriving, dynamic, sustainable future that feels not only possible, but worth fighting for'." (p178)

I found this hard to get my head around because it has become where I am personally. I cannot imagine a future, cannot imagine the human race capable of making the changes needed. I have always had a positive view of human nature, that cooperation is an innate part of our makeup, but the enormity of the situation subsumes reason and hope. The book works through chapters about water, air, heat, hunger, drowning, conflict, economic collapse and the morality of the end of the world. I sank a little deeper with each page. When I searched his name I did find this article outlining reactions from scientists to his original New Yorker article (that was developed into this book) which basically accuses him of scaremongering. If you bear in mind that even the moderate, best-case scenarios are pretty disastrous I think that maybe it is time, in Greta's words, for us all to panic:

"These are the disconcerting, contradictory lessons of global warming, which counsels both human humility and human grandiosity, each drawn from the same perception of peril. The climate system that gave rise to the human species, and to everything we know of as civilization, is so fragile that it has been brought to the brink of total instability by just one generation of human activity. But that instability is also a measure of the human power that engineered it, almost by accident, and which must now stop the damage, in only as much time. If humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it. We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods. But for the moment, at least, most of us seem more inclined to run from the responsibility than embrace it - or even admit we see it, though it sits in front of us as plainly as a steering wheel." (p.220)

I started reading the IPCC report 18 months ago and trying to write something concise about an incredibly complex document, and gave up because it was too overwhelming. The news is pretty bad, and I think that what David Wallace-Wells does in this book is take the ideas, and some of the science, and try and put them into something understandable; how it might impact real life without all the detailed statistics that just baffle most people. You can accuse him of sensationalising, but give me that over bland reassurances any day.

p.s. a stockpile of toilet rolls is not going to help.

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