Despair is the loss of the assumption that the species will inevitably pull through. It represents a genuine accession to the possibility that this planetary experiment will end, the curtain rung down, the show over.
In October, 2012, professor and blogger, Guy McPherson presented a devastating report on climate change at Bluegrass Bioneers in Louisville, Kentucky. Much of what McPherson stated has been written about over the years at his blog, Nature Bats Last, but watching the video presentation and absorbing its contents through that medium takes this information to an entirely new level.
McPherson begins by telling the audience that he has some really bad news for them as well as some astonishingly good news, and he begins with what he calls, the “good” news.
One of the first slides of his presentation lists the names of 80 researchers in the areas of energy, environment, and economics who believe that by the end of 2012, our current set of living arrangements will be done. They have projected that by that time, “we’ll have no water coming out of the municipal taps, no food at the grocery store, no fuel at the filling station, no lights on here in the Empire.” Obviously, at the point at which McPherson was giving his presentation, there were only two months left in 2012.
McPherson acknowledges that some of these individuals have been wrong, and some of them wrong many times; nevertheless, he emphasizes that the world’s industrial economy has been declining since 1999 or 2000, depending on which metric you use. And he says, “If you think that can’t happen quickly, that an empire can’t fall relatively quickly, think about the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The last superpower didn’t take a dozen years to fall.” McPherson referring, of course, to theSoviet Union.
Why is all of this good news? According to McPherson:
This is good news because if we stop this omnicidal, suicidal set of living arrangements that we call industrial civilization, then that will actually force us to stop climate chaos–which threatens us with near-term extinction. It will force us to stop human population overshoot, which proceeds currently at the rate of more than 200,000 individuals per day added to the planet–that’s births minus deaths. 200,000 people per day brought into the world that they didn’t choose to be brought into. It’s not like we vote for that. We just appear here. Nobody chose this time in history. And we don’t have food for those people. We don’t have clear water. We don’t have clean air for all those people we’re adding every day. And there’s seven billion plus of us now. At what point do we stop demanding this on an overpopulated planet?
McPherson does not see any hope of humans, of their own accord, coming to any agreements to alter their lifestyles in the ways that are absolutely necessary to significantly reduce climate change. While climate summits continue to occur regularly such as the one which began last month in Doha, Qatar, very little has changed in terms of humankind’s willingness to live differently. In fact, a story at the Common Dreams website this week reported that As Global Pollution Hits Record High, Frighteningly Hot Future Seems Inevitable. The opening paragraph of the story states:
New global carbon emission numbers released on Sunday show that the world is heading in the exact wrong direction when it comes to its energy production policies and scientists at the Global Carbon Project now say that frightening climate change impacts are all but inevitable without a “radical plan” to decrease the level of greenhouse gasses spewing into the atmosphere.
For McPherson, the good news is that:
When the industrial economy collapses–and I’m not saying that it will happen this year or next year, but it will happen; this set of living arrangements will come to an end. All civilization fall, including industrial civilization. When that happens, we’ll be forced to slow or stop the sixth great extinction, which is proceeding at a pace of 200 species a day, every single life-destroying day. 200 species a day. That’s genocide. That’s what the industrial economy allows us and apparently forces us to do. 200 species a day, as if we have the right.
And finally, termination of this set of living arrangements will force us to stop environmental decay. And here I’m thinking about every part of the world that has become worse every year of my 52 years on the planet. Everybody that I know thinks that every year has been better than the year before because we’ve got iPads and Kindles, right. But from my perspective, every year has been worse than the year before. Every year we have more soil that we wash into the worlds oceans. Every year we foul more air and dirty more water. Every year we destroy every aspect of the living planet that we actually need to survive. And we think it’s cool because we have smart phones. Let’s make the right trade.
But before proceeding with McPherson’s presentation and other daunting realities about what is happening to our planet, let’s be clear about what the Sixth Great Extinction is. If we understand the other five extinctions on this planet, we will have a context for the impending extinction that humans are now busy engendering. According to National Geographic’s Newswatch website:
The first extinction, named the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, occurred around 440 million years ago (m.y.a.). Scientists hypothesize that both a southerly continental drift that led to a drastic decrease in temperatures and radiation caused by the collapse of a massive star known as a hyper nova may have caused this massive loss of diversity on Earth.
The second extinction was the Late Devonian. Approximately 370 m.y.a., there was a sharp decrease in marine reef biodiversity. Many factors may have played a part in the Late Devonian extinction, but the causes remain mostly unknown.
Around 245 million years ago, during the Permian-Triassic extinction event, marine species died off to such an extent that oceanic reefs did not exist anywhere on the planet for ten million years. A combination of factors, including volcanic eruptions, climate change and a possible meteorite impact, made this the largest historical extinction event.
In the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, circa 210 m.y.a., 48 percent of genera vanished from the earth, including 80 percent of quadrupeds and half of all marine invertebrates. Although the causes of this event are unknown, scientists believe that volcanic activity contributed to extinctions.
The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, circa 65 m.y.a. (formerly known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary or K-T), is best known for the extinction of the dinosaurs and nearly all large animal species. During this event, temperatures increased by as much as 57 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) and sea levels rose as much as three hundred meters.
During each extinction event, between 50 and 95 percent of the planet’s life was lost, resulting in dramatically changed biotic characteristics. Generally, ten million years pass before biodiversity reaches pre-event levels.
This chronology is useful, but it is followed by a devastating statement:
The Sixth, however, may be the most catastrophic in history. It is estimated that half of all plants, animals and birds on the planet will die off before 2100. This extinction is the first to occur during the existence of homo sapiens, and it simultaneously began 100,000 years ago, a date that corresponds with the beginnings of our dispersion fromAfrica. In fact, this extinction is almost exclusively human driven.
But back to Guy McPherson who is getting ready to deliver the really bad news:
And here comes the bad news, and most people stop right here, by the way. Most people stop with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with their five year old assessment of one degree C in 88 years. And we know so much more than that now. For a couple of reasons. We have an abundance of data. We’re collecting planet data on an enormous level. And the models are so much better than they were five years ago. You probably know Moore’s Law–the rapidity with which computation speed is increasing. So we know better than this, yet most people stop right here. By the way, one degree C is catastrophic. We’ve been convinced by a neoclassical economist, of all things, that two degrees C is something we should worry about. William Nordhaus somehow hijacked the conversation and said, “Two degrees C is something to worry about. One degree is no big deal.”
One degree is a big deal, as we’ve known for more than 20 years. One degree C temperature increase leads to “rapid, unpredictable, and non-linear responses that could (will, and have) lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” We’ve known this for over 20 years. This is one of the greatest coverups by the corporate media I’ve ever heard about.
So both one degree is a big deal, and two degrees are even more worrisome. But McPherson is just beginning because here are two more incredibly frightening statistics:
The International Energy Agency with their World Energy Outlook … since November of 2010 has said that we’ll be at 3.5 degrees C warmer by 2035. That’s a big deal. That’s not very long from now.
What is more, according to McPherson:
United Nations Environmental Program, December of 2010, says more than five degrees C by 2050. More than five degrees C kills the oceans. The ocean become so acidified that essentially nothing can live there, including the thermophiles found at incredible depths and at enormous temperatures. Phytoplanktons in the ocean produce half our oxygen, by the way.
Additionally, a report by the esteemed Price Waterhouse accounting firm asks Is It Too Late For Two Degrees? The answer: “Governments’ ambitions to limit warning to 2°C now appear highly unrealistic. This new reality means that we must contemplate a much more challenging future. Whilst the negotiators continue to focus on 2°C, a growing number of scientists and other expert organisations are now projecting much more pessimistic scenarios for global temperatures. The International Energy Agency, for example, now considers 4°C and 6°C scenarios as well as 2°C in their latest analysis.”
But believe it or not, the news is worse than this because as McPherson notes, none of these assessments include positive feedback loops. That is, in his words, “These all assume simple linear projections from one year to the next, one decade to the next.” Can there be any worse news than this? Actually, there is. Here McPherson cites the National Academy of Sciences:
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, one of the premier science journals in the entire world, in a paper published in February of 2009–so a long time ago now–“Climate Change is Irreversible”–what the paper actually found was that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide today is the minimum level we will observe for at least the next thousand years. So we’re at an average carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere right now of 396 parts per million. And we’ll be at 396 ppm for at least the next thousand years. That’s the minimum. 350.org is a bad joke. It’s disingenuous, or ignorant. There’s no way we’ll see 350 ppm CO2 within at least the next thousand years. Promoting that as if we could get there is ridiculous.
At this point McPherson adds, “I suspect we’re going to see an ice-freeArcticwithin the next three years. If so, it will be the first time for three million years–before there were human beings on the planet, in other words. It will be the first time for three million years there will be an ice-freeArctic. We’re on path for that to happen in 2014 or 2015.”
He then reminds us of the huge 800-pound gorilla beneath the Arctic ice melt, namely methane.
…methane is also escaping from the world’s oceans, and particularly in theArctic. There are methane hydrates or clathrates–those are synonyms–little cages of methane that are floating up to the surface as the ocean warms, and then the methane is being released into the atmosphere. Methane is about 100 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short time, 20 to 30 times more powerful molecule for molecule than carbon dioxide in the long term, over a hundred years or so–but we don’t have a hundred years.
In terms of Antarctica, Live Science reported on August 29, 2012, as did a number of other media, that Billions Of Tons Of Methane Lurk Beneath Antarctic Ice. “There could be tons of methane hydrate beneath the Antarctic ice sheet,” said study researcher Jemma Wadham of theUniversity ofBristol’sSchool ofGeographical Sciences. “If you start to thin that ice cover, that hydrate starts to become unstable and turns into gas, and that gas can go into the atmosphere.”
On November 25, the UK Independent reported a related and similarly chilling story Rise Of Acid Ocean Eats Away Base Of Food Chain, which adds yet another lethal reality to the equation.
On Monday, November 12, Radio Ecoshock broadcast, “What They Won’t Tell You About Climate Catastrophe,” a presentation by Professor Kevin Anderson of the UK’s Tyndall Center For Climate Change Research, that nation’s premier climate modeling institution. Speaking at the Cabot Institute of the University of Bristol on November 6, Anderson told the audience that “our future is not possible.” He accused “too many climate scientists of keeping quiet about the unrealistic assessments put out by governments, and our awful odds of reaching global warming far above the proposed 2 degree safe point. In fact, saysAnderson, we are almost guaranteed to reach 4 degrees of warming, as early as 2050, and may soar far beyond that – beyond the point which agriculture, the ecosystem, and industrial civilization can survive.”
Chris Hedges at his Truthdig website in an article entitled Stand Still For The Apocalypse cited the 2012 World Bank Report written by the Postdam Institute For Climate Impact Research And Climate Analytics which paints a picture of “a world convulsed by rising temperatures…a mixture of mass chaos, systems collapse and medical suffering like that of the worst of the Black Plague, which in the 14th century killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.” Quoting the report, Hedges states:
A failure to respond will assure an ecological nightmare that will most probably be accompanied by an economic, social and political breakdown. The human species, the report says, will cross “critical social system thresholds,” and “existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse.” The “stresses on human health, such as heat waves, malnutrition, and decreasing quality of drinking water due to seawater intrusion, have the potential to overburden health-care systems to a point where adaptation is no longer possible, and dislocation is forced.
Catastrophic climate change, oceans releasing methane, and oceans rapidly acidifying. These phenomena are essentially final, irreversible, and constitute a massive extinction scenario.
Making Sense Of Our Predicament
Near the conclusion of his presentation, McPherson asks: “What underlies the Armageddon we have triggered? …What underlies it is our drive to consume. The way we live–particularly in this country, requires us to live far from where we work, far from where we play, far from where we shop for all the things we think we need with the money we don’t have–forces us to consume. What underlies the industrial economy of theUnited States? 70 percent of it is underlain by personal consumption.”
Climate change is real, and it is human-caused. We engender climate change in different ways—overpopulation, using fossil fuels, and above all, by consuming. Before the advent of industrial civilization, humans used to consume, for the most part, what they actually needed. Today, consuming has become an addiction. In answer to McPherson’s question, “What underlies our drive to consume?” I would answer: the profound emptiness that inhabits the psyches of human beings in the modern, industrial world. Yes, many aspects of the industrial living arrangement force us to consume, but whenever those aspects are threatened by any talk of creating different living arrangements because those arrangements are creating climate change, both the politician and the ordinary citizen begin recoiling in terror. In other words, we consume voraciously because we cannot imagine another, more satisfying way of life, and we know that if we do not maintain our consumption-saturated lifestyles, we will be forced to confront our sense of emptiness and lack of meaning.
McPherson asks: “So now what? What do we do in the face of this information? Most people I know will just run from it…or pretend that this never happened.” Then he adds: “Channeling a little Springsteen, ‘In the end, what you don’t surrender well the world just strips away.’ So, let go. Let go, or be dragged. Seize the day. Or, a quote by my own personal hero (Nietzsche), ‘Live as though the day were here’.”
Words like “surrender” or “letting go” are foreign concepts in our culture, and the only thing most people in the modern world are open to seizing is the next shopping event or the next lottery ticket.
Human beings, as McPherson notes and as Derrick Jensen has written for years, are successfully making every species on this planet extinct, including our own. We appear to be so addicted to consumption and so intransigently locked into our lifestyles that we are willing to manifest the Sixth Extinction on earth.
As McPherson argues, the efforts of 350.Org, while admirable are woefully inadequate because of the realities and the rapidity of temperature increases. While such campaigns may make us feel better for a little while, they are not adequate for addressing the fundamental issue which is the trajectory on which industrial civilization is moving and the fact that it, not carbon quantities per se, is the problem that needs to be addressed.
In our addiction to technological fixes and puerile happy endings, some have proposed massive geo-engineering feats to alleviate or reverse climate change. Naturally, they are highly invested in government contracts and the profits that can accrue as a result of what a recent Al Jazeera story calls “A Climate Frankenstein.” Moreover, these endeavors could backfire and actually worsen the effects of climate change. What is more, we do not have time to experiment with measures that rather than alleviating our predicament, may actually prove to worsen it.
Since we cannot reverse or significantly affect climate change short of the collapse of industrial civilization, what can we do?
First, we must recognize that there is nowhere on this planet to which we can “escape” in order to avoid the devastating repercussions of climate change. Therefore, it is necessary to adapt in place. If one’s place is situated in a drought zone, then one must adapt accordingly by radically conserving water. If living in a likely earthquake zone, then one must become a student of earthquake preparation. The same is true for nearly all geographical areas and their inherent risks in the face of dramatically rising temperatures.
Secondly, get involved in local politics—your city council and county commissions and present the facts regarding climate change and its repercussions in your area. Organize other citizens in your vicinity to petition and to get resilient response initiatives on the ballot.
Thirdly, recognize that beyond natural disasters and the devastation of resources such as water and soil as a result of climate change, the health of all human beings is at risk as a result of infectious and degenerative diseases that will ensue from climate change. In order to maintain one’s own well being, it is crucial to attend to one’s fitness. Fitness in this culture has become synonymous with becoming a champion weight lifter or marathon runner. However, fitness simply means that one is living in a state of physical and mental well being. Keeping the immune system vibrant and resistant is one of the most fundamental issues in preventing illness. This means attending assiduously to one’s nutrition, exercise, sleep, and relaxation regimen.
Confronting One’s Own Extinction
Independent of climate change, life has always been fatal. None of us leaves here alive. Few individuals, however, begin confronting their mortality until the second half of life, but climate change is leveling that playing field. Humans of all ages who are willing to face the dire realities of climate change invariably confront not only their own mortality but the likelihood that it will occur sooner rather than later. I believe that this is the fundamental reason that humans refuse to engage with climate change and alter their lifestyles in response to it. On some level, the inhabitants of industrial civilization believe that downsizing their lives is synonymous with death. How not in a culture that has inculcated us to believe that we aren’t really alive unless we have all of the stuff and things that civilization delivers? To downsize is to die; to live in relationship with the planet we inhabit means we will cease to exist.
But there is a grain of truth in these assumptions. In fact, downsizing is a form of death. It requires us to die to our cherished beliefs and expectations, and that means “we” will cease to exist. The “we” to which I’m referring, of course, is our identity as consumers as opposed to our sense of ourselves as a community of creatures living in relationship with the other creatures on this planet. If I don’t know who I am, then I must live by the rules of a suicidal, voracious, devouring culture that is killing every living thing on earth, including myself.
Joanna Macy writes in World As Lover, World As Self, that:
When you look at what is happening to our world—and it is hard to look at what is happening to our water, our air, our trees, our fellow species—it becomes clear that unless you have some roots in a spiritual practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, facing the enormous challenges ahead becomes nearly impossible. (185)
Therefore, does it not make sense that in addition to the collapse of industrial civilization, which in my opinion, everyone of us must be busy facilitating, we must radically alter our relationship with ourselves? Is it not now painfully obvious that without a transformation of consciousness in which we intimately encounter the deeper, sacred self within us, we will forever be searching externally for treasure that can only be discovered in the inner world? In this way, we access meaning and purpose, both in our own human experience and in our human predicament. We commit to adapting in place, building community, and alleviating the myriad forms of suffering resulting from climate change. At the same time, we recognize our limits in this endeavor and come to terms with our own personal extinction. None of this is easy, but wanting the human condition to be easy is part of what got us where we are.
If you have read this far, you have opened yourself to far more than most inhabitants of planet earth will ever entertain. Now knowing what you have let yourself know, is it not imperative to expand your sense of self so that you can empower and enrich the rest of your days on earth and surrender (as McPherson channeling Nietzsche would say) to “living as if the day were here”?
This article began with a quote by Joanna Macy about despair—a word that literally means out of air, out of breath, out of inspiration. One synonym is hopelessness. Yet I believe we can face our extinction and still live as if the day were here because despair has the capacity to compel us to make meaning from our circumstances and demonstrate previously-untapped layers of compassion within us. I do not wish to attempt to put a pretty face on despair, yet our despair regarding extinction dispels all illusions of separateness from all other members of the earth community. As we drink the cup of despair, we join every other being in embracing our mutual finitude and the inexorable reality that we matter to each other. We acknowledge the tragedy of a species that within two hundred years destroyed an entire planet and its myriad ecosystems. We surrender to our fate, but in the same moment, we cherish the feelings we allowed ourselves to feel, the beauty we savored and created, the difference we made in the lives of others, the commitments we made single-handedly to living in harmony with the earth community even when other members of our species were oblivious to their participation in it. Ultimately, we recognize the weaving of the earth’s story within our own story, and we celebrate our biological union with the rivers and the soil. And when the last species has been made extinct, this recognition is what makes the demise sacred.