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What does serious climate change look like?

November 13th, 2013 · 3 Comments

Erratic, with this guest post, made me think … Perhaps you will find it interesting as well.  And, well, perhaps you agree with me in hoping that “people” do / that humanity does “survive this bottleneck”.

In Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, the father describes a persistent delusion where his family is surrounded by a cloud of poison gas, but he’s the only one that can see it, and if he tells the others, they’ll become aware and be poisoned by it. It’s a tragic and remarkable image for a man whose toxic alcoholism has seriously compromised his ability to be a good father to his family. Sometimes, I feel similarly about climate change, that there’s a gathering poisonous cloud that we’re really not taking seriously.

When I do env ed programs with students on stormwater runoff and habitat, part of me feels they’d be better served if we were teaching wilderness survival skills – how to build shelter and stay warm. When I plant native plants and create habitat, I wonder how likely they are to survive the coming climate instability which is apparently locked in.

We read plenty of encouraging stories about green-tech and recycling, but there’s little serious discussion of making the kind of cultural/consumption shifts that would significantly change our current consumption levels. The marketed fantasy is that we can continue living at our current level of luxury (even middle and low-income people have access to wealth and resources that would be inconceiveable for the elite 500-1000 years back: health care, refrigerators, electricity, transport…), while gradually greening the economy. And I’m certainly participating in that fantasy as well – I sometimes fly places, eat way more meat than necessary, drive a car, and generally live far more extravagantly than needed.

I’m going to skip the stats on this and go with general impressions, but we’re looking at some very serious changes in the next 20-30 years, with no signs of slowing down. There’s a level on which sea level rise, rising temperatures, reduced access to food and energy resources, glaciers melting, and so on all fit into the disaster movie narrative – people running around screaming while things burn and explode and tidal waves loom, but the protagonists always outrun and outlast and find shelter. And it can be quite satisfying to fantasize about going back to the land and rebuilding society from a small community of survivors, but that glosses over the part where millions die.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression, where fields turned to dust, there were serious food shortages and work was hard to find. My grandfather walked the streets of the town he lived in doing math in his head to make himself smarter and ate “ketchup sandwitches” at diners, where for the price of a cup of coffee you’d get free crackers that he’d put ketchup on. When he died, he left behind a stash of several gallons of condiments in single packets that he’d saved over the years. My grandmother’s mother was pushed off her husband’s farm by his siblings after he died young (from a horsefly bite, apparently) and travelled west to marry a man she’d met in a “Lonely Hearts” column to provide for her children.

North America weathered the Great Depression by tapping abundant natural resources and technological developments – irrigation opened up California for extensive agriculture, WW2 jumpstarted an industrial economy that ground all the way through to the 90s, and the US acheived a socio-political domination that has fed global resource extraction and consumption until now. It’s entirely natural for people with less to work for more, and to this day the US represents the halcyon of resource extraction and consumption, setting the example for everyone else.

Consumption is a deeply engrained instinct for humans, we feel profoundly entitled to take what we need and want from the world around us, as other animals do. I get really grumpy when I miss a meal, and don’t remember the last time I went a day without food. But the system that we depend on for resource delivery has become untenuously complex and expensive. Breakdowns like Sandy and Katrina have been small-scale illustrations of the impact of climate disruptions, but in both cases enormous resources were committed quickly to address the needs.

What we’re facing with climate change is far more serious – sea level rise that will displace millions of people, collapse of fisheries, and climate-based agricultural instability. Oil and gas still feed the machine, but a few bad harvests due to weather would jack prices up enormously. And where we’re heading isn’t towards a few bad harvests, but towards a reality where our summers become our winters. The US outcome is relatively benign, in that they will likely burn while Europe freezes, but then there’s all that Canada to colonize.

Long-term, I feel the only outcome is a transition to primarily subsistence agriculture, back to where we were a century ago, with a much smaller population base than now. A few thousand years ago, most of North America was covered by glaciers, and the Earth has already gone through at least 4 extinction events, so a 5th will likely work out fine. Corals and fish will repopulate the ocean, fairy shrimp will continue, and nature will recolonize.

I remember a few years back, hanging out with some locals on a beach in Zanzibar, and telling them about the “Survivor” show, where they leave some Americans on an island. We were staying in a place where most of what we ate came from local gardens, and what the fishermen had caught that day. “So they go fishing!” the locals said. I told them that they didn’t know how to fish. “Then they make a garden!”. They don’t know how to make a garden, I said. “But then they starve!”, they said, shocked.

I do feel strongly that there’s a bottleneck coming. There are many parts of this world where people don’t have the resources now to thrive. Cultures and communities that retain subsistence-level wisdom of how to access resources likely have better odds of survival. I feel that where we are now is similar to where other societies have been, unknowingly on the cusp of disaster – the Maya, drinking chocolate and sacrificing to Chac while the weather changed, the Pueblo, and so on. We create increasingly elaborate fantasies to avoid facing the reality before us. We’re unique in that we have been well-informed of the impending disaster.

Sometimes I think I should just go chase the cash and live well as I can for now, sometimes I think I should go find a good place to start a stable subsistence lifestyle, sometimes I think I should go shelter somewhere like an island that will better weather the storm, sometimes I think I should be fighting much harder for change.

I’ve been living within this for over twenty years, since I learned about the ozone layer issue in high school, which now seems like a ridiculously trivial issue. The only consolation that I take now when I think about the changes ahead is that I know that nature is persistent and enduring. I honestly don’t much care whether people survive this bottleneck, but I expect that they will.

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Tags: catastrophic climate change · climate change · environmental · Global Warming

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Nov 15, 2013 at 9:26 am

    “Long-term, I feel the only outcome is a transition to primarily subsistence agriculture, back to where we were a century ago, with a much smaller population base than now. ”

    This is the kind of bullshit that convinces most ordinary people that the green movement is fundamentally hostile to the interests of working people and the poor. It is picture-poster advertising for the “Freeze in the Dark” school of environmentalism.

    I have said over and over again to you that ignoring the crushing material needs of the world’s ordinary people is not only unethical, but politically stupid. I would guess that most politicians – of whatever political stripe – would avoid people like Erratic like the plague. Those that do not will forever be consigned to tenths of a percentage point.

    “Subsistence agriculture”????? Good lord! First, I doubt Erratic has raised anything more than a geranium. Second, it is mathematically impossible to feed the world’s current population with subsistence agriculture – thus, there are qualities of genocidal language in such a statement. That is – if you accept the killing of millions of people such as in the Great Leap Forward Famine by ignoring basic food needs as a form of genocide. Third, world agriculture was already well beyond subsistence a century ago. So erratic shows a profound lack of knowledge, as well. Does his/her ignorance spread to other areas as well?

    The extreme right is surging worldwide, Mr. Siegel. There is a connection between the abandonment of basic material issues of the working poor while on quixotic adventures and the steady rightward drift. Marine LePen polled on top for the E.P. elections in France – the first time the Front National has ever done so.

    This is not to say that environmental issues are not critically important; however, when you post something that demonstrates such a profound disconnect – it confirms that the green left is clueless.

  • 2 John Egan // Nov 16, 2013 at 9:40 am

    It is as if this article about the Front National were written for you – and The Guardian isn’t exactly a right-wing rag.

  • 3 Sean Prophet // Nov 17, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    This is –chapter and verse–dark green environmentalism. It’s just James Howard Kunstler all over again. We need bright green solutions. I’ve been talking about this stuff for the past 15 years, and let me tell you that no matter how bad things seem, this kind of “subsistence agriculture” doomsaying is completely counterproductive.

    Whatever our odds are of surviving the climate crisis, they are made infinitely worse when you intellectually consign all but 1 billion human beings to death. (The subtext of those two horrible little words, “subsistence agriculture.”)

    And I say this as a long time reader and great admirer of this site.