A few days ago I watched the documentary Chasing Ice, as part of our local Transition initiative’s film series. What really struck me in the film was the narrator’s four word comment about 1/3 through the film when he was discussing what we can/should do about arctic melting and runaway climate change:
“There is no time.”
Just that. He meant that there is no time for us to continue to do what we have been doing — the politicking, stalling, denial, endless debate and research. But what these four words mean to me, and I think at a visceral and perhaps subconscious level what they now mean to many people who are informed about what is happening in our world, is that there is no time for us to pull back from collapse, no time to avoid or even mitigate runaway climate change and the emergence, later this century, of a climate on Earth as different (7-8oC) from today’s (though in the opposite direction) as the climate during the most recent glacial maxima (colloquially, “Ice Ages”) 20 and 140 and 260 and 340 and 440 thousand years ago.
During these “Ice Ages” much of the planet’s land mass was covered in ice an average of 2 km thick, and the regions adjacent to the ice-covered areas suffered constant windstorms that transformed them into scrub and desert, and beyond that desert, what are now semi-tropical areas were covered in boreal forest. Equatorial areas then, in addition to being much cooler than today, see-sawed between prolonged periods of monsoon-like rains and periods of extended drought.
What will our planet be like with 7-8 degrees of warming in the next few decades? Weather will likely be more extreme (more flooding, desertification and fires, and, later, much higher sea levels) and much more turbulent, but instead of only the equatorial areas being habitable by significant human numbers, as happened during the “Ice Ages”, only the polar areas, with whatever vegetation will have emerged there in that short time, will likely be habitable in the coming “Fire Age”.
The Fire This Time.
There is no time for us to avert this. But there is time to imagine potential future scenarios and how we might react to them, to increase our resilience to the large-scale changes to our way of living it will bring, and to prepare ourselves for them (intellectually, emotionally, and capacity-wise that is — for the coming Long Emergency, hoarding assets and building bunkers is not a viable strategy).
What complicates the future scenario for our planet is that we are also nearing End Games in our global economic and energy/resource systems, as I diagrammed in my post last month. Neither system is sustainable for more than a few more years, a few decades at most, and both systems affect the rate of atmospheric pollution and hence the extent and timing of runaway climate change.
I’m writing a series of articles that explains all this in more detail for the fledgling Sustainability Showcase magazine, but the chart above summarizes the interrelationship of our economic, resource/energy, and climate/ecological systems, and how ‘collapse’ (i.e. dramatic and uncontrolled unbalancing and change, with largely unpredictable consequences) of any of these systems would likely affect the other two. Here’s the prognosis in a nutshell:
Best case (Eisenstein) scenario: Shift to Sharing Economy precipitates near-term, gradual collapse of the industrial growth economy, which will leave some of Earth’s energy and resources in the ground and delay and slightly lessen runaway climate change. [Or similarly, major early unexpected impacts of climate change (e.g. pandemic) precipitate near-term, gradual economic collapse, with the same results.]
Worst case (Ehrenfeld) scenario: Politicians ratchet up the economy to extend industrial growth a little longer, exhaust energy and other resources faster and more completely, then use nukes to try to mitigate energy exhaustion, all leading to faster and more severe runaway climate change and total economic collapse and energy/resource exhaustion.
All scenarios end with runaway climate change. This is kind of hard to comprehend, but once you realize how delicate the balance is that has kept our planet in a brief paradisiacal near-stasis climate for several millennia, and how often runaway climate change has happened in our planet’s past (for many reasons, mostly unknown), it’s not too hard to accept. We’ve just unwittingly accelerated the process this time.
There will be large scale species extinction — it’s already begun and it’s also not a new phenomenon on this planet. Life will go on. Some like it hot. There will be a steady exodus toward the poles by many species, with varying degrees of success. What will evolve in the planet’s new super-hot, super-stormy zones is anyone’s guess.
From that perspective, the timing of the collapse of this civilization’s unstable, global, oil-and-growth dependent industrial economy, and whether we plunder the last of the easily-accessible energy, soil, water, minerals, forests and other resources (a billion years’ worth of accumulated riches) before the climate destabilizes, may seem a bit moot. But it will be very important for our immediate descendants, and for many living today.
As the table above shows, we have little say in (or control over) how all this unfolds. But we have a little. The sooner we bring down our rapacious and wasteful economy, the less severe and longer delayed ecological collapse will be — and the more resources will be left for post-collapse life.
We can (and some say should) help precipitate that economic take-down, through direct action against its most grievous activities — tar sands, nukes, deepwater, shale, mountaintop removal, rainforest razing, ‘blood’ mining, factory farming, forced/slave labour etc. And we can precipitate it by walking away from that teetering economy and shifting our activities to that of the sharing economy — by using, gifting and conserving local, organic, low-energy, durable goods and services in community with each other, without the use of fiat currencies.
Beyond that, there’s not much we can do to prepare for The Fire This Time, except learn some useful new skills, learn how to build (and live in) community (anywhere), get and stay healthy, and cultivate what we might call a resilient, adaptable attitude. Some of the qualities I think might be part of such an ‘attitude’ — a way of being in the world — are (in no particular order) being:
- self-aware and self-knowledgeable
- attentive (“present”)
- curious and imaginative (they’re not the same thing)
- able to let go (open, forgiving, patient, even ‘stoic’)
- challenging (able to think critically)
- self-expressive and articulate
- appreciative and grateful
- playful, joyful, and able to see beauty everywhere
- able to relish simple pleasures
- contemplative, gentle, and at peace
We can’t be these things if we’re not, of course, and the stresses of our modern lives make it hard to be them. But, joyful pessimist that I am, I believe most of these qualities are in most of our natures, if we can find space for them, and let them come out. Adversity tends to bring out the best in us, and we’re now in the headwinds of a maelstrom.
It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine. One day, everything will be free.