Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0
A large and powerful bully — the iron-fisted boss of this one-industry company town — has his knee on the neck of an even more powerful but seriously sick woman — she’s ruthless, and owns all the agricultural land in the area, on which the residents depend for their food. The bully plans to seize her land and use it to put up more mega-polluting factories. A large crowd of people stand around, debating what should be done. One person, a paramedic, notes the horrific condition of the victim, and shouts “Unless someone acts, she’ll be dead in eight seconds! There’s still time to save her!”, though he’s too far from the scene to interject personally, and he is being restrained by the bully’s henchmen.
Some of the observers say “That can’t be right, it’s just a tussle, there’s no real danger”, and a few are even egging the bully on. Others insist that it’s not their job to intervene, and that by shouting at the bully to urge him to ease up, they’re doing all they can. Still others say that they can’t intervene because it would mess up their clothes, and they’re on their way to a very important event. Others, watching from a nearby balcony, mutter that they depend on the bully for their livelihood, and are not ready to risk that relationship, and besides, they’re too far away to make a difference now anyway. But some of them shout “Someone needs to do something drastic to stop this right now!”
Both sides have powerful supporters, and an all-out war between them seems inevitable, especially if/when the woman dies.
It’s an imperfect metaphor, of course. But the bully is the capitalist industrial growth economy, and the victim is our beleaguered planet. The observers are the world’s rich and powerful — governments, corporations and institutions. The balcony-watchers are we, the citizens of the world. The paramedic is the IPCC, and the eight seconds are the eight years the IPCC says we have left to prevent ecological collapse. The important events are the political and economic priorities that, insanely, outrank the survival of a healthy planet.
The balcony-watchers are correct in lamenting their lack of power. It is not their job to tackle the bully, even though they feel they are, in a small way, complicit in the murder. They’re paralyzed into inaction.
We can’t care about an event we deny is happening. And we don’t dare care much about an event that we believe is not our fight, or about which we can do nothing, or about which taking direct action may produce immediate, negative personal consequences for us.
The situation seems, and is, hopeless. But each of us has a couple of very unsatisfactory options:
- Option 1: We can do nothing. We can convince ourselves, with some justification, that there’s nothing we can do. So we can just enjoy our final moments of relative peace and prosperity before it’s gone. Perhaps we’ll learn to grow some of our own food, and perhaps we’ll get used to the endless ecological disasters, the haze of smoke, the desperate precarity, the migration of billions of climate refugees, which we may be part of. In the meantime we can get together with others and learn to manage our grief, our shame, our anger, over the planet’s death, the perilous future, and the hopelessness of the situation. There is a grieving process that we can learn, if we think it will help. We can prepare ourselves to face the inevitable.
- Option 2: We can take direct action, which means working to smash the capitalist industrial growth economy, with all the commensurate risks that entails. We will lose, but in the end it won’t matter because there will be no winners in this war. It’s a war of principle, not a war with hope for victory. Not even a Pyrrhic one.
We cannot do both — we have to choose. As collapse worsens, especially in areas of the world we never hear about where collapse is already in full swing, there will be a propensity for more and more of us to choose the second option.
The message of the first option is stark and simple:
We’re fucked. We did our best. All we can do now is face what’s to come as best we can.
There have been several documentary and sci-fi/cli-fi films of late that have introduced — usually subtly, usually conveyed in the voice of an indigenous elder, or a deep green activist, or a young female protester — a different, astonishing message:
The planet’s life is more important than any individual’s life.
I am spending time every day, now, just sitting and thinking about this second message, and what it means. It sits, printed out, below the keyboard of my laptop. Wild creatures, I think, understand this at a profound, intuitive level that is no longer accessible to us disconnected humans. We have forgotten.
The grim paradox we face in comparing the two messages above is that they’re both right, and that neither helps us make a decision between the two options that follow from them. What they mean to each of us will, more than anything else, determine what we will do and what will happen to us in the decade ahead, and beyond.
There is no third option. There is no way we can, like Wile E Coyote reversing course and streaking back onto land after running off the edge of the cliff, turn the ship of industrial civilization around in eight years to prevent climate collapse. If you still believe the absurd claims to the contrary, I’m sorry, you’re just not paying attention. Read between the lines of the IPCC report to see what they’re really saying, that they’re unwilling or afraid or not permitted to say overtly — yet. There are only two options.
The option we choose doesn’t really matter — it won’t change anything. But it matters to us. To us, now, it’s the only thing that really matters.