Earth Day In 2070

Eric Holthaus nails it:

The world in 2070 will not be a utopia. We’ve already locked in enough climate change to melt the Arctic, no matter what we choose from here. But we will have a world that works for everyone in a way that it just doesn’t right now – that, in the words of Joanna Macy, is “the work that reconnects”. That is our shared goal now.

A world not focused on growth, but on life.

A world not focused on ownership, but on solidarity.

A world not focused on competition, but on connection.

Those might sound like wishy-washy socialist utopian dreams, but they must be true for our civilisation to survive. So, I believe that they will become true, and it will happen in the next 50 years.

One person’s utopia is another person’s (or planet’s) survival. The key point about these ideals, though, is that they are revolutionary, requiring the wholesale reinvention of human politics, economics, and culture.

That is the scale of change needed, and it is clarifying, Nothing we do over the next 50 years, nothing we do after the coronavirus fades, should be similar to what we did before. We don’t need to reclaim the old. We need to wholeheartedly, and as a species, embrace the new.

 

Divining The Future: Apocalypse, Retreat, Or Revolution

It’s hard to know how to respond to the overwhelming sense that the priorities and inertia of human culture are trashing the planet. But I just came across a thought-provoking review of a fascinating book. Revolutions That Made The Earth, which helps frame the choices.

First off, the book is about how life on earth has previously adapted to dramatic change, and it argues something critical: that the forces humanity has set in motion, particularly with regard to climate, are going to cause major transformations to earth no matter what we do now. In other words, an Apocalyptic change is coming. Here is how the book explains it:

Even the normally cheerful and creative Jim Lovelock argues that we are already doomed, and nothing we can do now will stop the Earth system being carried by its own internal dynamics into a different and inhospitable state for us. If so, all we can do is try to adapt. We disagree—in our view the game is not yet up. As far as we can see no one has yet made a convincing scientific case that we are close to a global tipping point for ‘runaway’ climate change.

[…]

Yet even without truly ‘runaway’ change, the combination of unmitigated fossil fuel burning and positive feedbacks from within the Earth system could still produce an apocalyptic climate for humanity. We could raise global temperature by up to 6 °C this century, with more to come next century. On the way there, many parts of the Earth system could pas their own thresholds and undergo profound changes in state. These are what Tim [Lenton] and colleagues have called ‘tipping elements’in the climate system.

They warrant a book by themselves, so we will just touch on them briefly here. The tipping elements include the great ice sheets covering Greenland and West Antarctica that are already losing mass and adding to sea level rise. In the tropics, there are already changes in atmospheric circulation, and in the pattern of El Niño events. The Amazon rainforest suffered severe drought in 2005 and might in the future face a climate drying-triggered dieback, destroying biodiversity and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Over India, an atmospheric brown cloud of pollution is already disrupting the summer monsoon, threatening food security. The monsoon in West Africa could be seriously disrupted as the neighboring ocean warms up. The boreal forests that cloak the northern high latitudes are threatened by warming, forest fires and insect infestation. The list goes on. The key point is that the Earth’s climate, being a complex feedback system, is unlikely to respond in an entirely smooth and proportional way to significant changes in energy balance caused by human activities.

Okay, let that sink in for a bit.

Then, as mathematical physicist John Baez on his Azimuth blog notes, they suggest two responses to this Apocalyptic scenario, which Baez quotes:

RETREAT:

A popular answer to apocalyptic visions of the future is retreat, into a lower energy, lower material consumption, and ultimately lower population world. In this future world the objective is to minimize human effects on the Earth system and allow Gaia to reassert herself, with more room for natural ecosystems and minimal intervention in global cycles. The noble aim is long-term sustainability for for people as well as the planet.

There are some good and useful things we can take from such visions of the future, especially in helping to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, achieve greater energy efficiency, promote recycling and redefine what we mean by quality of life. However, we think that visions of retreat are hopelessly at odds with current trends, and with the very nature of what drives revolutionary changes of the Earth. They lack pragmatism and ultimately they lack ambition. Moreover, a retreat sufficient to forestall the problems outlined above might be just as bad as the problems it sought to avoid.

REVOLUTION:

Our alternative vision of the future is of revolution, into a high energy, high recycling world that can support billions of people as part of a thriving and sustainable biosphere. The key to reaching this vision of the future is to learn from past revolutions: future civilizations must be fueled from sustainable energy sources, and they must undertake a greatly enhanced recycling of resources.

Baez writes that he thinks that we could have a combination of Apocalypse and Revolution:

For now, I would just like to suggest that ‘apocalypse’ and ‘revolution’ are not really diametrically opposed alternatives. All three previous revolutions destroyed the world as it had been!

For example, when the Great Oxidation occurred, this was an ‘apocalypse’ for anaerobic life forms, who now struggle to survive in specialized niches here and there. It only seems like a triumphant ‘revolution’ in retrospect, to the new life forms that comfortably survive in the new world.

So, I think we’re headed for a combination of apocalypse and revolution: the death of many old things, and the birth of new ones. At best we have a bit of influence in nudging things in a direction we like. I don’t think ‘retreat’ is a real option: nostalgic though I am about many old things, time always pushes us relentlessly into new and strange worlds.

And I would say I agree. Except I want to add that this does not seem like a very appealing future to me. Both Baez and Revolutions That Made The Earth more or less dismiss Retreat as unrealistic (though Baez does indicate he would find it appealing). They could be right. They probably are right. But Retreat–with its emphasis on conservation, anti-consumerism, and balance with the natural world–has to be the central theme of the Revolution (though I wouldn’t call it Retreat, I would call it something more positive). In fact, it is the key to real revolution. And while technology, which seems to be at the core of the Revolution scenario, might give us a world in which we can survive, it doesn’t really promise a world in which we can LIVE.

Reinventing Humanity

I hope the world takes note of Carl Safina, and his new book, The View From Lazy Point (NYT review is here; Mother Jones review here). Safina is an original and deep thinker, and The View From Lazy Point is both an homage to the natural world and a clarion call–that is remarkably gentle yet utterly persuasive–for reimagining how humans live and interact with our humble planet.

I was drawn to Safina’s work because I have long been troubled by the idea that humanity has been intelligent enough to achieve great technological triumphs, yet not wise enough to find harmony and balance in human affairs or our understanding of the finite nature of Earth. We are well past the need to try and arouse humanity from its material, consumptive ways with a deluge of depressing and enervating detail about environmental destruction. That’s been going on for decades, and people have either chosen to recognize reality, or blind themselves.

What’s needed now are pathfinders and prophets who can redefine what it means to be human, and what changes humanity should make to its behaviors, economies, and cultures. Safina is searching for those sorts of answers and that’s why he is worth reading and talking about. I have no doubt that a critical mass will eventually develop behind the need to reinvent humanity. The only question is what sort of planet we will be living on when it happens. I am pessimistic, even nihilistic, about the prospects for a reasonable transition to this new epoch. But all anyone who cares can do is put out a light and hope people are drawn to it. As Safina writes: “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.” Or wise. That would be nice.