The Slow Apocalypse

Hollywood movies have accustomed us to the notion of sudden, fiery, potentially world-ending catastrophe: In Independence Day, it was aliens. In Deep Impact and Armageddon, an asteroid. In 2012, a “geological event”. In The Day After Tomorrow, climate change.

And it is not just Hollywood. Darkly eschatological monotheisms — most particularly Christianity — and our own bloody world history have shaped our apocalyptic national consciousness. According to survey results released by the Pew Research Center in 2010, more than 40% of American adults expected Jesus Christ to return to earth by the year 2050, and we need look no further than Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Pyongyang, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Baghdad, Aleppo, Sana’a, Gaza City… to begin to understand the material roots of our own cataclysmic worldviews.

Eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson proclaimed, on Fareed Zakaria last week, “I worry we might not be able to recover from this…”, and Noble Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus opined on Democracy Now! that “hundreds of thousands” of Bangladeshis will become “climate refugees” in the coming years, although in all likelihood, the number of such refugees in Bangladesh alone will probably climb into the tens of millions. Yunus also pointed out that the suffering now unfolding in Bangladesh has little or nothing to do with actions taken within that country; it is the consumption in the rich countries, the consumption right here in the United States (over the last seventy-five years especially), that is now putting Bangladesh underwater.

Here, in New York City, it is in the high 80s in late September. I would say the weather is unseasonable — and, in fact, I dislike the cold — but as we destroy global climate as we have known it throughout the course of human civilization, the idea of seasonality itself may soon cease to signify, an idea that fills me with far greater dread than any winter ever has.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine.

My plan in writing this piece was to revisit the slow process of climate deterioration that has been unfolding over the course of my own lifetime — signposted by the newsworthy and spectacular: The Exxon Valdez oil spill; the furor over the “hole” in the ozone layer; growing public concern in the 1990s (linked, in my mind, to the blighting of Germany’s Black Forest) about acid rain; the disappearance of amphibian species around the world during the years of my adolescence, limited public attention to which presaged growing awareness of the human-caused mass extinction now underway; the ecological, human, and economic devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and on up to the present — so as to lay bare the insidious fashion in which climate breakdown is already radically reshaping our world.

Since 1988, when James Hansen gave his epochal Congressional testimony, luminaries like Bill McKibben, Arundhati Roy, George Monbiot, and Albert Wenger, along with organizations like Idle No More, have persistently raised their voices in defense of climate sanity. And yet, nearly thirty years later (and perhaps fifty years after scientists working within major fossil fuel companies first noted human impacts on climate), comparatively little substantive public action has been taken to slow, reverse, and avoid the worst impacts of global climate breakdown.

I had written up to the REM reference above when I sat down for lunch yesterday to listen to an interview with Christian Parenti on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News. This, in turn, led me to Parenti’s recent article in Jacobin, If We Fail. I was struck by the similarity in our opening paragraphs; however, his insight here far outstrips my own. So, rather than continue with my own piece, allow me to simply encourage you, in the strongest possible terms, to go read Parenti’s — in which he describes a near-future world (think the 2020s and ’30s) where the ravages of global climate breakdown become ever more apparent in the devastation of coastal megacities by rising sea levels and the storm surges of ever-more-powerful megastorms, the subsequent hollowing out of property values and tax bases essential to local, national, and global economies as well as the massive disruption of global trade, and the likely rise of authoritarian regimes to fill the political voids left in the wake of these upheavals— instead. As he emphasizes, we already have the tools (in the form, for example, of “enhanced weathering” technologies) and the knowledge to avert this slow, but rapidly deepening catastrophe. It is up to us to take real action starting yesterday.

Here are a few excerpts by way of encouragement that you go read thewhole piece now:

Eventually, cities that did not build sea barriers soon enough and high enough will get hit. Inundated by storms coming in close succession, some cities will find themselves too broke to rebuild their infrastructure and a process of real and metaphoric rot will set in. As public services decline, so will property values, each feeding the other; the rotting and molding landscape will be the visual symptom of a political-economic spiral of a shrinking tax base, disinvestment, and abandonment...

Thus, as drought, neoliberalism, and militarism produce crises, warfare, and waves of refugees in the Global South, in the North they produce a reactive, opportunistic, authoritarian state hardening...

The good news is we have all the technologies we need to save civilization from climate collapse: solar and wind electrical grids; electric vehicles; the ability to re-wild wetlands and build artificial barriers to break and block the power of the sea. And we very well can develop the political capabilities to win over a majority behind the policies that will preserve the health and security of that majority.

Just as importantly, we already have the technology to strip CO₂ from the atmosphere..

H owever, like proper defense of cities from the sea, there is no way the profit motive or market relations can bring this technology to scale…

Our mission as a species is not to retreat from, or to preserve, something called “nature,” but rather to become fully conscious environment makers. Extreme technology under public ownership will be central to a socialist project of civilizational rescue, or civilization will not last.”

Go read his piece, please. Only through massive collective and public action can we hope to confront — and perhaps overcome — this global climate crisis.

And, while you’re at it, please watch, listen to, read, and (financially) support independent media. Note that Democracy Now!, Jacobin, Daily Kos, Behind the News, and countless other sources like them (see my series The Power of Habit for more tips on changing your media consumption) have been telling the truth about climate breakdown for years or decades while corporate media has maintained a chilling and suicidal silence.