Transformative dystopia and the imperative of alarm

The UN climate report in October revealed the truth behind a future of darkness and how soon it will arrive. In the ruin, we found a path to hope.

As the clock ticks, there’s a world to awaken.

Christine McDougall was…monumental. Sure lived up to the hype leading up to her 6 November 2018 COMMONar. (That’s what we call a COMMON webinar.)

She covered so much ground, from dissecting the fault lines of the global economy to painting a “beautiful future” in which a new design will emerge to usher in an era of harmony and hope like humanity has never experienced.

Her starting point, the place she says we must all begin, is truth. For too long, the world has been built on mountains of lies. The only way to build that alternative bright new future, for companies to build bright new brands, for cities to build bright new urban environments, is to avoid the lies, big and small, and walk, empowered, only with the truth.

I felt a sudden rush of…emboldenment. And mind you, I’m not one to need much prodding on that front. At the earliest sign of a Big Idea, I’m usually first in line.

But I’m in the climate-change communications business, and in this haunted field — in the environmental movement generally — we are forever burdened by the fear of alarming. Our natural instinct is not to tell the whole truth about climate change, or be too explicit, lest it provoke one of three typical reactions: sink into despair, flight into paralysis, or fight back with excuses.

After McDougall, that ends for me. The half truths. The sweetened pills. Besides, it didn’t work. Look where we are today.

Sustainability has run out of time, the notion we can still solve climate change by adopting green practices and then redesign structures to create a new inclusive society. You’ve heard the line: even if we halted carbon emissions entirely, right now, we’ll still surpass the dreaded 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise above the historical average.

Well, that’s not just a line. It is part of our new truth, especially since emissions will continue at 30–40 gigatons per year for another 20–30 years, until the whole global construct collapses under the weight of climate impacts and emissions drop precipitously with the permanent shut down of economic activity.

So WTF are we doing? Why do so many insist on playing only the we-can-still-solve-it-and-rebuild-it game, when that has totally run its course, and every minute that passes without warning people aggressively and helping them get ready for the climate hits now coming for certain, risks massive death and suffering. Still others carry on aloof of what awaits them, or trusting in some ill-defined technological or magical solution that is simply not in the cards.

The explanation behind the WTF question is inertia, dissonance and ignorance. It’s psychological, anthropological. The same forces that kept people, companies and governments from embracing the truth of sustainability, now keep them from facing the truth of resilience. We’re wired as humans to ignore danger or wish it away, even deny it outright, until it’s upon us. And it doesn’t help that the whole issue is muddled by the lies and deceits of so many in power.

Enough people, companies and governments do react and prepare, though, and they must be the immediate targets of our message. As to the rest, when they’re hit and pay attention, we must be there with the right information and resources at their fingertips to guide them to adaptation, while connecting them to those who did listen and act and will then be ready to help.

Today, overcoming inertia and letting people know what’s coming requires a dramatic departure from the strategies we’re accustomed to. A new message beckons. Another model. The future will be that different.

A TIME FOR BOLD

The transition to adaptation became clear to me in 2012 following a string of scientific reports that became too numerous and consistent to ignore, so I decided then and there to pivot my writing and work from sustainability to resilience, joining a small but fast-growing global choir.

But in the six years since, I committed the cardinal sin of pussyfooting on the issue. Yes, I’ve written about it and continue to in no uncertain terms, because I’m a journalist and writing comes easy. But I haven’t been vocal enough, inventive enough, BOLD enough. I’ve justified it thinking the world was not ready, that we had to move further down the ultimate unfolding for people to become receptive.

But be that as it may, two months ago, I decided to shrink no more and launched COMMON Future, a content studio and communications consultancy focused on the urgent scaling of resilience. (Here’s a COMMONar where I explain the firm’s relationship with COMMON and how we synergize for this greater resilience agenda.)

As fate should have it, the UN IPCC published a fateful update report 2–3 weeks later, one month ago, October 8, where the world’s top climate scientists finally threw in the towel and confirmed openly and yes, alarmingly, that the planet not only will overshoot 1.5C in the coming years and 2C soon thereafter, but ominously, will surpass 4C by century’s end. The prefix “hothouse” is therefore now appropriate, as BBC explains in this story about hothouse climate change. So it is now official. Other reports, which I find absolutely credible, point to 5C and higher before 2100.

The world was stunned, the reaction we should have had in 2010–2012 and with every report since. To learn the stark, raw science, check out this New York Magazine story following the October 8 release. After you read that one, check out this one by the same writer, David Wallace-Wells, last year. I interviewed him to mark the one-year anniversary of the latter. Here’s that one, where he concludes that today there is no alternative to alarm and updates the science one year later.

This is, after all, the very first step to the truth — to LEARN it, to know the basic science and be brutally clear about the future it points to, without self-deceptions or false hopes.

So, did you read the articles? When you do, you’ll understand when I say this is a whole new ballgame, and it must not be played using the rules of any previous or existing one, much less the rules of hesitation and alarm-avoidance. To wait is to allow, to do less than you can to ease, the coming devastation.

So yes, Christine McDougall, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Al Gore and so many others in ecoland are absolutely right. The time has come for a new direction. But not quite, or only, the one they’re talking about. The new design we need places alarm at the very heart of climate communications and offers an entirely different hope, not that of avoiding calamity, but rather a response and vision sure to surprise.

ANOTHER BALLGAME

Today and every day forward, the raw truth to live by has three fundamentals:

  1. Climate change can no longer be prevented and will get progressively worse. Post 1.5C and 2C, we enter an age of exponential escalation. Indeed, at today’s 1.2C and with 1.5C coming as early as next decade, we already have. Next time climate change stabilizes or returns to any semblance of normalcy might be, perhaps, next century. Between now and then, between 1.5C and 5C, the new normal is more an anti-normal, or non-normal.
  2. Past experience is no indication of future performance. I borrow here from finance-speak, but you get the message. Past climate tells us NOTHING, or very little, about how it will behave in the future. Oh, we know what’s coming as we go from 2C to 5C, within a cone of uncertainty, but you wouldn’t tell judging from climate patterns of the past. So don’t look back. Remember, this is a different ballgame.
  3. We must come to terms with the true magnitude of catastrophe, grasp what the word really means. Need help? Here’s Webster. It defines it at “utter ruin.” Think about that for a minute, or more. (No, really. Do reflect on what utter ruin will mean to your life, your livelihood, your business.) The phrase catastrophic climate change is thrown about, but rarely thought through. Well, it is time, for this is the future we have, in common. We can’t fight it, or deny it. The only choice now is to make peace with it. To get ready, because catastrophe can be managed, perhaps even escaped. It’s what adaptation is all about, but not just any adaptation. A next level is required. I call it Next Resilience.

So, here’s some basic, inescapable logic for you. Since these three facts are so, and the world has entered a process of utter ruin that will not reverse back into stability or predictability, shouldn’t we let everyone know starting as soon as RIGHT NOW? Shouldn’t it be our highest priority to holler that truth as loudly and boldly as we possibly can, to as many people as we can, in as many places as we can, as urgently as we can?

Because here’s another inescapable conclusion: If we do not, if we stay silent or continue pussyfooting, for fear of alarming or for any other now dysfunctional reason — remember, we must now proceed with another set of rules— we will only be allowing climate change to catch people unprepared, unadapted, unresilient, especially the vulnerable billions, and given the nature of catastrophe, that will mean one thing and one thing only: massive pain to massive numbers. We’re seeing it already.

I mentioned economic collapse. When economies collapse, investment and lending stop, businesses close, people lose jobs and assets, and large numbers are displaced. Speaking of displacement, hundreds of millions will become climate refugees by mid-century, and only worsen from there. And that’s well before entire coastal cities, including the world’s leading centers of commerce and trade, and most islands around the world, are swallowed by the rising oceans, throwing the economy back even more. Institutions and the ability of governments to function will break down, creating destabilizing civil strife. Food and water will become progressively scarce. Plagues and various public-health impacts will become unthinkable.

Yes, that’s pretty calamitous, and it’s coming soon. Too hot to handle, you say? Still feeling hesitant about breaking the news to folks? Need time to embrace this, to create a new uncomfortable zone here? Unsure whether I (we) am (are), indeed, speaking the truth? (Again, don’t take my word for it, please. Do read those articles above and the scientific sources cited and linked. Given the stakes, it is time well spent.)

If you feel that way, know that that’s OK. Acceptance of and recovery from such a hard truth can take some time. Take as much as you need, but not so much that you risk becoming, or remaining, part of the problem instead of joining the solution — joining the adaptation revolution.

In this journey, as you move (hopefully) to become a resilience warrior, do not forget that the game is now about saving lives. Yes, we’ll give people tools and strategies to prosper where they can. But given the fundamentals of collapse and meltdown, to survive in good health will be victory. And if we can manage better, awesome.

The all-important mission, though, is to spread the message urgently, loudly and creatively. We can no longer allow concerns over despair, flight or fight to timidify our approach. There is no time for that, nor is it possible to build the beautiful stable future we thought we had time to create. Our options are more limited now, but they are powerful and yes, exciting.

A NEW AGENDA

Now that you’ve had a glimpse and thought a bit, in this reading, into what awaits us, let’s pick ourselves up from the implications and explore another side of what is possible:

  • The first thing to realize is how amazingly people react when disaster strikes, and I speak here of what are called “shock” events in resilience-speak — hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, plagues, heat/cold waves. The slower-burning impacts, or “stressors” — scarcities, sea level rise, institutional and economic collapse— provoke more challenging responses. But those direct hits have always, across time and today, spawned the best in us. We aid strangers, forget colors and differences, rediscover unity and love, find creative ways to help. A unitary conscience emerges. We’re inspired by first responders, by the NGOs and American Red Crosses of the world. In a future dominated by these events, we can expect oceans of this beauty — call it disaster-heightened humanity. A transformative dystopia, if you will. And isn’t that a source of hope!
  • As the world focuses ever more on this new, overwhelming imperative, think of the innovation and enterprise that will ensue across every front of this battle — infrastructure, health, extreme cold and heat, floods, fires, you name it. Talk about a new ballgame! This part will be, literally, game changing, one of the great innovation leaps in history, as I explain here. This is thrilling, especially for those engaged in the process across companies, academia, NGOs, governments, and just plain citizen-innovators.
  • Think, also, of places around the world. Cities and countries compete ferociously to attract residents, talent and companies. That’s how they grow. Well, to the extent a city can grow in this future environment, the more resilient it is, the more people and companies will want to relocate there. So it is intriguing to me and part of this new excitement, which ones will position themselves in the emerging adaptation competition, including by strengthening their institutions to withstand the coming climate onslaught.
  • Same goes for corporate brands. The winners will be, first, the ones that build resilience across their global and local value chains, particularly to manage the wave of disruptions and interruptions as the climate hits such things as sourcing, labor markets, insurance and credit. Second, the ones that buy into the new class of climate-resistant innovations, develop the products and services people will need, and build the most humane, connected relationships with those in need and those who lead. At COMMON, we exist to help the social enterprises in this space, but in the interest of humanity, we’re here for everyone!
  • At COMMON Future, we exist to help cities and companies get the message out with way outside the box, new-ballgame Fusion Communications. When sustainable development was still possible, the messaging focused on the benefits of green to make it irresistible — health, savings, planet. In today’s adaptation mode, it’s about protection — of life, assets, communities — and opportunity — innovation, being the preferred city, the brand that prevails. As we awaken people to the dangers ahead, our task as journalists, marketers, entertainers and communicators is to spark a spirit of togetherness, to tap into that disaster-heightened inspiration, love and mutual help. But above all, to make it clear to everyone what’s coming, using powerful and effective creativity, and providing the content and tools they’ll need to make the best decisions for themselves and those around them.

These are just some of the new sources of hope and excitement, each a part of the new ballgame and systemic redesign. Again, not the redesign we thought we’d be working on in the sustainability space. This is different. The rules are different. Working in a progressively worse economy and society destined for meltdown much sooner and more catastrophically than we thought, will require a vision and fortitude that is different, a redesign of how everything is run, from a family to a church, from a company to a country.

Underlying it all is the realization that none of us will be able to go it alone. This is by definition a shared, collaborative journey. At COMMON, we promote Collective Resilience as both organizational/cultural and climate-related. And collective this must be, indeed.

The sooner we begin, the better, for us and for everyone. You will have, above all things, the unequaled satisfaction, and the tangible results, that come from walking with the truth. That must be our currency. No more lies, and no more of the shyness and holding back that comes from living THE lie, that we’re on time to stay below 1.5C and 2C and that even when we overshoot, the future will somehow be OK.

No. It won’t be OK. But you know what? That’s OK, because once we recalibrate our expectations, adjust our sights, adopt a new plan, and adapt to whatever comes, we’ll be in the best position we can be — precisely what we want for EVERYONE.

So, who’s in?