In a recent post, I talked with climate scientist Guy McPherson about Near-Term Extinction. He explained how, thanks to the ways we’re affecting the climate, we’re now over the edge, beyond the tipping point, and basically screwed. (And not just iconic species like elephants, polar bears and monarch butterflies, but humans, too. And quite possibly all life – all of it.)
In response, one person wrote:
Our level of denial is so amazing. You’d think humans would be trying to save themselves, wouldn’t you? Or is it still only about “me” and I’ll be dead by then anyway!?
Another said he and his family are making plans to at least be able to cope as the economy collapses, weather events become more extreme, the Southwest sinks deeper into drought, and so on.
And another commented:
This must be a pretty depressing thing to hear, for any young person who thought they had a future, or for older people who have built their lives around the futures of their children. But I think there’s something freeing about knowing that it’s all coming to an end, and I like [Prof. Guy McPherson’s] advice to do something you love.
Thoughtful comments indeed, but nothing like the number when, the following week, I wrote about a hunter buying a license to kill a rhino in Africa. That one quickly garnered 1,200 “Likes”, while the one about Near-Term Extinction had only three! The more catastrophic the situation gets, the less it’s reported.
Not that there’s much to “Like” about extinction. Perhaps most of us just can’t wrap our heads around the whole notion. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t those who know what’s happening be helping us to understand it? After all, this isn’t just the most important story of the day; it’s becoming the most important story in the history of Planet Earth.
Instead, what’s happening is the very opposite. The more catastrophic the situation gets, the less it’s reported and discussed. In 2012, according to Media Matters for America, the three network evening news programs spent a total of 60 minutes covering climate change over the entire year. ABC’s Sunday morning show This Week devoted a total of five minutes to climate change. And NBC’s Meet the Press gave it six seconds.
Editor and author Tom Engelhardt writes about this deafening silence and suggests a reason for it:
Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories. It’s the prospective end of all news. Think of it as the anti-news.
All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just about anything you want to mention. The most crucial stories, like the most faddish ones, are – every one of them – passing phenomena, which is of course what makes them the news.
Climate change isn’t. New as that human-caused phenomenon may be – having its origins in the industrial revolution – it’s nonetheless on a different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news.
A direct consequence of the lack of reporting, however, is that while 97 percent of scientists who have written about climate change say it is a human-caused phenomenon, fewer Americans (just 63 percent) actually believe that this is the case than was the case five years ago.
Engelhardt points a finger at the big energy companies who will do what it takes to keep us blithely consuming fossil fuels:
Like the tobacco companies before them, [they] undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us. And like those cigarette companies, they go right on.
But we’re all implicated in this cover-up. Most of us just don’t want to hear about it.
In an earlier post, I wrote about Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel and movie On the Beach, where he imagined that the Cold War had exploded into nuclear catastrophe, that deadly radiation had obliterated all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and that the radiation cloud was now heading toward Australia, where the people knew they had just a few months to live. More than we ever were in the 1950s, we are now all “on the beach.”
More than we ever were in the 1950s, we are now all “on the beach” and facing not just the end of life as we know it, but total planetary extinction.
You’d think, then, that with the west coast crippled for the foreseeable future by what appears to be the worst drought in California in 500 years, and the polar “vortex” causing chaos in much of the rest of the country, the news media might be doing more than human interest stories about “good Samaritans” taking snacks to drivers “stranded” for a couple of hours in Atlanta. (Have these people no idea what their life is going to be like when it really does get bad?)
In her new book The Sixth Extinction, due out February 17th, New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes about how we humans have been causing extinctions since we first started walking around in prehistory. In an interview she talks about how conservation biologists, the people closest to the crisis, are relating to what they’re seeing all over the planet:
“I think alarm is a good word. I think there’s real sadness. If you’re a conservation biologist in many fields these days, you’re seeing your study subject disappear. People are in the position where they’re chronicling radical decline, and that is not a position that conservation biologists want to be in. Frustration would be another word. Things that evidently should be done are not being done. We are seeing changes that should take thousands of years.”
But while Kolbert sees very clearly what’s happening, she offers no solution:
“We’re talking really huge global-scale change, and I did not feel that I had the prescription for that kind of action, so I’m going to leave it to the reader.”
That’s an honest conclusion, in fact, especially when compared to the many books about climate change that lay out some of what’s happening and then offer feel-good answers like planting your own garden. (Worth doing, but not remotely a solution to the extinction that’s underway.) We’ve made our bed and now we have to lie in it.
So, what do you do when you know there’s no way out and that with more than 200 species already going extinct every day, we’re all now “on the beach.”
There’s no better way to live your life than as if the coming years are your last.Like Kolbert, I have no answer. And anyone who thinks they have an answer simply doesn’t understand what’s now happening. (The talk you hear about bringing down CO2 emissions over the next 10, 20 or 30 years is as much use, at this stage, as prescribing a new diet to a terminally ill patient who’s being transferred to hospice care.)
Certainly, in terms of what to do, it makes sense to consider practical ways to manage your own situation. (Expect the global economy to crash, plagues and famines to spread, wars to escalate, and services and utilities to break down.) But in broader terms, what should you be considering doing with the rest of your life? What’s truly meaningful to you? What do you tell the kids? What kind of community do you want to be part of? Should you be seeking out people of like mind who are asking themselves these same questions?
If those are your questions, you’re already “on the beach.” You know what’s happening and you’re asking the hard questions about how you can live your life meaningfully in the coming years.
And if, by some unlikely miracle, the coming decades turn out not to be the last days after all, nothing you’ve done will have been wasted. After all, none of us ever has more than a few brief moments on this Earth. And there’s no better way to live your life than as if the coming years are your last.