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On the Precipice
The Collective Asteroid of Human History
By Tom Engelhardt
Worlds end. Every day. We all die sooner or later. When you get to my age, it's a subject that can't help but be on your mind.
What's unusual is this: it's not just increasingly ancient folks like me who should be thinking such thoughts anymore. After all, worlds of a far larger sort end, too. It's happened before. Ask the dinosaurs after that asteroid hit the Yucata'n. Ask the life forms of the Permian era after what may have been the greatest volcanic uproar the planet ever experienced.
According to a recent U.N. global assessment report, up to one million (that's 1,000,000!) species are now in danger of extinction, thanks largely to human actions. It's part of what's come to be called "the sixth extinction," a term that makes the point all too clearly. Except in our ability to grasp (or avoid grasping) our seeming determination to wipe away this version of the world, we're in good company. Five great moments of obliteration preceded us on Planet Earth.
And by the way, that impressive figure for endangered species should probably be upgraded to at least one million and one (1,000,001!). As anthropologist Richard Leakey said years ago, "Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims." In other words, it's evidently not enough for us to turn ourselves into the modern equivalent of the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs, ending the Cretaceous period. It looks as if, in some future that seems ever closer, we might be our own asteroid, the one that will collapse human civilization as we've known it.
Planet on Fire
While there are deep mysteries in our present situation, its existence is -- or at least should be -- anything but a mystery. It's not even news. After all, in 1965, more than half a century ago, a science advisory committee reported to President Lyndon Johnson with remarkable accuracy on the coming climate crisis. That analysis was based on the previous two centuries in which we humans had been burning fossil fuels in an ever more profligate manner to fashion and develop our way of life on, and command of, this planet. As one of those scientists told Bill Moyers, Johnson's special assistant coordinating domestic policy, humanity had launched a "'vast geophysical experiment.' We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years."
In the process, we would put ever more carbon emissions into the atmosphere and so change the very nature of the planet we were living on. Ignored at the time by a president soon to be swept away by an American war in Vietnam, that report would offer remarkably accurate predictions about how those greenhouse gas emissions would change our twenty-first-century world. A small footnote here: since 1990 -- stop a second to take this in -- humanity has burned approximately half of all the fossil fuels it's ever consumed. As my father used to say to me, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it." And by the way, in the age of Donald Trump, U.S. carbon emissions are once again surging (as they are globally as well).
By now, it should be clear enough that this planet is in crisis. That reality may finally be sinking in somewhat here, as CNN's recent seven-hour climate-change town hall for Democratic presidential candidates suggested (even after the Democratic National Committee rejected the idea of a televised debate on the subject). And yet this crisis continues to prove a surprisingly hard one for humanity to get its head(s) fully around.
And that's no less true of the mainstream media. A Public Citizen report , for instance, recently offered a snapshot of the then-nonstop coverage of Dorian, the monster Category 5 hurricane that, at one point, had wind gusts up to 220 miles an hour and obliterated parts of the Bahamas before moving on to the U.S. Even though the storm's intensified behavior fit the expectations of climate scientists to a T, the report found that "climate [change] or global warming was mentioned in just 7.2% of the 167 pieces on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox." In the 32 newspapers Public Citizen followed that were covering the storm, "of 363 articles about Dorian..., just nine (2.5%) mentioned climate change." And I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that Fox News went out of its way to denigrate the very idea that there might be a connection between Dorian's ferocity and the warming of the planet.
One reason awareness of the crisis has sunk in so slowly is obvious enough. Climate change has not been happening in human time; it hasn't, that is, been taking place in the normal context of history on a timescale that would make it easier for us to grasp how crucial it will prove to be to our everyday lives and those of our children and grandchildren. It's operating instead on what might be thought of as planetary time. In other words, autocrats or, in the case of our president, potential ones, come and go; their sons take over (or don't); a revolt topples the autocracy only to turn sour itself; and so it goes in human history. However disturbing such events may be, they are also of our moment and so familiarly graspable.
The climate crisis, however, has been taking place on another timescale entirely and the planet that it's changing will assumedly feel global warming's version of autocracy not for a few years, or even a century to come, but potentially for thousands or tens of thousands of years. The results could dwarf what we've always known as "history."
Given the immediacy of our lives and concerns, getting us to focus on predicted events decades or even a century away remains problematic at best. If, as predicted, by 2100 the North China Plain, with its tens of millions of people, becomes partially uninhabitable or Shanghai is drowned thanks to rising sea levels, that's beyond horrific, but hard to focus on when you're a government or a people plunged into an immediate trade war with the globe's other great power; hard to react to when the needs of today and tomorrow, this year and next, seem so pressing, and when you're still exporting hundreds of coal-fired power plants to other parts of the world.
It shouldn't be surprising that it's been so difficult for most of us to respond to the climate crisis over these last decades when its effects, while noticeable enough if you're looking for them, hadn't yet impinged in obvious ways on most of our lives. It seemed to matter little that what was being prepared for delivery might be the collective asteroid of human history.
Consider this the ultimate sign of how difficult it's been to take in a crisis that, in its magnitude and span, seems to mock the human version of time: in these years, vast numbers of people haven't hesitated to elect (or support) a crew of pyromaniacs as their leaders. From the U.S. to Brazil, Poland to Australia, Russia to Saudi Arabia, coming to power in these years across significant parts of the planet are men -- and they are men -- who seem intent on ignoring or rejecting the very idea that we are altering the planet's climate at a rapid rate. They have, in fact, generally been strikingly transparent in their blunt urge not just to overlook the climate crisis, but to actually increase its intensity through the greater use of fossil fuels, while often trying to deep-six or ignore alternative forms of energy.
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