A Judgement By Fire
Did you read the news of the report? The government released it on Thanksgiving Friday. The New York Times says:
But in direct language, the 1,656-page assessment lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds.
“There is a bizarre contrast between this report, which is being released by this administration, and this administration’s own policies,” said Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center.
All told, the report says, climate change could slash up to a tenth of gross domestic product by 2100, more than double the losses of the Great Recession a decade ago.
I don’t often write about global warming, but I’m going to throw this controversial opinion out there:
I believe that global warming is real, and that it is man-made. I believe that it is divine judgment for our technocratic hubris. I believe that there is a direct connection — not causal, but still a connection — between the exploitation of the natural world that is causing the earth to revolt, and the destruction of the concept of the natural family, of sex, and even of the human person. We were tasked with stewardship of the natural order, and now we are being collectively punished for our transgressions of it — for trying to impose our will on it beyond all limits.
Liberals and conservatives are both at fault, by the way, because both are manifestations of modernist hubris.
Here’s Bill McKibben, in a recent New Yorker piece:
As the planet warms, a crescent-shaped area encompassing parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the North China Plain, where about 1.5 billion people (a fifth of humanity) live, is at high risk of such temperatures in the next half century. Across this belt, extreme heat waves that currently happen once every generation could, by the end of the century, become “annual events with temperatures close to the threshold for several weeks each year, which could lead to famine and mass migration.” By 2070, tropical regions that now get one day of truly oppressive humid heat a year can expect between a hundred and two hundred and fifty days, if the current levels of greenhouse-gas emissions continue. According to Radley Horton, a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, most people would “run into terrible problems” before then. The effects, he added, will be “transformative for all areas of human endeavor—economy, agriculture, military, recreation.”
Humans share the planet with many other creatures, of course. We have already managed to kill off sixty per cent of the world’s wildlife since 1970 by destroying their habitats, and now higher temperatures are starting to take their toll. A new study found that peak-dwelling birds were going extinct; as temperatures climb, the birds can no longer find relief on higher terrain. Coral reefs, rich in biodiversity, may soon be a tenth of their current size.
As some people flee humidity and rising sea levels, others will be forced to relocate in order to find enough water to survive. In late 2017, a study led by Manoj Joshi, of the University of East Anglia, found that, by 2050, if temperatures rise by two degrees a quarter of the earth will experience serious drought and desertification. The early signs are clear: São Paulo came within days of running out of water last year, as did Cape Town this spring. In the fall, a record drought in Germany lowered the level of the Elbe to below twenty inches and reduced the corn harvest by forty per cent. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded in a recent study that, as the number of days that reach eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit or higher increases, corn and soybean yields across the U.S. grain belt could fall by between twenty-two and forty-nine per cent. We’ve already overpumped the aquifers that lie beneath most of the world’s breadbaskets; without the means to irrigate, we may encounter a repeat of the nineteen-thirties, when droughts and deep plowing led to the Dust Bowl—this time with no way of fixing the problem. Back then, the Okies fled to California, but California is no longer a green oasis. A hundred million trees died in the record drought that gripped the Golden State for much of this decade. The dead limbs helped spread the waves of fire, as scientists earlier this year warned that they could.
There’s a reason that I admire the Dark Mountain project, which is a kind of Benedict Option for environmentalists. Here’s how the manifesto begins:
Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.
What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end. Meanwhile, beyond the cities, unchecked industrial exploitation frays the material basis of life in many parts of the world, and pulls at the ecological systems which sustain it.
Precarious as this moment may be, however, an awareness of the fragility of what we call civilisation is nothing new.
‘Few men realise,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1896, ‘that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’ Conrad’s writings exposed the civilisation exported by European imperialists to be little more than a comforting illusion, not only in the dark, unconquerable heart of Africa, but in the whited sepulchres of their capital cities. The inhabitants of that civilisation believed ‘blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion,’ but their confidence could be maintained only by the seeming solidity of the crowd of like-minded believers surrounding them. Outside the walls, the wild remained as close to the surface as blood under skin, though the city-dweller was no longer equipped to face it directly.
Bertrand Russell caught this vein in Conrad’s worldview, suggesting that the novelist ‘thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.’ What both Russell and Conrad were getting at was a simple fact which any historian could confirm: human civilisation is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.
Once that belief begins to crumble, the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable. That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.
Dark Mountain is not intended as a vehicle for theoretical or abstract arguments about the future, nor a vehicle for apocalyptic fantasies. And, perhaps crucially, this is not an ‘activist’ project: if you are looking for new ways of ‘saving the world’, you will be disappointed in us – and some have been. Dark Mountain is not another well-meaning attempt to ‘bring together artists concerned about the environment’. It’s not an attempt to focus the minds of poets on ‘the challenges of sustainability’, or to get more keen, young writers to ‘tackle subjects’ like climate change or deforestation. It is something altogether more fundamental than that.
We want to be able to take a cold, hard look at the human predicament, without necessarily being obliged to have a ‘solution’ to offer. We are not pre-judging anything, nor offering trite ‘answers’. A novelist, after all, is not expected to have ‘solutions’ to the human predicament. A poet is not expected to provide ‘answers’ or a political game-plan. But what writers ought to be able to do is to examine this process, and our place in it, and to do so from beyond the framework of our current cultural assumptions.
There are two ways of seeing the future: apocalypse or progress. People seem to default to one or another, which I think explains why we can be called utopians and doom-mongers in the same breath. I reckon we’ll get neither ’ except in the original sense of the word apocalypse, which when translated from the Greek means ‘revelation.’ We’re more likely to see the stuttering decline of our civilisation and the long falling away of our expectations.
Six years ago, at the height of the economic boom, I remember attending a session at the European Social Forum on ‘life after capitalism.’ It was full of hopeful young Turks planning the revolution and the utopia which would follow. Up on the stage, though, a sober note was sounded by the brilliant economist Susan George who, at 70 years old, had seen more of the world than most of us. I can quote what she said because I wrote it down; it seemed so obviously worth listening to even in those halcyon days:
There is a serious possibility that this unstable global economy could actually collapse. We could then be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover. Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than what we have now.
I don’t think many people took this on board at the time, but today it seems prescient. We are in a period of global narrative failure: nobody’s stories have convincing plots, and none of them knows how they end. Marxism, conservatism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, environmentalism – none of them has legs. New stories will come, because new stories are needed. In the short term, though, I’m not sure we’re going to like what they have to tell us.
It’s happening. We are under judgment, I believe. I would like to be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Is it the end of the world, in terms of Christian eschatology? It just might be. I can’t say. It would not surprise me. I would like to hear from you Christian readers who think about what’s going on worldwide with nature in eschatological terms. What are you thinking?
UPDATE: Judging from the comments, lots of folks misunderstand what I mean by “God’s judgment.” It’s not a matter of God pointing his finger at us from a cloud and ordering the climate to change to punish us. It’s a matter of Him giving us what we asked for, so to speak. For example, the Civil War was God’s judgment on America for slavery, in my view.
UPDATE.2: I guess I have to clarify something else for some readers. I am not saying that the collapse of sexual and familial norms are causing climate change. I am saying that these phenomenon are all linked to the core modern idea, from Bacon onward: the natural world exists to be made subject to mankind’s will, damn the consequences.