Healthcare is making phenomenal strides. Your heart could go bad, and we could still save you. Your lungs could get diseased, and we might still save you. Your brain might get a tumor, and there’s a shot at saving you. But if you have a cancer that goes from localized to regional to systemic—making it to stage 4 (spreading through all of these organs), that’s it. You’re terminal.
In the 1980s, we passed some irreversible thresholds for climate. Passed them—meaning now the world WILL be different than it would have been, in fact worse than it would have been. In fact, there will be more starvation, disease, war, loss of species, draught, resource crises, and overall destruction because we passed said threshold. Then we passed another. In fact, we’re busting through the roadblocks, scattering the signs, and kicking up dust as we accelerate.
Yes, accelerate. See, we didn’t calculate correctly back when we first started talking about this. We anticipated we’d have far longer than we do, because those doing the numbers didn’t factor in rate of acceleration. Guess what’s happening to acceleration? It’s not holding steady, affording us a simple math correction. Ding! Thank you for playing anyway. The rate of acceleration is accelerating.
So now you have this fast-moving, rapidly accelerating “disease”, to follow our metaphor. And it hasn’t confined itself to local or regional devastation. If it were just the ice in Greenland, we had a shot at saving us. If it was just the honeybee die off (and lots of other species, and the shifting balance to more aggressive insects, water species, etc), we might have done something about that. If it were just the rebirth of fascism, just the reemergence of nearly extinct disease and the rise of anti-vaxxers, just any one of the major alterations to our ecology, we’d at least have a simple target. But when all the systems that support healthy ecosystems are damaged—social, economic, cultural, political, medical, meteorological, and so on—well, we have to acknowledge it’s the end game.
And it seems that when the world dies, an emotional and intellectual death precedes it, like a sign in the heavens. This takes the form of our retreat from reason—more to the point, the logic that points to our demise. It’s further padded with a salving of our emotions with appeals to superstition.
I contend that the end of the world is too important to occur without looking it full in the face. And I argue that we have too much capacity for dignity to do otherwise.
Our retreats generally take the following forms:
- Argument from denial (nothing new): “Weather always fluctuates, and climate has changed before—this is probably just a cycle…”
- Argument from faith (bargaining): “Someone will rescue us, think of something, bail us out in the end—scientists or some brilliant entrepreneur.”
- Argument from necessity (depression): “I can’t live in fear or I will despair, therefore to avoid despair, I will live as though it’s not so.”
- Argument from defiance (anger): “I refuse to accept defeat, because defeat angers me. So I will persist in insisting on a solution.”
- Argument from abdication (acceptance): “Besides shut off some lights and recycle plastic bottles, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well not make it a primary focus.”
- Argument from superstition (escape): “This all means something. It probably signals the next evolution of man, the need to focus on his immortality, the Rapture, etc…”
I would look on these as, not coincidentally, the stages of grief at the end of all things. Each of them essentially demonstrates the rationality of their opposite. It’s as if we were stranded on a deserted island, and I said, “Probably lots of people come here. Someone will come by. I don’t want to feel bad or be pissed off by this. So I’ll just sit here and read my book and hum a little tune. After all, everything happens for a reason.” The reason for my death by exposure, thirst, or starvation, of course, is precisely that I have chosen these avenues of irrationality.
The most powerful argument I’ve encountered to the contrary is that the only way you find a solution is by maintaining a belief that the worst will not happen. It’s a form of the Faith argument. I maintain the opposite and that we are predisposed by generations of shallow “positive thinking” to insist upon this reasoning, primarily because the nostalgic familiarity in that foxhole faith is comforting. Rather, I think the only way the worst doesn’t happen (the horribly bad WILL happen—it’s too late to avert the horribly bad) is by rejecting false hope. I think we have to wipe the slate clean by declaring the situation what all rational evidence declares it to be—hopeless. I think only in hopelessness could there possibly be (probably isn’t) but might be an answer beyond hope.
See, we have far too much hope. We are saturated in it. We don’t save for old age, but we hope it’ll turn out all right. We play games with our health, and we hope it won’t have consequences. We are a culture awash in fruitless, enduring, and harmful hope. And we hoped that we could continue our lifestyles of heedless consumption and science or policy or accident would be a panacea that would insulate us from consequences. Hope, so far, has led us down the path of unreality to the reality that all such paths have an unpleasant ultimate ending.
Also, I wonder that we aren’t facing the lesser of demons with all this mental hoodoo in order to avoid honestly taking stock of a greater one. What’s worse than the end of the world? For some of us, and I’d venture to say especially for parents and grandparents, it’s that we’ve heedlessly consigned others to a worse end that our own. Notice I say “have” not “might have” or “could have”. If it’s terminal, it’s time we were honest. When Bobby Fischer won a game, he would offer to shake hands, even if there were still moves left on the board and the end wasn’t yet apparent to his opponent. A film version of Bobby as a child has him saying ‘the game is over, even if you don’t see it yet’. If we’re going to take moral and intellectual responsibility for the demise of the world, we need to see the grid of the world in the condition it really is. The king is dead. Now what? Make Bobby chase us around the board for another five moves instead of acknowledging the obvious? Well, if it was chess, sure. But we’ve got more at stake here.
Not so fast, you say! You just listed the above arguments, but didn’t refute them. That’s easily done, of course. For those not seeing the sequence on the board already, here you go…
- Argument from denial (nothing new): “Weather always fluctuates, and climate has changed before — this is probably just a cycle…” Yes, and each of those cycles of mass extinction resulted in the death of all large species like ourselves and conditions in which man cannot survive. Comfort yourself with the knowledge, when everyone you care about meets their doom, that it’s just a cycle. That doesn’t do much for me. It didn’t do much for the dinosaurs, the author of Ecclesiastes, or the Ancient Egyptians, either.
- Argument from faith (bargaining): “Someone will rescue us, think of something, bail us out in the end — scientists or some brilliant entrepreneur.” The consensus of scientists is that there is no plausible solution, even hypothetically, for this level of systemic damage, so you can’t appeal to science while denying what it’s telling you. Entrepreneurs? The most interesting trend among successful entrepreneurs is preparation for the apocalypse (called ‘prepping’); what are they investing in? They’re investing in a less uncomfortable end of the world for themselves, not in saving you. Finally, the best evidence for what we will do is what we have generally done. There’s, therefore, no credible empirical basis for suggesting we’ll find the collective will to take the necessary steps, even if it weren’t too late.
- Argument from necessity (depression): “I can’t live in fear or I will despair, therefore to avoid despair, I will live as though it’s not so.” Non sequitur. Your emotional response to reality doesn’t alter reality. You can live as though you won the championship in High School even if you didn’t, but it just underscores the fact that you didn’t. It makes it even MORE emotionally damaging, as you descend into cognitive dissonance, which is actual form of mental illness. Good luck with that.
- Argument from defiance (anger): “I refuse to accept defeat, because defeat angers me.” It angers me, too. But I hope Trump doesn’t refuse to accept it when he’s finally ousted in either 2020 or (more likely) 2024. And hard reality is less susceptible to a dictatorship of defiance than constructed realities like ‘being in charge’. Not accepting something doesn’t make it go away. Try gravity, for instance. You won’t live long, but it’s a good experiment.
- Argument from abdication (acceptance): “Besides shut off some lights and recycle plastic bottles, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well not make it a primary focus.” Well, I’m not sure either of those things will have any significant impact, so if you have that much focus at least, we could probably use it elsewhere. Like maybe walk to most places, and put the rest into voting on climate. These won’t stop the inevitable, but they might slow it a little. And remember, we’re still not talking about shifting your primary focus, because it’s too late for that to matter. You want to fiddle while Rome burns, it’s probably just as good as screaming. I’m with you—but acceptance can be fiddling mindlessly or it can be living your utmost as long as possible. The expensive Broadway play, the better ice cream, and the better Scotch. I think if you really want to free your focus, take the red pill, and accept your life in this scarred, dying Wonderland, and see how far the rabbit hole goes. I bet Neo gets more out of his focus than the guys plugged into the fantasy Matrix. Anyway, if you really don’t want to focus on something, it starts by acknowledging that thing is there.
- Argument from superstition (escape): “This all means something. It probably signals the next evolution of man, the need to focus on his immortality, the Rapture, etc…” If you say so, but we might as well make up any story we like, if we’re inventing maybes. And if we’re doing that, my story is just as good—the one in which there is no story—it’s just happening, it means nothing, and some people will face it and others will take their intellectual ‘shrooms’ and go down on their mental knees. I can’t tell you not to anesthetize. I can only say I think there’s value in eyes wide open. Either way, the life raft means you know your boat is sinking.
I think much of our collective and individual responses to the world coming to an end stem from cowardice, abdication of moral responsibility, and confusion—what is the appropriate emotional response to a death, let alone the death of everything? It’s hard to know. I just think I know what an appropriate response is not.
It’s not (and never can be) a denial of the very things that make us human—our ability to see and rationally process reality, our willingness to be morally accountable for the consequences of our action and inaction, and our ability to imagine our own demise. But all these retreats are not a preservation of those qualities which many call the “image of God” in us, but a denial that they have value—that the death matters—that those characteristics were ever worth having or saving in the first place.
The biggest qualm I have with the apocalypse deniers is their rejecting of the significance of this world in the first place. It’s no accident that the most vocal science deniers claim that the world and its people are so corrupt that they cannot be saved and therefore their destruction is appropriate. That they need to then deny the thing they wish for is their own cognitive dissonance kicking in and demonstrating the bankruptcy of their underlying premise. The world IS worth redeeming. Whether we deny this outright, as the fundamentalist right does, or deny it in principle by setting aside the very things that demonstrate that worthiness for redemption, the end of all things is not worth denying if you don’t value those things when push comes to shove in the first place.
It’s odd to say it, isn’t it? The world is ending. This is the terminal generation. Not “generation” according to the “personality theory” of generations, a fad that renders a generation more or less every decade. But “generation” in the sense of a people at a certain time — the people of a time—an “age of men” to borrow from Tolkien. The argument from cycles (denial) inevitably gets relaunched every time we say something like “end of the world”—people have been saying that since the beginning of the world. All right, one more refutation for you: Yes, and they were right. And now here we are. So deal with it.
A generation, in scripture, incidentally, is 100 years. It’s annoying to have one pop up every few minutes and tell us why it’s special and has its own preferences, demands, and inevitably things to teach us. Oh, please, no more teaching us. It’s enough that you’ve ruined movies, saving the world all the time with your friends and your kid skills. I suppose if that’s all there is to watch in a few years, more people will be joining me in looking at the end dead on. Sorry, kid. You threw John McClane under the bus, so I decided to accept that your days are numbered. No—I said McClane, not McCain. No, I know he didn’t die in a bus crash. OK, do you see why I say the world is ending?
Finally, I share with you my favorite clip on this (youtube) from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom:
Add to this (delightfully), Mother Jones’ fact-checking of the clip:
In which we fact checked climate science on "The Newsroom"...
I watch too much TV drama, so I can say this with a degree of certainty: It's rare that climate change comes up…
For those who think this is hooey, I’m not wondering whether you’ll believe it in 31 years [link], but what you’ll be saying then to escape the basic moral responsibility that comes with acknowledging reality for its own sake. Will you invent a magic reason for the world server crashing? Will you blame it on a conspiracy of George Soros to modify weather? It would be interesting to watch, except that I don’t think we’ll be having the discussion—I think we’ll all be a bit busy just then.