Day 90: Are We Screwed?
Alaska. My dear friends, I’ve hit my homeland. It’s not so much a state as a realm, a subcontinent. Or perhaps a state of being: as an old saying has it, where the women are men and the men are animals. I did my atavistic chest pounding when I paddled across the border — then I ate a snickers bar. And I tell you, everything has changed. I didn’t see a single bear on my entire tour through B.C., and wouldn’t you know it, my first day in Alaska I spotted a big one ambling along the beach. And that night, a lone black wolf loping on the grass out in front of my camp, from the river to the intertidal and back. We stared at each other, and it went on its way into the night. The weather has turned more severe too, here in Alaska. I managed to pass through the exposed coastline of Dixon Entrance before the storm really hit, but about 20 miles shy of Ketchikan, after a harrowing 2-mile crossing in windy 5-foot chop, I had to take shelter from the storm in a Forest Service cabin at Alava Bay. Hanging up my wet gear and stoking the fire, I listened to warnings on the radio (… be vigilant over the weekend, as 3-6 inches of rain may cause streams to rise … Check that bilge pumps are working on boats … gale warning in effect over inside waters through Sunday night …). But hey, this cabin ain’t a bad place to wait out the storm. As long as I’m stuck here, maybe I’ll take the time to write about something that’s been on my mind.
I’ve given presentations out in the community about Arctic climate change and the state of our oceans. Folks approach me afterwards, animated with all sorts of questions — one asks about dead zones where she used to live on the Oregon coast, another tells me his brother works on an oil rig up north, and notices a lot less ice than there used to be. But there’s one question that never fails to be asked: when only a few people are still lingering, inevitably someone will finally, apprehensively ask what’s on all our minds: “So are we just, screwed?“
Oof. This is an awfully tough question to know how to answer! And I’m not the only one who’s struggled with it — my friend Mike Osborne, after receiving the same question again and again from his non-scientist friends, explored his own thoughts on it in an essay on his wonderful podcast Generation Anthropocene. Michael, I doff my Alaskan rain hat to you for inspiring this post; now we just need to get all the rest of our friends to write their own answers to the Are We Screwed? question. (Fun reading for the whole family!)
But in truth, as Michael points out, nobody can give a firm answer to this question. There is a major change underway, but to quote Ian Malcolm once again, all major changes are like death: you can’t see to the other side until you’re there. I don’t know if we’re screwed, and to tell you the truth, I hadn’t even made up my mind yet as to my own opinion. Maybe the best I can do, as a young environmental scientist who’s fairly well-traveled — and who, for some reason, spends lots of his free time reading depressing books about the state of our world — is to take a look around and tell you what I see.
First off, I guess I’ve got to report that I see the problems. Let’s not kid around, the problems we cause are big and intractable, and they threaten much of the living world. But for god’s sake, I’ll spare you the tedium of listing them out yet again. Instead, I’ll just give you 3 revealing numbers that raised my eyebrows (and the hairs on the back of my neck) when I read them:
– 2°C: the upper “safe” or “acceptable” limit of global temperature rise agreed upon by the international climate community
– 565 Gigatons: the approximate amount of new carbon emissions that equate to a 2°C temperature rise
– 2795 Gigatons: the proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas belonging to fossil fuel companies (i.e. the carbon we are “planning” to burn)
It won’t have escaped your notice that the third number is around 5 times larger than the second. These numbers are the essence of a devastating article in Rolling Stone by Bill McKibben, if you’d like to take a look.
But I also see a remarkable time to be living in. My dad is fond of quoting an ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. I bet it doesn’t get much more interesting than riding 100 “hockey stick” curves all at once. It’s like the beginning of every roller coaster: they all start with a long, tortuously slow climb, high up into exquisite nothingness, the mechanical clacking barely drowning out the pounding in your chest, until the cart finally noses over the precipice.
I see a world becoming homogeneous, like colors as the light fades at dusk. Species go extinct to be replaced by the same group of highly successful invaders; human cultures go extinct and are replaced by American capitalism. Some have even called our epoch the homogenocene, rather than the anthropocene. The danger in homogenization of course, is that diversity is the spice of life, a festival of ideas and knowledge and new products. In ecology, diversity is stability. The monoculture, while efficient, is also dangerously vulnerable — one disease or drought can bring the whole thing down, like the potato blight in mid-Nineteenth Century Ireland.
I see a world moving awfully damn fast. Remember in The Shawshank Redemption, when Brooks is released after half a century in prison, and nearly gets run down by a car? In his letter to the boys, he writes, “I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now, they’re everywhere! The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” The year was 1954. Ah Brooks, the 50s were the good old days! If you could only see how fast things move now, 60 years later! I see the rpms rising into the red, and I wonder, how fast is fast enough? I wonder, with this pace of technology, can we really hope to manage it so that it does what is right, rather than what is wrong?
I see a lot of trust in technology to solve our problems. This is a trust that I do not happen to share. “Silicon faith” doesn’t have history on it s side: as Jared Diamond points out, throughout our history, technology has created environmental problems faster than it has solved them. What reason do we have to believe that as of today, August 9 2014, technology will stop creating new problems and will focus only on solving old ones? Perhaps this could be the case if governments undertook a massive problem-solving agenda and subsidized helpful technologies and vigorously oversaw their deployment. But this is not how things work: instead, technology is introduced by companies seeking profit — and capitalism doesn’t have the greatest environmental track record. Salvation, it seems to me, lies not in complicated technological schemes, but in simplicity.
What else do I see? I see our evolutionary history in the human psychology. The thing is, not so deep down in our brains, we’re still just primates of the African savannah. I suppose this is where our self-interestedness and short-sightedness come from. For 3 million years since our divergence from chimpanzees, our ancestors survived by confronting near-term dangers for their own benefit (the proverbial “lion in the savannah”). A long-term, global perspective is about as useful out on the savannah as a pair of crampons. But now, take a primate with lions on the brain, dress him in a suit and seat him in the halls of congress, and suddenly ask him to deal with generational, global challenges such as climate change or overpopulation, and… well, you can see the result every time you look at the news.
I see other peccadilloes of the human psychology molding the shape of the planet for better and for worse. On the one hand, when we get an education and rise out of poverty, we tend to have fewer children. That’s why birth rates and even populations in many first-world nations are on the decline. There’s no a priori reason to expect this — it could just as easily be the other way around: we use our new-found resources to spread our seed farther by having even more children (god forbid!). Paraphrasing E.O. Wilson, if we and most of our companion species make it through the current bottleneck, we’ll owe much to this unaccountable gift of the human brain. On the other hand, I see a more sinister aspect of our psychology: the more wealth and power we amass, the more we crave. Strangely, great prosperity among men and women doesn’t lead to great generosity and concern for their fellow beings; instead, it leads to conservatism and cupidity. And the poorest people I know are the most giving. I reckon we should take a good look in the mirror over this eccentricity of ours — as wealth disparity grows in America and everywhere, it will be a cast-iron obstacle in the path to a sensible way of life on Earth.
When I look around, I see tremendous inertia left over from a time when the world seemed utterly inexhaustible. I remind myself that it just wasn’t that long ago that vast riches seemed to stretch to every horizon — and beyond the horizons, who knows? Man spread to most corners of the globe utilizing these resources that seemed truly without measure, eventually setting in motion an industrial juggernaut to do it better and faster. Our systems of transportation, agriculture and energy generation — systems that we now see as so damaging — were set in motion before “global limits” could even be conceived of. The idea that earth is finite — that we could fish enough to collapse a species as unfathomably abundant as Atlantic cod, or cut enough trees to destroy the Amazon rainforest by disrupting its internal hydrological cycle, or burn enough fuel to alter Earth’s climate — these ideas are brand new. A generation or two, at most. And so, we’re just learning to look at ourselves in a new way, as globe-tumbling agents of tectonic force. We’re like Dyson in Terminator 2, learning that we’re responsible for Judgement Day — the idea takes some getting used to. Meanwhile, the inertia rolls on like a grand piano on a slope… but I tell myself to be patient, things are changing. Slow food, alternative energy, dam removal, ecosystem-based management, aboriginal rights — all of these and many more are growing movements.
Are we screwed? It depends on who you mean by we, and what you mean by screwed (the are part, I think I’ve got). A billion of us are already screwed, lacking sufficient food to eat. But if you’re asking about our whole species, do I think we’re doomed to imminent extinction? Probably not — the best predictor of a species’ survival is their abundance, and we’re nothing if not abundant. Do I believe that our numbers will decline (rather than stabilizing at 9-10 billion), with a concurrent decline in first-world standards of living? Probably so. The biologist in me says there’s no bargaining with simple carrying capacity on a finite planet.
Are we screwed? I smile at the kind middle-aged woman who asked me, and wonder what to say. Her eyes are a mix of anxiety and intrigue — I sympathize with her. She’s heard 100 stories of global threats, spun this way and that by media and scientists and politicians and industry. What a bewildering and disempowering barrage! She’s part of the first generation to ever conceive of such a question. I belong to the second, the one that is just starting to get to work on the question. The third is just opening its eyes, in a world vastly changed from the one she grew up in. I think for a moment, and I open my mouth to speak.