Lessons from a genocide can prepare humanity for climate apocalypse

Conceptual collage illustration of woman, rising temperatures and smoke stack.- Kelsey Niziolek

Lessons from a genocide can prepare humanity for climate apocalypse
[Print Edition Title: “Learning to Live in an Apocalypse”]
MIT Technology Review, April 24, 2019
The Climate Issue – Essay
by Roy Scranton

“The bad news is that our slow-motion ecological catastrophe demands new ways of thinking. The good news? We’ve faced the end of the world before.”


The fantasy version of apocalypse always begins with the longawaited event—a missile launch, escaped virus, zombie outbreak—and moves swiftly through collapse into a new, steady state. Something happens, and the morning after you’re pushing a squeaking shopping cart down a highway littered with abandoned Teslas, sawed-off shotgun at the ready. The event is key: it’s a baptism, a fiery sword separating past and present, the origin story of Future You.


Catastrophic global climate change, however, is not an event at all, and we’re not waiting for it. We’re living it right now. In August 2018, in a summer of forest fires and shattered heat records, the strongest, oldest ice in the Arctic Sea broke up for the first time on record, presaging the final throes of the Arctic death spiral.


Goodbye, good life

Global warming cannot be properly understood or addressed in isolation. Even if we somehow “solved” geopolitics, war, and economic inequality in order to rebuild our global energy system, we would still need to address the ongoing collapse of the biosphere, the carcinogenic toxins we’ve spread across the world, ocean acidification, imminent crises in industrial agriculture, and overpopulation. There is no realistic plan for global-warming mitigation, for instance, that doesn’t include some kind of control on population growth—which means what exactly? Education and birth control seem reasonable enough, but then? A global one-child policy? Mandatory abortions? Euthanasia? It is easy to see how complex and contentious the problem swiftly becomes. What’s more, Earth’s climate is not a thermostat. There is little reason to suppose that we can dump a bunch of carbon into the atmosphere, radically shock the entire global climate system, and then pause it like a video game.


It is psychologically, philosophically, and politically difficult to come to terms with our situation. The rational mind quails before such an apocalypse. We have taken a fateful leap into a new world, and the conceptual and cultural frameworks we have developed to make sense of human existence over the past 200 years seem wholly inadequate for coping with this transition, much less for helping us adapt to life on a hot and chaotic planet.


Our lives are built around concepts and values that are existentially threatened by a stark dilemma: either we radically transform human collective life by abandoning the use of fossil fuels or, more likely, climate change will bring about the end of global fossil-fueled capitalist civilization. Revolution or collapse—in either case, the good life as we know it is no longer viable. Consider everything we take for granted: perpetual economic growth; endless technological and moral progress; a global marketplace capable of swiftly satisfying a plethora of human desires; easy travel over vast distances; regular trips to foreign countries; year-round agricultural plenty; an abundance of synthetic materials for making cheap, high-quality consumer goods; air-conditioned environments; wilderness preserved for human appreciation; vacations at the beach; vacations in the mountains; skiing; morning coffee; a glass of wine at night; better lives for our children; safety from natural disasters; abundant clean water; private ownership of houses and cars and land; a self that acquires meaning through the accumulation of varied experiences, objects, and feelings; human freedom understood as being able to choose where to live, whom to love, who you are, and what you believe; the belief in a stable climate backdrop against which to play out our human dramas. None of this is sustainable the way we do it now. [emphasis added]


Climate change is happening—that much is clear. But the problem remains beyond our grasp, and any realistic solution seems unimaginable within our current conceptual framework. Although the situation is dire, overwhelming, intractable, and unprecedented in scale, however, it is not without historical analogues. This is not the first time a group of humans has had to deal with the failure of their conceptual framework for navigating reality. This is not the first time the world has ended.

When cultures collapse

Poets, thinkers, and scholars have pondered cultural catastrophe again and again. The ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of humans surviving civilizational collapse caused by ecological transformation: Gilgamesh “brought back wisdom from before the flood.” Virgil’s Aeneid tells of not only the fall of Troy but also the survival of the Trojans. Several books of the Torah tell how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Jewish people, destroyed their temple, and exiled them. That story provided later generations with a powerful model of cultural endurance.


One historical analogy stands out with particular force: the European conquest and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Here, truly, a world ended. Many worlds, in fact. Each civilization, each tribe, lived within its own sense of reality—yet all these peoples saw their lifeworlds destroyed and were forced to struggle for cultural continuity beyond mere survival, a struggle that the Anishinaabe poet Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance.”



“The traditional forms of living a good life were going to be destroyed,” writes Lear. “But there was spiritual backing for the thought that new good forms of living would arise for the Crow, if only they would adhere to the virtues of the chickadee.”


Today the Crow—just like the Sioux, the Navajo, the Potawatomi, and numerous other native peoples— live in communities that struggle with poverty, suicide, and unemployment. But these communities are also home to poets, historians, singers, dancers, and thinkers committed to indigenous cultural flourishing. The point here is not to glamorize indigenous closeness to “nature,” or to indulge a naive longing for lost hunter-warrior values, but to ask what we might learn from courageous and intelligent people who survived cultural and ecological catastrophe. [emphasis added]

We must go on

Like Plenty Coups, we face the destruction of our conceptual reality. Catastrophic levels of global warming are practically inevitable at this point, and one way or another this will bring about the end of life as we know it.


So we have to confront two distinct challenges. The first is whether we might curtail the worst possibilities of climate change and stave off human extinction by limiting greenhouse-gas emissions and decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. The second is whether we will be able to transition to a new way of life in the world we’ve made. Meeting the latter challenge demands mourning what we have already lost, learning from history, finding a realistic way forward, and committing to an idea of human flourishing beyond any hope of knowing what form that flourishing will take. “This is a daunting form of commitment,” Lear writes, for it is a commitment “to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp what it is.” [emphasis added]

It is not clear that we moderns possess the psychological and spiritual resources to meet this challenge. Coming to terms with the situation as it stands has already proved the struggle of a generation, and the outcome still remains obscure. Successfully answering this existential challenge may not even matter at all unless we immediately see substantial reductions in global carbon emissions: recent research suggests that at atmospheric carbon dioxide levels around 1,200 parts per million, which we are on track to hit sometime in the next century, changes in atmospheric turbulence may dissipate clouds that reflect sunlight from the subtropics, adding as much as 8 °C warming on top of the more than 4 °C warming already expected by that point. That much warming, that quickly—12 °C within a hundred years—would be such an abrupt and radical environmental shift that it’s difficult to imagine a large, warm-blooded mammalian apex predator like Homo sapiens surviving in significant numbers. Such a crisis could create a population bottleneck like other, prehistoric bottlenecks, as many billions of people die, or it could mean the end of our species. There’s no real way to know what will happen except by looking at roughly similar catastrophes in the past, which have left the Earth a graveyard of failed species. We burn some of them to drive our cars.


Nevertheless, the fact that our situation offers no good prospects does not absolve us of the obligation to find a way forward. Our apocalypse is happening day by day, and our greatest challenge is learning to live with this truth while remaining committed to some as-yet-unimaginable form of future human flourishing—to live with radical hope. [emphasis added] Despite decades of failure, a disheartening track record, ongoing paralysis, a social order geared toward consumption and distraction, and the strong possibility that our great-grandchildren may be the last generation of humans ever to live on planet Earth, we must go on. We have no choice.

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About the Author:

Roy Scranton is a contributing writer for MIT Technology Review.

Webmaster’s Comment:

While this article is not what I typically include in Internet Salmagundi, I feel it is especially poignant. I focus primarily on technology and while this article is not about technology per se, it is fair to say that modern technology consumes vast quantities of electrical energy, much of that fueled by fossil fuels. Our globally pervasive use of electrically powered technology places it at the front and center of this challenge. How do we sustainably go forward? This article offers no technological solution to our predicament and there likely (obviously) is no such solution. To wit: “The fact that our situation offers no good prospects does not absolve us of the obligation to find a way forward.” In the end, this article’s poignancy speaks to the existential challenge humanity currently faces. It is up to us to find a way forward. We ignore it at our own peril.