Somehow, losing the world should have been harder, but much of the ride was exhilarating, even fun.
It feels like this to be in the car that’s crested the first long climb on the roller coaster to the place where every fiber of your being still tuned to survival begins to understand the empty sky and the pit of your stomach. To the three-two fastball right down the middle where you wanted it, the sudden flick of interest in the batter’s eyes as three molecules in his left hip begin the shift in his weight. Taking that first long stride out there, trusting the ropes and the wind and your prehensile grip on the rock. Touching, caressing, her neck, back there in her hair, for the very first time, taking that chance.
That’s what it feels like, today: just hung out there and subject to . . . what? It is, of course, impossible in any final sense to know this with any real certainty. We learned way back in school somewhere that the evident fact that the sun rose in the East just so, just there, and there, and there, every morning since the beginning of time was no guarantee in the end that it was going to rise over there beyond the eastern ridge next Thursday. Surely, God might intervene, or the stars, or some vague malevolence, or love or dancing fairies. It could be damned near anything. But the way it always had been spoke directly to the way it would probably be, and the sun would most probably rise again in the east, as predicted, no matter what we thought about the fact.
Put bluntly, most of the people who are the best informed say that as a species, we are probably fucked. We are, so to speak, the little train that just crested the summit, and a few can see that the tracks ahead are no longer open in the way they were, but most just don’t like to hear that, and so persist in their ecstatic squealing. We are truly screwed, and we have done it ourselves with little more effort, it seems, than climbing on the train in the first place. That is why things feel so weightless and impending these days. That is one reason things seem so odd. For an easy example, summer came late to the West Coast this year, not at all an unknown occurrence. And yet, by the time summer finally bloomed from Santa Barbara to Seattle a few weeks ago, it seemed that all the millions inhabited here were about to break into great, collective sobs of unrequited anticipation. This is as abnormal as it is trivial. A more serious example: as of this writing, Dick Cheney continues to live. Still doesn’t do it for you?
A recent study released by Britain’s Hadley Centre declares that within the lifetimes of our youngest grandchildren, life as we know it now — worldwide — will pretty much have ended. The United Nations concurs. Miami and Alexandria and Buenos Aires will mostly be history, along with Mumbai and Boston and Shanghai and Sydney and a dozen others awash in the rising seas. People everywhere will likely fight over fresh water. Many crops will no longer grow in the places they used to. In the unlikely event that there has been no brake on population increase, projections indicate a world population of a little over 21 billion by then, over three times what it is now. ‘Chaotic’ is absurdly insufficient to describe the looming political chaos as bazillions of the displaced follow the promise and the obvious necessity of food. This is even beginning to attract the interest of some at the Department of Defense, an event never leading anywhere good. Nowhere are the nomads likely to be welcomed by their neighbors. And nowhere is there the slightest evidence to suggest that humans will have at hand the politics even to manage the coming apocalypse, let alone prevent it.
The serial awfulness which seems to await us may, of course, never transpire. The climatologists may be dead wrong, or at least wrong enough that their dark forebodings will prove to have been too dark, too soon. Maybe the laws of physics and chemistry will somehow not apply here at all. Perhaps that long driving vacation you’ve been going to take through the national parks of the desert southwest, or maybe along the eastern shore all the way up to Chesapeake Bay make sense right now, before gas goes up anymore. Or maybe it’s time to finally fly to Casablanca or Sydney or to Paris or Rio. Or to buy that Harley; what the hell . . . . You can probably finally afford it now.
And here is the crux of a real problem. If the scientists and the writers are correct in their dark forecasts — if the odds-on likelihood of doom does indeed come to pass — then what the hell difference could it possibly make whether you drive to Boulder next week or stay home instead? If the seers and the scientists are right, Houston’s already history, whatever the appearances. Like Don driving over to Mendocino tonight for lemon grass duck and brie with his girlfriend, like Belinda and Gary just goin’ to Ukiah to bowl with some friends and maybe score a little somethin’, why not just use it all up; why not just do again what we’ve always done? It’s not like staying home’s going to change anything.
Looked at in any of a million ways, the present catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico might generate a million sermons, a million lessons learned; the event holds that kind of potential. And yet, in the course of the months since it began, a person will search in vain for the slightest real suggestion beyond common, political blather, that not drilling for oil is a worthwhile alternative, arguably, the only worthwhile alternative. As it happens, one of the early lessons pertinent here is the evident fact that people will do and risk anything, apparently, for continued access to oil. The discussion is all and only about what might be done to make it safer, who fucked up, who gets paid, where do we go next? The discussion never turns to “How can we use less — much less — right now?” It may be only a coincidence, but there is little money to be made from so dramatically cutting back.
I will be the first to admit to a good number of my friends being, on the whole, somewhat odd and even anarchic, people. Most — by no means all — of them are lefties, almost all of them vote; in aggregate, they have spent a lot of time in classrooms; most are reasonably secure financially, so far as I know. A few are even rich. A very few are truly poor. Looked-at in these ways, they’re a pretty normal lot, actually, understandably proud of the lives that they are making, and — in ways that don’t necessarily resemble the stereotype — deeply patriotic. They’re probably more likely to buy organic whenever possible than the normal American, which is only to say that their style is a bit different. Some are bitter, a few, God help us, are smarmy, and most seem to get by pretty much as well as everybody else.
So it is disheartening, to state the case as mildly as possible, to notice that none of these good people — as far as I can see — has undertaken the slightest change in behavior or habit to accomplish what so obviously needs to be done. We all, of course (well, most of us) talk a great game. We read the right books and we see the right movies and believe the right websites and we recycle and we give to good causes. But, as for cutting our carbon footprint by at least twenty-five percent immediately, which physics tells us we have to do, well . . . I’m almost out of milk, it’s family weekend at Great America, and Emily’s waiting at the bar. I gotta go get the kids.
The maggot at the bottom of the woodpile here is the simple question of how things could ever have been expected to be different. Perhaps the most disturbing fact here is that, for every individual to eliminate a quarter of one’s impact — a quarter, in this case, of all the oil in one’s life — such an impact will demand a far different way of being alive. It will involve going fewer places, and it will involve having fewer things. It will mean fewer new clothes, fewer electronic gadgets. Contrary to the happy picture of the alternative-energy future foisted on us by ever-younger and hipper folks with their hands in our pockets, were going to be doing with less. Much less: that’s the whole idea.
In America near the beginning of the third millennium, this will have the drama of Dolly Parton appearing with deflated tits or Fred Astaire in logger’s caulks, or maybe the latest phenom tossing lob balls from the mound at Yankee Stadium in front of fifty-thousand people. It is also about as likely. This is even more problematical when it becomes clear that talking a good game and four bucks will get you a cappuccino at Starbucks. The necessity to reduce right now is as non-negotiable as the day after tomorrow. Our clear intention to deal with this a week from Tuesday is worse than useless to the extent that it furthers the illusion that we’ll take care of this soon. The song will carry us: “Everybody be happy!” Yeah. Woot woot.
People — everybody pretty much everywhere — must immediately change their habits or what we call ‘civilization’ will end, along with a good deal of the rest that’s here with us. Period. That much, at least, seems clear.
Right away, though, this runs into the fact (just published) that the latest polls indicate that more Americans believe in personal guardian angels (55%) than believe in anthropogenic climate change (36%). I am not making this up. Understandably, the writers of long-term mortgages don’t want to talk about the end of civilization, and neither do the buyers, but everybody loves the tooth fairy. Anyone in any significant way tied to things-as-they-are has every reason to hope that things go on as they ever have. There remains at least the comfort of the way things have been, the quaintness of our grandparents, not to speak of the interest on investment down the road and everything we ever learned in school. But notwithstanding these powerful habits, this can’t continue for long.
By any but the most imaginative and needy measure, some might call it prayer, this degree of change has absolutely zero chance of happening. This is also clear. Some sort of world-girdling natural catastrophe might end the economic life of the planet’s people and so allow the physical survival of at least a few, at least for awhile, but, aside from that dim possibility, the future looks increasingly bleak.
So what on earth, so to speak, is to be done here? It looks as though it might be possible to deny it all until the very end; certainly, anyone around fifty or sixty can do this easily. After all, what’s another few years of trips to the mall and visits to intimate museums in wonderful places? As a friend once asked, leaning toward me in front of the woodstove with yet another whiskey in his hand, “What if they’re right?”
If the choice is truly between giving in to all of it or hanging onto the ideals that could have saved us, I’ll take the latter, please. Having let go of the idea of stopping what’s happening — having let go of the idea of even slowing it to any significant degree — we are left on an odd, but habitable, place. Someone (I think that it may have been either Barry Lopez or Wendell Berry) suggested many years ago that the treatment of the world is, at base, an individual act, created anew each day. The unavoidable end of understanding at least the general thrust of what’s happening is that all we can truly do is to live our own lives as though they matter, and to create and maintain patterns and rhythms that honor the creation in which we find ourselves.
One surprising plus to all this is that the naysayers and the yahoos and the climate-deniers, of course, make no difference either. They no longer invite either attention nor response. The right-wingers, the tea-baggers, the dupes, the hirelings, and the kleptocrats can babble on at any volume they like. So far as the fate of the earth is concerned, their lies and obfuscations have already won, so they have by this time worked themselves right out of a job. But let’s give them their due: the foregoing is not to say that they may not yet wreak absolute havoc in the political realm, too. As for what happens to each of them individually, well, let us hope that Dante was an optimist. In the most visceral ways imaginable, each and every grinning, well-fed one of these be-suited folks is a criminal against humanity.
Sadly, perhaps fatally (although it is probably already too late) the Obama administration is dropping all work toward major climate change legislation for this year. To all but the most addled political junkie, the infrastructure we have evolved is exposed as utterly ineffective here, leaving for later the obvious question of what possible remaining good is the institution? In the present case, congressional Republicans have unreservedly refused to help pass a bill, on the cynical logic of continuing to deny Mr. Obama any major success, leaving us with no practical way of moderating the mess we have made. Gulf coast pelicans measure us dumbly, with sad eyes and an all-to-predictable future.