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Don’t fall for the apocalypse

September 10, 2019

I suspect there is a certain comfort that comes from believing in an imminent apocalypse. The major issues of the world are simplified, some fading into irrelevance, the others aligning with the end times. One can focus on the quotidian and the ultimate. What to have for breakfast, and who is allowed into heaven or the survival bunker.

People have been waiting for those end times for thousands of year. The apocalypse has yet to arrive. Instead, century after century, we continue to march into an ever more complex world. There are catastrophes aplenty, plagues and extinctions, wars and genocides. Trends that once seemed certain reverse. Twenty years past, liberals were hopeful that democracy’s spread was inexorable. Now, Shawn Rosenberg predicts that democracy will dissappear. I wouldn’t place money on either extreme. And who, five years ago, would have thought that US life expectancy, after its long and steady climb, would decline three years running, even while medical technology advances?

Human destruction of habitat and warming of the globe will shrink the natural world. But it is not going to end civilization in a few short decades. A hundred years from now, the world will be more complex, there still will be parts of nature remaining, and people then will argue how to manage those. Some of them, historically aware, might look back on the current time as an unfortunate step backwards, one that wreaked lasting harm. Much as many American historians look back on Reconstruction as lost opportunity, even its reworking of the Constitution soon derailed by conservative courts, to wait near a century before given their due.

Or maybe not. There might be significant political change in the next decade. The current time might be viewed as the last gasp of a reactionary generation soon swept from power. Even the near future is hard to predict.

We cannot now quantify the environmental harm from global warming, partly because we don’t know future human decisions, mostly because we poorly understand the interactions between climate and ecosystems. Some ecosystems that look fragile will prove to be more resilient than we now expect. Some that look resilient will collapse suddenly when not expected. Beyond obvious ones now most threatened, no biologist can predict which species will survive, which will go extinct, which will become invasive pests that threaten ecosystems where they are not yet. The changes will be myriad, will occur at unknown future time, and will interact in surprising ways. Though there will be many catastrophic losses, some impacting the economy, some affecting human life more directly, there will not be any bright lines crossed. The losses will just come, and still large parts of nature will remain. Our destruction of habitat in other ways may yet prove more damaging than global warming.

What won’t result from that is the apocalypse that Jonathan Frazen expects. Scientists rightly are criticizing that article. Franzen casts global warming both as the end game and as an issue of personal morality. That should be expected, given his novels, and fitting his apocalyptic mien. It leads him to regurgitate one of the fossil fuel industry’s favorite pieces of propaganda, that curtailing their product necessarily has harsh consequence for the public at large:

[O]verwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it.

The only thing really threatened by shifting away from fossil fuels is future revenues for the fossil fuel industry. The only tax needed is on such fuels, and its revenues can be used to offset those taxes that the rest of us pay.

Don’t fall for the apocalypse. That simplification is fit only for comic books, horror novels, and maybe morality tales. Global warming will remain a complex topic for decades to come. Its importance will have to share attention with various issues also important, from other kinds of pollution and the weakening of the nation-state, to some not yet on our radar that will be soon. Pointing that out provides no defense to the shills for the fossil fuel industry, or worse, to those who would just as soon burn the natural environment along with everything else. Rather, it just states the nature of the world in which we live, and girds us for political battles that will continue, and that will extend in new directions.

Obligatory Disclaimer: I live in a hurricane zone. We keep prepared for that in various ways. There is a difference between being prepared and being a prepper, between hurricanes and the end of days. A large part of the tragedy the Bahamas now suffers is political. The US should open its doors. Instead, we are ruled by a charlatan who stokes fear and rage at the expense of human decency.

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