The Intellectual Situation
The Best of a Bad Situation
This is what extinction feels like from the inside
In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.” The same hope held with respect to coral reefs, forests, and certain small Pacific Islands. A dark glimmer of progressive thinking (the “bargaining phase,” as it were) was discernible in the Kyoto Protocol and at the Paris conference, where the prime minister of Tuvalu’s call to impose a strict not-to-be-exceeded target of a 1.5-degree-Celsius rise in global temperature — the minimum required to save his people from a homeless future in a world hostile to refugees and immigrants — was dismissed in favor of pragmatic mitigating maneuvers intended to induce the cooperation of holdout nations such as the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
At least now we can see things clearly — if only we could focus on the problem. Whatever they may say or tweet, the Trump Administration is not in denial about climate change. In fact, it has the perverse distinction of being the first US administration to address it head-on. In 2000, we had a presidential candidate who understood the perils facing us, even if he underplayed them to try to get elected. (By a margin of one United States Supreme Court justice, he was not elected.) Instead, the Bush Administration pretended climate change did not exist, though back then it was called global warming; “climate change” was a Bush/Rove term of obfuscation that eventually carried the day, even among scientists. President Obama spoke softly about the seriousness of human-driven climate change in public while his administration chipped away at automobile emissions and provided token green-energy incentives. These may have been the correct policies for a major, developed nation . . . in the early 1990s. But like much else after the financial crisis in 2008, the opportunity for a visionary shift in national focus — one that would have required investment at least equal to that being poured into the unwinnable war on terror — was bartered away to chase after an illusory political consensus with the terminally uncompromising opposition.
By contrast, from its first days the Trump presidency brought a series of cabinet appointments and executive orders clustered around the single purpose of hastening ecological collapse: Bring back coal! Shackle and corrupt the EPA! Remove climate change information from government websites! Withdraw from the Paris Agreement! A candidate whose platform called for pushing carbon dioxide levels past the frontier of scientists’ most dire predictions could not have expressed that desire more swiftly or succinctly. It was almost as if that were the whole point. As indeed it was.
There are two clearheaded ways to deal with what’s happening to the Earth. One is to Manhattan-Project the implementation of clean energy sources and immediately stop burning fossil fuels. We also need to ditch the patriarchal models of wealth and status reproduction that have been constitutive of nearly all expansionist, war-making, and resource-depleting societies of the past ten thousand years. While we do that, we can try to ameliorate the many catastrophes that have already been set in motion.
The other way, the path we’re on currently, is to concede that billions of people will see their economic and cultural lives ruined before dying off at a scale to make the casualties of World War II appear insignificant — and “gameplan” not to be among them. That’s what “winning” in the climate-changed future amounts to, and that’s the world the Republican Party has committed itself — and the rest of us — to endure: a social-Darwinist survival of the “fittest,” “wealthiest,” or most prepared, at least in the sense of stockpiling the most guns and canned food. It’s been painfully apparent since the term ecological refugee was popularized by a UN report in the mid-1980s that unthinkable numbers of people would be forced into migration in coming decades by climate change. Immigration, national borders, and food, water, and energy distribution will be the central issues facing all governments. From there it’s a short step, if it’s even a step at all, to a vehement resurgence of open racism and bigotry among those with the good fortune to inhabit the least immediately vulnerable areas, be they the highlands of Burma, the fertile Pannonian plain of Hungary, or the plunder-enriched sprawl of the United States.
Any unrest could be said to really be “about” climate change.Tweet
The looming prospect of a panoply of belligerent, Blut und Boden regimes has always been one of the scariest potential political outcomes of widespread ecological collapse. Through a series of accidents and “influences,” we got our version early in the United States. We can and should get rid of it, but the paranoid energies that enabled its triumph are durable and already have pervaded much of the world. Trumpism is our first national response to climate change, and it’s a brutal, fearful, vengeful, and gloating response — one that predicts and invites warfare on a global scale. For all the terrible statistical projections, alarming models, and buried reports, what’s most immediately terrifying to the human imagination about climate change is the revelation of how large numbers of our species behave under conditions of perceived threat, scarcity, and danger.
Trump’s election has dragged us kicking and screaming into the Climate Change Era, even as so many of the discussions around Trump and his party distract us from seeing it. If there was ever a time when climate change, née global warming, was “a topic” to be discussed dispassionately, speculated about, and debated in chilly board rooms, classrooms, and One Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, now it is a present danger and reality tangled up in every political issue. Any unrest, whether in the Sahel, the Middle East, or Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the Rohingya minority have been effectively wiped off the map — pretty much anything, even the uniquely stupid Brexit — could be said to really be “about” climate change. The same with the fates of New Orleans, Houston, Puerto Rico, and so on. The inextricability of people and climate has been understood and written about since at least the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature and Gore’s Earth in the Balance came out, but now the effects are far more pronounced. No one can plausibly claim ignorance. You either know and know, or you know and deny, or you don’t even know you know, but have absorbed the knowledge through subtler means, whether collective anxiety or just something in the air.
Once in a while, and with increasing frequency, climate change rises to the forefront of popular consciousness. It happened, for instance, in 2007, when An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars and extreme heatwaves swept across the US and Europe, causing wildfires that torched over ten million acres of forest. A critical mass of people aided by the notion that others are doing something similar can break through the powerful psychological resistance and look the blinding thing in the face. It’s devastating and painful; you grieve and you panic. Even so, there’s relief in bringing something so painful into view, in holding it with your mind. But you can only look for so long. Resistance reasserts itself, and you slide back behind it. Next time you come out a tiny bit further before you retreat. This is how understanding happens, through a series of breakthroughs and retrenchments and consolidations, as with all efforts toward intentional growth. A single revelation is rarely enough. Even though “we know, we know,” as Bellow’s Mr. Sammler says about the human moral impulse, we also forget, forget.
So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids. Those of us with kids have become “preppers” in both senses, drilling our toddlers with blocks, trilingual board books, and Raspberry Pis to ace the local magnet preschool’s entrance exam while lobbying high schools to teach organic farming and archery. Perhaps we should start cultivating other friends, those with hand skills, for when civilization breaks. But what will we be able to offer in return? We can edit their mission statements! More likely we’ll do the unskilled labor, like rusticated Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps our arrow-slinging children will bear us on their backs out of the civilization we ruined for them.
We’re not the first generation or nation to harbor such anxious fantasies. So, like Susan Sontag contemplating the end of the world in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, we’ve been watching Japanese movies — the distracting disaster kind as well as the more realistic and subtle. In Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 I Live in Fear, a wealthy Japanese businessman, terrorized by news of the recently developed H-bomb, hatches a plan to sell his foundry and move his large family, plus mistress, to a Brazilian estate he is told will be safe even from the winds of fallout once the cold war superpowers finish annihilating each other and their allies. He screens a movie of the acreage to his family: breezes blowing in gentle waves through tall crops. His children don’t quite appreciate his consideration; they want a life like everyone else’s. They envy their father’s status and believe they’re entitled to inherit it. So they take the patriarch to civil court to have the businessman ruled incompetent by law.
Both sides appear to have legitimate claims in the realm of ordinary generational dispute, but in the face of atomic threat it’s not clear that building a fallout shelter or seeking a place of greater safety is any less rational than the children’s expectation that Japan’s semifeudal, postwar order will endure indefinitely to their benefit. The irony is that by acting to ensure some form of continuity — either bare life, genetic preservation according to the father’s wishes, or social continuity for the children — both parent and children violate that which they claim to value most highly. The businessman ends up burning his own factory, laying waste to his riches, and alienating his offspring, whose lawsuit against him makes a mockery of the traditionalist values they want upheld. It’s a tragedy in a postmodern sense, where the tragic does not consist, as Hegel thought, in the conflict between two equal goods, two equally valid demands, which can only be resolved by the next age or paradigm, but in a struggle between pointless desires and differing sets of human limitations.
The existential problem posed by the nuclear age, and now by climate change, is a variant of what Lauren Berlant calls cruel optimism: the instincts and habits that once served our survival and thriving, whether as social collectives or individuals, now work toward our destruction, and are revealed in many respects to have been working in that direction all along. This is what extinction feels like from the inside. The original English title for I Live in Fear is Record of a Living Being.
We can grasp the futility when we see it, yet we remain, to an extent, trapped. We streamed I Live in Fear during the final days of FilmStruck. We were even a little grateful to AT&T for shutting down the service to appease shareholders because it gave us something else to feel mournful about. Will all those amazing films become another minor province in Jeff Bezos’s empire, or will they be snuffed out by an algorithm? Some days the relentless monoculture of Amazon weighs heavier on our humanity than the continued deforestation of the actual Amazon. Who wants to live in a future where no one watches Tarkovsky or Bergman?
Intellectually, this is the most difficult: to let go of our impulses toward the infinite and the eternal, which in another era might have been satisfied by religion but which we learned to redirect into literature and culture. There was a powerful seduction in the idea that while individual humans may die, books and ideas provide humans a quantum of immortality. Even if we didn’t write a lasting work, we could participate in a community of shared meaning and purpose that predated us and would, because of our efforts, outlast us. The intimacy we may still feel with a long-dead writer or artist, even living ones we’ve never met, is the most special thing in the world. Such premises, though, cannot be reconciled with an understanding of what’s ahead. We delay grappling with the fact of death in favor of a kind of collective immortality of literature, of shared thought — but that kind of immortality is premised on the existence of our civilization and the maintenance of our traditions. And when human civilization ends, whether in the sudden collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet or with a giant methane fart or both, wet and smelly, it’s unlikely that whatever comes after will have much interest in shoring fragments against our ruins.
If our imaginations are robust enough, we can push ourselves to picture some posthuman, dominant life form for our post-catastrophic Earth. Fully conscious, autonomous Robo sapiens fueled by solar power, or new age crystals, or Tesla coils; fantastically evolved crystalline, anaerobic life-forms; or maybe the evolutionary champion will be a network of surviving flora with neural-network powers, like that planet from Solaris. Grant them, while we’re at it — because of our inescapable human narcissism — a curiosity similar to our own when it comes to precursor civilizations and species. Imbue at least one of them with the archivist’s desire to rummage, note, and classify (surely a bug in the program!) the data stored in some miraculously intact server, or in a hoarder’s paper library preserved in mummified splendor in the new desert conditions of America’s once Great Plains. What might they say about the literature produced by humans on the subject of global warming and climate breakdown during the crucial period from 1999 to 2019?
The first decade of the 21st century yields some fine specimens of humans actively grappling with the oncoming catastrophe without quite knowing how close it would be. Elizabeth Kolbert’s pieces for the New Yorker in those years were framed as various encounters and profiles with archaeologists, glaciologists, climatologists. They have the deep narrative structure of mystery stories. What does the study of Greenland’s ice cores reveal about potential freshwater availability at the equator? What does the presence of dolomite particles in sediment dredged from the Gulf of Oman tell us about a crippling drought that destroyed an ancient Sumerian civilization in less than four years? In 2005, she quoted the code of James Hansen’s climate modeling program as if it were a piece of the Rosetta Stone or a monitory Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. The tone was doom-edged but reassuring. The conditional tense was a feature: This could happen if; this might happen. The line of thought was, as often as not, analogical: Other civilizations died, we too could die. Trust the experts, they said, a message for the public but also for an assumed audience of powerful “deciders” in Washington. Kolbert’s articles were about forms of what one might call deep listening: to the winds, the cores, the fragments of pottery from a city that had devolved so quickly that one could learn in a matter of moments which pieces had been produced by the flourishing and which by the dying civilization. Nobody listened, so these now feel like the opening scenes in one of those alien invasion films that humans watch to entertain and placate themselves, in which a lone specialist must warn everyone before it’s too late and is never heeded until it is.
By 2009, Kolbert turned to explaining the Anthropocene and climate change through the die-off of charismatic megafauna. The essays collected in The Sixth Extinction are less mystery and more of a style used in accounts of the great crimes of human history — think Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews on a transhuman scale. The conditional tense was banished because it was already happening. Again to no great avail. Once the Great Barrier Reef turned bone white and it became clearer that humans could not avert their fate, a new chapter opened on mainstream magazine doom mongering. Climate writing was no longer the exclusive province of science writers. The gentler show-don’t-tell gospel of Kolbert or even Bill McKibben was joined by varieties of Revelations — passing from what Nathaniel Rich terms the “Apprehension” phase to what he calls, with Wagnerian pathos, the “Reckoning.” What will the Robo sapiens make of the end-is-nigh warnings of New York (“It is, I promise, worse than you think”) or the Times Magazine (“we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance”)?
Even Kolbert seemed to have caught the mood: by 2017 or 2018, the ratio of her long features to weekly or daily comments flipped in response to the slew of the government’s many outrages. Where political leaders had been in the background of her earlier pieces, the name Trump appears increasingly in headlines, reflecting again his megalomaniacal dominance of the news cycle and the world. Could one man literally be responsible for breaking the climate? It seems so, yes. At this late hour, Kolbert recently returned to interview Hansen. Haunted by guilt at his failure to break through the toxic cloud of obfuscation and denial and hostility, he leaves a message to the planet: “The simple thing is, I’m sorry we’re leaving such a fucking mess.”
In other precincts, where powerlessness was more quickly intuited or accepted, a mode of climate elegy surfaced. Safely ensconced in a surviving lookout tower, a pair of books, Philip Connors’s Fire Season and A Song for the River, offer accounts of what it was like to have been a professional witness to the disruption of the natural cycles of forest fires. Both engage with and test one’s faith that nature provides “for such loss . . . abundant recompense” and that humans may, if they so choose, find evidence for renewal in the contemplation of conflagration. Connors writes as one who knows himself to be part of a dying breed, one of few “officiants at an ongoing funeral for the forest we had found when we first assumed our posts.” The forest acreage dwindles from development and overgrazing; the fires no longer burn themselves out after being allowed to clear away dead and overgrown brush. There is more desiccated and dead forest to burn with each year. The river dries up in places and is threatened by a major dam project intended to benefit some politically connected farmers on unsustainable land.
That the loss of our climate also produces a climate of loss should be no mystery. The elegy, too, though, is a symptom of humans’ nearly unbearable optimism in the face of the catastrophe about to engulf them. Mourning implies, by the very act of committing to mourn, a hope for renewal and survival — or at least a belief that the author, if not the book itself, will find “pastures new,” as an earlier elegy has it. At the heart of even the best literature about climate change, we find this ghost of consolation for something which ought to leave us inconsolable.
The human belief in immortality seems to have tricked us, allowing us to project ourselves into a humanless future that nevertheless reads and sifts the ashes of human culture. This leap of faith — a belief that memories and cultural traces can persist past our ability to comprehend how those traces will be shaped and interpreted — animates Roy Scranton’s more stoic than elegiac Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, which, like Kolbert’s earlier work, offers a perverse sort of consolation: Because we were able to recover the texts of earlier cultures and civilizations — like the ancient Sumerians, and the Akkadians, the Mycenaeans, the Hellenes, and the Romans, all of whom were doomed by forces beyond their control — some Beings, human or not, might recover us. “We must build arks,” Scranton urges, “not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom.” We should live now the way the philosopher Jonathan Lear (in Radical Hope) suggested the Crow Nation learned to survive their cultural genocide by European settlers, by imagining ourselves as remote ancestors to a posterity we have lost any right to claim as our own. Our integrity consists in our willingness to surrender our culture without abandoning it.
Of potentially greater predictive and preparatory value for what awaits us in the short term are the apocalyptic effusions of pop culture that do not reference climate change at all. The world is destroyed more times in a Hollywood studio executive’s calendar than in all the creation and decreation myths of Hindu mythology. The Walking Dead absorbed the attention of millions when The Sixth Extinction, a wild success by publishing industry standards, sold about 360,000 copies. Partly this is because the zombies are us — duh! — but “us” in a way that allows us to displace responsibility for the destruction we wreak on that which we love best, which also happens to be ourselves. When disasters strike, as they have already and will again, they will feel external, set in motion by forces so deeply structural that they might as well be “natural.” Our willed ignorance is part of what allows us to fantasize about surviving the consequences of our ignorance.
Such are the fantasies and thoughts we entertain under the flat, blinding lights of our neighborhood Trader Joe’s, housed in the basement of a new luxury mall. We maneuver our cart around the ant-like evening crowd, join the queue winding through crates of packaged snacks and produce. Everyone is civil in this underground bunker. Everyone looks like a corpse going through the motions. It’s the bourgeois bread line of apocalypse. The impressive chaos management of the employees reminds us of FEMA and the thought that we may soon live in box stores, like the refugees from the Paradise wildfire out in California. And why are these lights so awful?
At least we know the answer to that one. One of few successful attempts to reduce carbon emissions in the United States in the 21st century resulted in the slow replacement of heat-generating yellow incandescent light bulbs with cold white-blue light-emitting diodes. LED — it doesn’t stand for “lower emission density,” although that’s what they want us to think. Of course we would sacrifice a little aesthetic indulgence if it meant saving the planet. But the back-of-envelope math suggests that even if every incandescent bulb used in the United States for residential and commercial applications were replaced by its diode equivalent, the likely total differential would be a percentage point of our total energy use.
The question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.Tweet
Why is this trivial benefit, at significant cost to quality of life, the stated objective of a law of the land? Could it be that this depressing-seeming side effect of state-enforced limitations on our lighting choices is in fact its primary effect? That its intrusion into the intimate routines of private life and the big rituals of public life, like shopping, taking a walk at night through our favorite urban haunts, or spending hours in a hospital waiting room, was meant to socialize us, lumen by lumen, into the asceticism the crisis seemed to call for: a joyless, penitential Protestant inheritance through which we could prove our own moral fitness for salvation by how little we indulged?
The lights give us headaches; we catch ourselves raving. We like to think of ourselves as people who believe in good governance and ecological stewardship. The minor virtue of foregoing the small pleasures of incandescence can make us feel engaged with sustainability and help us avoid the larger duty of addressing more difficult problems, like the two-thirds of energy we waste in generating and transmitting electricity, or the climate catastrophe itself. So many people changing so many light bulbs makes it feel like the degree of impact must be similarly momentous. On the other hand, for people who hate “big government” and also deny the Anthropocene, this same policy confirms their biases: a ridiculous, nannying regulation with no significant benefit. The case of light-bulb regulations is a miniature of all that was wrong with the discussion of offsets, trade-offs, and watching your carbon footprint in the early to mid ’00s. And the political consequences of the ascetic approach to saving the environment have been epically disastrous.
Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.
The most radical and hopeful response to climate change shouldn’t be, What do we give up? It should remain the same one that plenty of ordinary and limited humans ask themselves each day: How do we collectively improve our overall quality of life? It is a welfare question, one that has less to do with consumer choices — like changing light bulbs — than with the spending of trillions and trillions of still-available dollars on decoupling economic growth and wealth from carbon-based fuels and carbon-intensive products, including plastics.
The economist Robert Pollin makes a convincing case that only massive investment in and commitment to alternative energy sources stands any chance of lowering emissions to acceptable levels. All other solutions, from “degrowth” to population control, will fall well short of intended targets while causing greater societal pain and instability. To achieve a fairly modest 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions within twenty years, Pollin suggests in a recent New Left Review essay, we would have to invest, per year, “1–1.5 per cent of global GDP — about $1 trillion at the current global GDP of $80 trillion,” and continually increase that investment, “rising in step with global growth thereafter.” Whether we call this a Manhattan Project for renewable, sustainable energy or a Green New Deal, as Pollin and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have named it, the point is to change the political discourse around climate change from either mindless futurism of the kind that proposes large scale “geoengineering” projects or fruitless cap-and-trade negotiations at the mercy of obstructionists. Only a great potlatch of what we have can save us from a bonfire of the vanities on a planetary scale.
In the short term, a true Green New Deal would need to be more like a Green Shock Doctrine. As hurricanes, fires, and floods pile up, each one would provide the occasion to unhook more people from the fossil-fuel grid. At the scale Pollin envisions, it would be naive to assume that a switch from fossils to renewables could happen smoothly. There would be disruptions to almost every aspect of economic life, including food supplies, the power grid (even the internet!), and daily work rhythms and commutes. There would be black markets in banned fuels, and even some forms of violence, like the current populist French riots against Macron’s gasoline taxes. If even such small measures aimed at reducing carbon consumption result in such aggressive pushback, there is no reason to be moderate. Compared with what awaits us if we continue as we are, such shocks are as a rainstorm to a hurricane, or the 1977 blackout of New York City to the bombing of Dresden.
The economic costs of climate change can already be measured by toting up the losses incurred during every single hurricane, wildfire, drought, and war of the past ten years or longer. Because these costs have not yet been borne by any of the major stakeholders in the US or — really — the global economy, they are written off as the price of doing business. No sane group of investors or empowered body of citizens, however, would make these trade-offs to ensure a few more years of short-term profits when measured against the prospects of what would be the last and most profound crash in the history of capitalism.
The immediate switch to sustainable energy on a global scale also addresses one of the intellectual stumbling blocks that has bedeviled even well-intentioned climate-change policy makers: what to do about so-called developing societies. Unlike the ascetic cap-and-trade system, we aren’t required by this switch to turn to Indian or Chinese middle classes and say, “we deny you the quality of life that we enjoyed.” We should have never enjoyed it in the way we did — that was well understood, then as now, if for different reasons. The extraction-based political economy that buoys a specific stratum of India, Brazil, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula states, and China is objectionable on nearly every level; there’s no “global justice” legitimacy to the idea that past resource exploitation by Western powers entitles the elites of postcolonial developing countries to squander the future of their own citizens and the rest of the planet. Wholesale disaster under the banner of postcolonial nationalism will not feel better than under the banner of revanchist white nationalism.
Does this sound madly utopian? If so, it’s because the fossil-fuel industry — and that term, industry, must now include governments like Russia’s and our own — has been successful at obscuring how close we are to being able to switch over to renewable energy. The relevant technologies of solar, wind, hydro, and even nuclear power all exist. Architects and green industrial designers know how to make structures that aren’t just energy efficient but even net-energy positive. Under political conditions other than our current ones, we’d have great reason for optimism.
But unlike with other utopian programs, no one seems to see the promise. “Decouple now” and “Renewable or bust” don’t seem likely to harness the diverse interest groups currently opposed to Trump and the Republican Party. Most of us prefer to remain in the dark when it comes to energy. It’s still far easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of carbon-based capitalism. But what other choice do we have, America? Let’s get right down to the job — nearsighted, psychopathic, queer, angelic, diabolical, whatever we are, harness that most renewable of resources, human will, and put our shoulders to the wheel.