Whose History? Which Future?
The recent debate between George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth over whether we actually can save the world seems mostly to have degenerated into sound and fury, which is rather a problem, since the larger question of whether climate change is stoppable, whether we can avoid having billions of people die, seems, well rather a good one.
The note that struck me most was Monbiot’s observation that he is “professionally optimistic” - that is, he knows he must continue, “…exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.” I too spend some considerable time being professionally optimistic, and I admit, I winced in sympathy at this particular construction, because I think there’s nothing harder.
As always, Monbiot puts his finger on the reality of our collective dilemma - the moment you conceed inevitability you close off a set of options. This is possible in some ways in peak oil - you can say that some of the choices are no longer available to you, and begin to imagine a way to go on. Depending, however, on how the climate change projections come out, the reality of climate change is very different - there is a very good chance that we will see mass starvation in a radically different climate. I spent an awful lot of time with the data when writing _A Nation of Farmers_ and the net conclusions of runaway climate change are all bad. When you consider that we are presently facing an intertwined and deeply inextricable food and energy crisis with less than 7 billion people and the remnents of a stable climate, the problem of a wildly varying future climate becomes much more acute.
I find myself then, in greater sympathy with Monbiot than with Kingsnorth - most of the time. Kingsnorth observes that he detects in Monbiot deep fear - my feeling is that anyone who isn’t scared of our ecological situation doesn’t adequately understand it, or its potential consequences. Kingsnorth speaks of Greer, who talks of a gradual, steady decline and accuses Monbiot of apocalypticism. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While I think that Greer wisely and useful historicizes the process of collapse, and reveals it as something that takes time, there’s a danger to taking a sweeping historical view, one that I call the “poor are always with us” fallacy (note, I am not claiming that John Michael Greer subscribes to this, but quite a number of people who use his analysis do).
It is not an accident that Greer’s preferred historians (and I like many of them myself) tend to be old school historians of the “big picture” - rather than modern historians who tend to take a narrower perspective or view things through some particular lens. Both models have their limitations - whether we are talking about how the Irish supposedly created all of human civilization or how Rome Declined, Fell and Turned into a Tourist Trap. All of this depends, as almost everything does, on how you look at it. Seen, for example, through a sufficiently sweeping and progessive lens, the decline and fall of Rome was merely a short term bump - after all, the populations were back up again a mere 1700 years later ;-).
Kingsnorth seems to have taken wholeheartedly to Greer’s vision of a gradual decline, and there’s almost certainly a good bit of truth about this vision. Monbiot, on the other hand, keeps emphasizing the billions dead - and there’s a good bit of truth in that one too. The problem is the lens through which they are looking. Because of course, the Greerian story where a young woman born in 1960 begins the journey of collapse while her great-granddaughter finally leaves the broken cities for the countryside is a compelling, and probably accurate one for a certain subset of the population. But it isn’t all the story - every story has its early victims. How would we view Greer’s narrative if the story began (and admittedly, this makes it far less interesting an illustration of his larger point ;-)) with a young woman, born in 1960, who begins to see the energy and ecological crisis from her vantage point, and who happens to be living in south Florida when the nearly-inevitable massive hurricane, causing massive loss of life, snuffs out hers and her son’s, thus ending all future discussion of what her grandchildren will see?
For every person who in a multi-generational novel-style narrative got to see the full decline and fall of any collapse, there was at least one who saw collapse occur completely and totally, who thought, during one of the early barbarian sorties that made it to the suburbs, “Oh, crap, things have really gone to…Gaaaaaaahhhh!” I don’t mean to make mock of other people’s deaths, even when I have invented them for the purpose of killing them off ;-), but I do think it is important to realize that even if the great sweep of history goes the way Greer describes, sweeping history famously fails to fully articulate the general experience of the people who get to be the early victims. They are generally categorized as the poor, the unfortunate, etc…. and unless there’s some reason to lionize them, their deaths are recorded, 500 years later, with a complete lack of interest except as factual observation.
Thus, the fact that a million people a year (approximately) are now dying from climate change already gets subsumed into discussions - millions of people die every year from all sorts of things, as noted above, the poor are always with us. Thus, when a few (or a few tens of thousands or even a million or so) extra of them die, seen through the proper lens (and again, let me articulate, I do not imply that this is Greer’s point, but rather the way that Kingsnorth uses Greer) , it is easy to subsume that into the sweep of history, easy to say “wait, that isn’t collapse, we have a long time before that happens, because, after all, the guy in Cleveland is still arguing about whether climate change exists.”
As I see it, the distinction between Kingsnorth and Monbiot comes down to this - how do we view history? How do we view those people, mostly poor, mostly ordinary, many of whom didn’t have a very bright future anyway, because they were poor, who are the early victims? And how many early victims do we permit before we admit that something substantial is going on? We can say, for example, that Haiti was always, at least in our modern memory, a terrible and corrupt and impoverished place, so that it does not much matter that climate change seems to be upping the infant mortality rates. A comparatively small number of deaths in New Orleans get our attention, but it is easy to sweep the ordinary people of Bangladesh, losing more and more lives to annual flooding, into the sweep of historic scope. How many dead before we can say it is a collapse? Or does it only count when it comes here?
I’ve been rough on Kingsnorth here, because I think he misses two important points. The first is that even if Global Climate change can’t cause a single overarching thing called the apocalypse, no such thing has ever existed - but that doesn’t mean that it can’t cause a thousand things that look an awful lot like apocali (ok, that’s probably not a word, but it should be ;-)) to the people migrating painfully across continents to find food, or drowning, dying of new diseases and otherwise falling gradually into hell.
Second, I think he fails to grasp that anthropogenic global warming really may well be a different kettle of fish than the drawdown of our other ecological resources - one of the things worth observing, for example, is the history of abrupt climate change. We know, for example, that at least a few times in the Earth’s history massive releases of greenhouse gasses have brought about fairly rapid climate change - the shift to the Younger Dryas may have taken as little as a generation. The Younger Dryas freeze of course lasted 1,300 years, a long, long period of history, but when it flipped over again to a warm period, ice core evidence suggests it could, at most, have lasted a decade, but there is some evidence to suggest that much of the temperature change happened in a year, or even in a season. With northern temperatures dropping as much as 28 degrees overall, it is hard to imagine a story like the one Greer tells, of a gradual crisis, with a few centuries to do the work of adaptation.
Even if this isn’t the case, climate change lends itself to abrupt events that many people will experience as immediate, catastrophic, and depending on how far down the curve we are, probably an irreparable plunge from one state to another, rather than a gradual decline. Those folks who lived in Eastern Coastal Scotland 8,000 years ago, when a massive tsunami caused by the melting of methane clathrates in the undersea Storegga, and those in the affected coastal areas of Europe, for example, found that their situation was radically altered - chunks of their land were gone, and the Shetland Islands were pretty much wiped clean of human habitation. In a society capable of sending the kind of relief that was sent to Asia after the massive tsunami there, such disasters are smaller things, tragic as they are. Without the helicopters and massive ocean carriers, they are very different events.
But for all that my sympathies are largely with Monbiot on the subject of climate change’s impact, and for all that my fears are personally the same, I do think that Kingsnorth is right about his larger point - there is no hope for Monbiot’s claim that;
“Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them. Faced with your alternative – sit back and watch billions die – Liberal Democracy 2.0 looks like a pretty good option.”
This indeed might be a good option, although with its limits, if it were viable. But it isn’t. This is not a railing against the injustices of modernity, or an assertion that agrarianism has merits, or anything else - I do some of those things too, but ultimately, my observation is simply this - there is no hope of a de-fanged, steady-state version of our current settlement, and I have to imagine George Monbiot knows this. We are now banging hard against economic, political and ecological restraints on our ability to create anything like what we have had - we already see the decline of renewable energy investment (barring short term government investments that simply won’t be able to continue on the tax base the UK and the US have to work with) - because the capital isn’t there. Each resource constraint plays out economically, ecologically, and politically - what we can do is getting smaller every day.
I enormously respect Monbiot’s effort in _Heat_ to come up with a way to continue our basic way of life. But running the numbers, I don’t think he did - even with 450 ppm as our target, he left out agriculture and other figures, and I don’t think that’s an accident. The numbers were extremely marginal than - and that was before we knew what we know now. Even Monbiot has admitted, on this blog, that the very process of a renewable build-out may push us past our tipping point.
It was particularly difficult last year, when I finally began forcing myself to say and write the words that the science has been leading me to - that there is an excellent chance that it is already too late to remediate our climate crisis, at least in some measure. I generally prefer to keep my personal reactions mostly private, and the last thing I ever want is to break down in front of an audience who came to hear me do the professional optimism thing, but the first couple of times I stood up in front of a room full of people and talked about our climate change situation as I see it - about the increasing evidence that climate sensitivity is greater than we expected - I cried. I forced myself to admit to my audience that there is a real chance that we cannot prevent our crossing the critical tipping points. With practice, I can do this without choking up now, but I still have to force myself to say the words “it may already be too late.”
Why am I saying this here? And why on earth do I do this to my audience and myself, when hope is so terribly important? I agree with George Monbiot entirely that we have to live our lives as though it is possible to remediate climate change. By the time that we know for sure where we stand, it probably will be too late - the only choice is to act as though we can do this, because the price, not just to the people so many are implicitly prepared to write off, but to all of us, is potentially so great.
But I don’t think the only path to action comes from selling the idea that we can have something like our present, or by not telling people it might be too late. The problem is that too many people already grasp how close to the cusp we are. This is dangerous politically - the same people who wanted us to believe for a long time that climate change was really no problem would rather immediately leap to the idea that it is now irremediable, since either way, the economy goes on much as it has been. But it is even more dangerous to sell ideas that almost certainly are not true - it is true that the idea that we are very close to a climate tipping point is a dangerous thought. But we have to trust our audiences to grasp the subtle distinction of “may be” because if we are wrong, they will see us as having lied to them, and that has far worse outcomes than telling the truth.
I think it is possible to say “we do not know where we stand, it may well be too late, but we have no choice but to try.” If nothing else, this language has a history we can invoke - this is precisely the state Britain stood in when the Nazis seemed certain to overrun the country. And yet, the idea compelled people to act - because the alternatives were worse. It was not necessary to offer optimism, merely necessity, a sense of urgency and shared crisis.
In the end, I think Kingsnorth and Monbiot’s final pissing contest distracts from the much more interesting question that they raise - are there any choices between “Death of Billions” and “Let’s just keep on keeping on, even though it almost certainly won’t work?” I suspect there are, and that will be the subject of my next piece.