The Meaning of Cataclysm

May 12, 2020

Languages are the collective medium through which we reproduce culture. They’re also how we relate to each other the terrifying emotional and intellectual rawness of the ecological and climate emergencies. Indeed, spoken and written language has never been more vital to collective survival than in our current era of global climate breakdown and animal-born pandemics. How else are we to birth a shared understanding of reality in all of its dynamic beauty?

How we frame the universe around us has everything to do with our diction. As the basic units of language, words are critical because when we apply them inappropriately to describe what’s happening, we impede our own ability to make sense of a problem. This is very dangerous in a time of rapid global deterioration, as it can prevent us from optimizing our chances for survival. In other words, when addressing big problems we can sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot by misusing words.

One media outlet has shown that it understands this more than most. Last year, The Guardian changed its style guide to communicate more effectively the gravity of the climate crisis. Gone is “climate change” — now, it’s “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown.” From “global warming,” they’ve switched to “global heating.” In the words of editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue… The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

I applaud The Guardian for doing their due diligence by framing the greatest issue of our times with integrity, based on how serious the science tells us the problem is. It’s the least anyone, least of all scientifically literate journalists and organizers, can do. But this leads me to contemplate the issue a bit more deeply: what’s on the other end of climate crisis, breakdown, and global heating? What would the middle and worst-case scenarios actually entail for our species?

In his groundbreaking book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells points out that if we were to cause the world to heat up by 4 degrees Celsius, “whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. Certainly it would make them inhospitable, and many more regions besides.” Can you imagine an Earth where half of the land’s surface is completely inhospitable to human beings? In the business as usual scenario, that’s where we’re headed right now — bound to arrive within the lifetimes of some humans currently alive.

Wallace-Wells points out that 250 million years ago, gargantuan volcanic eruptions flooded the atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide that it triggered the Great Permian Extinction, leaving “all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.” As John Horgan writes, we’re currently injecting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases “ten times faster than the volcanic eruptions that precipitated that ancient cataclysm.”

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Let’s ponder that word for a second: cataclysm. It’s not a word we hear often; it usually appears in esoteric contexts such as dusty textbooks and obscure YouTube videos. We often hear scientific authorities talking about a “climate change catastrophe” or a “global catastrophe,” but I think this is misguided. Again, as Ms Viner points out, it is vital that we be both scientifically precise and communicate clearly about the problem and the stakes. The logical endpoint then is to leverage the word cataclysm in these times, because only that word captures the magnitude with which our species is fundamentally altering the world in ways that will have profound, lasting, and potentially fatal impacts for humanity as a whole. Indeed, cataclysm is the word of the century, because no other frame comes close in its depth or breadth to our collective, world-historical malfeasance.

This is not to downplay the fact that climate catastrophes are already marring the world with terrific destruction. A prime recent example is what happened to Mozambique’s city of Beira a year ago, where Cyclone Idai decimated 90% of the metropolis, killing more than 1300 people. Catastrophe is what happened to the city of Paradise, California when a fire completely destroyed it in 2018, killing dozens of people. And in Australia earlier this year, the world watched in horror as a bushfire calamity followed by intense flooding took out one billion animals, scores of people, and incredible stretches of forest habitat. Catastrophes like these are more destructive due to the climate crisis, but they’re more or less one-off events on local or regional scales.

A cataclysm is way different from a catastrophe, because the former is irreversible, global, and sudden in character as opposed to regional, smaller scale. Merriam-Webster defines a cataclysm as “a momentous and violent event marked by overwhelming upheaval and demolition.” Think about the way the word appears in science: typically, it’s the extinction-by-meteorite of the dinosaurs that we hear scientists call a ‘cataclysm.’

I contend that there are some very good reasons why we should consider the massive changes humans are causing to the planet as a cataclysm in progress. Trigger warning: this is bleak, but I swear I’m not a #DoomPorn peddler! I include all of the following because it’s necessary to paint an adequate illustration of the cataclysmic situation:

  1. We’re directly causing the planet’s sixth mass extinction. There is no precedent for this in planetary history, to the best of our knowledge. Never has a single species been so out of control that it progressively and single-handedly eliminated thousands of species through its routine activity. Given current estimates, human beings are helping to terminate 200-2000 species every year. Humanity has killed 60% of all mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970. Land-based species have become 20% less abundant. A third of all marine mammals, 33% of coral species, and 40% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction currently. UN experts said last year that the destruction of ecosystems is as dangerous as climate change. And insects? If they go, they could by themselves bring the whole house down (translation: total global ecological collapse). What all of this means is that the ecological relationships that keep Earth’s climate stable and air breathable and land surface habitable for human beings are unraveling — fast, and mainly thanks to us. Humans are, without exaggeration, triggering the ecological collapse of the planetary systems that make our existence possible (and pleasurable) in the first place.
  2. We are changing the chemical balance of the Earth, including its land, oceans, lakes, and rivers. Bear with me here. The Earth routinely recycles its elements — namely oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen — and certain resources, like water, through what we call biogeochemical cycles. Though human activities have been disrupting these cycles in a huge way for decades, that disruption has gotten way worse since 2000. Earth’s nitrogen, carbon, and water cycles are particularly out of whack. To get a sense of how delicate the planet’s systems are, as we all know a huge imbalance of just one of these cycles — carbon — is endangering the survival of organized human life due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s to say nothing of the ecological problems I describe above, nor the other planetary boundaries. Also disturbing: nitrogen runoff from our industrial agriculture is causing dead zones in rivers, seas, and oceans all over the world.
  3. Humans are disrupting the Atlantic Ocean‘s circulation and carbon pollution is acidifying the oceans. Although the rest of the world’s oceans’ circulations are accelerating, the Atlantic Ocean’s has slowed down by 15-20% thanks to abnormal ice melting. That change is already having significant impacts on weather the planet. A full 30% of our carbon pollution settles in the oceans. That’s making the oceans more acidic, damaging corals and even preventing shell-based animals from forming their shells.
  4. We are on track to make half of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable or unbearable for organized human life.…but don’t freak out just yet, that’s likely only the worst-case (or second worst-case) scenario—the one we happen to be on due to governments’ political recalcitrance. With a 4 degree Celsius global temperature increase, “most of the low- and mid-latitudes will be uninhabitable because of heat stress or drought; despite stronger precipitation, the hotter soils will lead to faster evaporation and most populations will struggle for fresh water. We will have to live on a smaller land surface with a larger population.” See Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth for more on this.
  5. We’re doing all of the above at an unprecedented speed in Earth’s history. One of the keywords in the definition of cataclysm for me is “sudden.” To many, it may not feel like these changes are happening quickly to all, but farmers around the world have definitely realized something weird is happening to the climate. Again, the types of huge changes we’re causing to the planet’s climate and ecology typically happen over really long timescales, as in millions of years. But the climate breakdown we’re causing is causing global changes faster than anything science understands to have happened in the 65 million years since the asteroid had all dinosaurs pushing up daisies.

Through these crises, we humans threaten to destroy most of the planet’s ecosystems and irreversibly change its climate in the direction of “really bad, can’t fix that.” But it’s not all gloom and doom: there is still time to turn things around. We can — and must — reverse the climate and ecological crises through disciplined, mass political action to best the ruling class and transform our societies. Currently, an ecosocialist Green New Deal is the most promising next step for our world’s transition because it matches the scale and gravity of the crises we face.

Let us keep it real, though. To be as effective as possible at this unprecedented task of socio-political transformation, we must fully comprehend the magnitude of what’s coming down the pipeline if we should fail. So let’s start by calling a spade a spade: we’re generating a cataclysm, it’s just that unlike the other cataclysms in planetary history, we (a single species) have caused it — and only we have the power to stop it.


Teaser photo credit: By Frodosleveland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Colin Murphy

Colin Murphy is a climate and ecological justice organizer and writer. An active member of the Democratic Socialists of America's Ecosocialist Working Group (DSA-EWG), he contributed to the group's Guiding Principles for an Ecosocialist Green New Deal and is actively organizing ecosocialists across the country towards a radical Green New Deal for food and agriculture. Colin is a co-chair of the East Bay DSA's Green New Deal Committee. He currently resides in his home region of the San Francisco Bay Area/Unceded Ohlone territory, where he has also been active in movements for racial justice.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, ecological crises, ecosocialism