Central Vermont is under a heat advisory today. There is also smoke from fires on the opposite side of the continent, though rains are periodically washing it out of the sky. Thus sometimes we don’t have the air quality advisory to go with the heat, though last night I could see no Perseid meteors through the combined haze of smoke particulates and equatorial Atlantic humidity. In my small and rural county where around 83% of the eligible population is vaccinated, Delta variant cases are sending people to the hospital at roughly ten times any rate that has been seen in the previous eighteen months of pandemic. A local summer camp outbreak is at 25 sick kids and increasing. Local schools are scrambling to figure out how to pack our unvaccinated children back into classrooms in a few days with no good ideas and quite a lot of hand-wringing. My co-worker on a landscape job had to pull a dead rat out of an active well this week. And there are no tomatoes.
These are the headlines of ecological collapse. This is not normal. There will be no return to normal. Normal was not normal. Normal, as we defined it in the late 20th century, was an ecological aberration, unsustainable in every way. We were merrily gobbling up all the easily accessible resources, especially those that create the abundant energy necessary to gobble up the rest efficiently (meaning profitably, not practically). We dug up, concentrated, and synthesized poisons of all sorts, relying on the magnanimous Earth to scatter and diffuse the toxins, murdering billions of life-forms in the process, right down to the life-sustaining microbes in our own digestive tracts. We killed off much of the biosphere both intentionally — as in the case of insect population crashes due to widespread insecticide use — and accidentally — as in the heat-induced bleaching of coral that is collapsing ocean ecosystems worldwide. We harvested far more than we needed of nearly every natural resource and agricultural product in order to turn the biosphere into wealth for some humans. And we concentrated far too many of ourselves into geographical areas that can’t produce the means to meet our needs at all — but are remarkably good at meeting the needs of viruses and other agents of infection. This is what normal has created.
This overly-hot summer, I’ve seen far too many bleating demands to return to normal. They claim that we have to get back to working in the resource intensive and micro-managed environments of our bullshit jobs. We have to send our kids back to over-crowded classrooms and day-care centers, mostly so that we are then free to go back to the office. We have to fly and drive and spend money on tourism and the service industry. We have to buy stuff — though this last is somewhat muted because there are many ineradicable kinks in the stuff supply lines and there is much less stuff to buy. We have to go to the movies.
Yes, that was an actual New York Times opinion piece. A rather long complaint about the writer’s diminished movie-watching joy because he sat in an empty theater. He also complained about the recent lack of mob emotion at sporting events and music venues and a reduced capacity to gossip around the office water cooler. I think maybe this person needs some real social bonding so he doesn’t have to rely on these shoddy substitutions. However, it must be pointed out that this is the type of person with a New York Times publishing platform. A person in a privileged position of power, influence, and wealth who has such inferior family and friendship ties that he must seek out relief to his feelings of isolation in economic activity. This is what normal has created.
This is what normal has created. But it will not continue. It will not continue not because we will stop it. We are not stopping. We are bleating about our inability to get back to normal. We are endeavoring in every way to keep that normal churning out death and destruction and isolation. The most vocal among us, those with the most wealth and status and public reach, are not even looking to a world that does not include normal. But that world exists; that world is the real world that is ruining normal for us. And it is winning. Normal is not normal. Normal is not sustainable. And the world is showing us that this is true in no uncertain terms, no matter all bleating to the contrary.
Normal will end, probably has ended in spite of all our efforts and bleating, because it is artificial and unsustainable. Reality wins every time. It has taken a while in human terms (though almost no time in geological terms), but normal is losing. In smokey air that covers a continent, normal is revealed as the aberration it always was. In variant viruses that fill hospitals and sicken our children, we see that normal is failing. In the sad isolation that cries out for contact of any synthetic form, we know that normal is wrong.
This week there was a kerfuffle over the latest IPCC report, telling us what we already know of the death of our normal. We have heated the planet — through burning fossil fuels — past any hope of averting disastrous change. They do not use the hyperbolic language because they are not allowed to do so, but the message is quivering underneath their stolid words. They are telling us that the normal we created has destroyed itself. There is no evidence that we can save it. It was never real enough to perpetuate without nearly infinite resources fed into it daily to prop it up in the face of reality. There is nothing of our normal to save.
However, there is everything else. And for that everything, we must make some efforts. I’m not sure I agree with the IPCC findings, but they say there is still hope of saving something of this real world — with some mighty big IFs. IF we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and IF no tipping points are breached, we have about a random chance — a coin flip probability — of remaining below 2°C of warming and recovering a true normal in some century down the road. These big IFs incorporate some even bigger IFs. To reduce emissions to net-zero means that we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere — with technology that we do not have or natural draw-downs that we have not yet planted. Trees need time to root in and mature, time that does not remain in this IPCC budget. And as to tipping points, we’ve already seen accelerated rates of warming and melting in the polar regions. We’ve already seen population crashes that happen in a year or two. We’ve already seen crushing feedback loops that decimate large portions of the hydrosphere overnight. In other words, we’ve already seen intensification in rates of change that indicates without much doubt that we’ve already breached many known tipping points. The main point of doubt now is what surprises await us.
So I don’t know about the hope of the IPCC. What I do know is that we can all build our own small resilience, and in doing that we might be better able to both effect a carbon draw-down and save what we can of the real world — the world we depend upon. We are already imbedded in the real world. Our failing normal tells us this. If we stop making huge efforts to prop it up, it will go away entirely. Very likely it will go away rapidly. Collapse, when it does happen, is a tipping point. It is sudden and largely uncontrollable. It will hurt. But my suspicion is that it will hurt money and privilege more than it will hurt people and places — largely because our normal doesn’t benefit most people or places. It hurts them. It’s my hope that removing this hurt will balance out the hurt that collapsing normal might cause for most people. Money and privilege can bear the hurt — they are not even as real as normal.
I don’t know about the hope of the IPCC, but I do have hope still. Ironically, it comes from the very headlines that scare me, the very air that is cooking my body and choking me. These tell me that the normal we created is destroying itself rapidly. These headlines are also showing me that we probably can survive that destruction. Not all of us, not without pain, not without massive upheaval. But we are surviving. We are coming together to help each other. We are building new systems to support ourselves in the face of the collapse of the old ones. And large numbers of people are turning their backs on the bleaters. Because humans are a rather practical bunch when it comes down to it, and the practical solution is to run away from all this isolation and destruction and help each other. We’re very good at running away from pain. And at helping each other — as long as we’re not being constrained by artificial normals.
So I’ll bear the smoke and heat and diseases philosophically — though not without grumbling. And I think most of you will do the same. And together we’ll get through this. Mostly by running away.
But I just don’t know about the tomatoes…
Teaser photo credit: Tomato plants 7 days after planting. By Dennis Brown – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24879431