Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A million moving north, forever: CBS News on the impact of climate change

The video linked above is a two-minute editorial by M.A. Sanjayan, chief climate scientist at The Nature Conservancy. Sanjayan's piece ran recently on The CBS Evening News.

It's a great example of how to make the most of a visual medium to convey complex scientific information quickly. I could quibble with aspects of Sanjayan's commentary, but overall I found it an effective message for a general audience. If mainstream media organizations like CBS ran this sort of piece more often, such a steady stream of information might eventually begin to influence the dynamics of public opinion and political debate on climate change.

For now, that's not the case. Eventually, though, physical reality will become too great deny. The way our society talks about climate and the future will begin to change, because in the end physical reality can't be ignored. Perpetual motion machines don't work. Perpetual attempts to believe in a free lunch come to naught. Unending insistence that the weather isn't changing will be defeated by the manifest changing of the weather. The passing of summer into autumn can't be willed away. The change in the air becomes too great not to notice, and so too the change in color of the leaves. People notice, and stories that the change is all a great lie will become not credible. So too with the stories that the change is limited, something we can control, nothing we haven't seen before, no cause here for alarm. Past a certain point, as the trees go bare and the skies turn gray and the snows begin to arrive on the wind, the stories of endless summer become ludicrous.

Things that can't go on, don't.

For now, the denial continues. The insistence on normalcy prevails. But the weather is changing, a harbinger of the new era, coming inevitably but we known not when. Perhaps soon.

Sanjayan's commentary hints at the scale of what's happening already. My favorite anecdote from his report is about Texas. Withering under a brutal drought that shows no sign of ending, ranchers in the broiling dead plains of the Texas interior have begun sending their cattle north. One million head of cattle, Sanjayan relates, have now left the state for literally greener pastures, over the horizon to the north. Those cattle, he notes, will not be back.

A harbinger. Eventually, human beings living in the great arid, dying expanses of the American Southwest will face the same choice.

* * * * *

The question remains, haunting like a spirit: what are we going to do? What happens when an ending is preordained, as catastrophic, planet-reshaping climate change has now become? When multiple related catastrophes stemming from human energy and expansion are arriving at the same time?

In the face of such an outcome, perhaps a certain kind of denial is to be expected. Maybe even welcomed. Individual human lives must face the reality that each life will end. Human beings have always found a way to exist with this knowledge, for as long as they've been on the Earth. We live in foreknowledge of death. And we go on with life anyway. Loving each other, or losing ourselves in petty conflicts, doing something to pass the time. Until the time is no more.

Our civilization flatters itself that it has transcended the limits faced by human individuals. Human beings die, we say, but human civilization will continue, evolving and expanding forever. Outliving the limits once imposed by the Darwinian constraints of life on the Earth.

Except the harbingers tell us this isn't true. What now? Some communities have begun searching for answers. Sub-cultures devoted to simpler living speak of living within limits, adapting to the age beyond abundance. Some of the technical specialists who supervise the infrastructure of a global civilization quietly confer on what it will mean to face a multi-meter sea level rise; or annual weather patterns where the storm of the century happens every year in a hundred places and more; or water supplies ancient beyond reckoning have simply gone away.

What are we going to do? Almost two years since I started to write here and I still don't know. No one does, really. But in some places, the answers are sought.

For now, that will have to be enough.

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