A papier-mâché maraca started it. That was the thing that melted my head about universal timescales. Something hideous I created at school, in decades, centuries, millennia to come would cease to exist, becoming ultimately, atomically recycled. I realised my life and death were ephemeral and, critically, I realised how afraid of that I was. I was ten.
Informed people are increasingly recognising that climate change can no longer be halted let alone reversed. It’s going to happen. It’s already happening. We need to deal with it. “Human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — was driving the planet toward a ‘mass extinction’ event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.”
And that’s the problem: we can’t grasp the enormity of the change, let alone the timeframe, let alone any practical action to take. Weighty words don’t get us any closer to psychological realisation. It’s longer than our lifetimes, wider than our purview and thus unfathomable.
James Howard Kunstler has likened our era to a ‘Long Emergency:’ an unprecedented historical time period when cascading change and deprivation, and an escalating environmental and resource crisis, demand increasingly rapid social and psychological adaptive responses. But so far the necessary shifts of both consciousness and behavior are tragically slow in coming, and we continue our suicidal and ecocidal “sleepwalking into the future“.
Each generation has its own, successive baseline. By the time we stop and see things slipping, our grasp on life is slipping too.
“I remember when this was all fields,” laments the grumpy senior.
“I don’t,” thinks the truculent and equally grumpy junior.
And yet if we pay attention we can see it happening.
What does climate change mean to us?
Letting go of any naïve clinging to a romanticised 19th-century idyll, we find the spectrum of impacts extends from radical overhaul of our social constructs through to accepting that we’re doomed and dealing with the psychological consequences of that. Are we starting a revolution or mourning?
Most organisations concerned with climate change, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity speak of the calamity as a frantic urge to action. In stark contrast, Paul Kingsnorth describes the Dark Mountain project he founded in terms of mourning, grief and despair.
We do change poorly. Coming to terms with this scale of ecological loss can be compared to coming to terms with a terminal illness. In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s change curve, can we move ourselves from stage three to four? Some of us are still at stage two.
Species, let alone races, will be extinguished. And don’t think for a minute this will neatly leave developed nations and their preferred food sources. Facing this sense of dread and loss can bring despair. But if we keep our long perspective, there may be hope.
Looking backward, we can see parallels in history: “it seems modern humans were born from climate change, as they had to deal with rapid switching from famine to feast – and back again – which drove the appearance of new species wih bigger brains and also pushed them out of East Africa into Eurasia and South Africa.” Rapid change actually pushed us to take evolutionary leaps.
We know that, due to astronomical forces, in the same way that the earth cycles through seasons, it also has much longer cycles where its orbit through the galaxy and a ‘wobble’ in its axis exaggerate climatic extremes. “At 2.6, 1.8 and 1 million years ago there are short periods of around 200,000 years when East Africa became very sensitive to the changes of the Earth’s orbits, resulting in rapid cycling between very dry and then wet periods of about 20,000 years.” Even without humankind’s polluting interference in the atmosphere, those time intervals imply we’re due another.
Rapid evolution of bigger brains, or whatever trait helps us through this period, means natural selection: those that have the favoured traits are more successful. But the vast quantities of information we now have access to make us very aware; this time we’ll live through it with our eyes open – even though each human lifetime will be only a fraction of the thousands of years this period occupies.
What is natural selection operating on now? We’re familiar with evolution acting on biological genes. Richard Dawkins suggests that, before genes arose, a simpler self-replicating unit could have been a mineral form, such a clay. If a particular way it coalesced was predisposed to replicating that same pattern in subsequent lumps of clay, it fits our criteria – replication, multiplication, heredity and mutation (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin books, 2006, chapter 6: Origins and Miracles).
Extending the idea, evolution is already at work on information memes: units that self-propagate from brain to book to computer to computer to brain and so on, much faster than biological evolution. Imagine if the traits that prove to be most successful through this current period of climate change are cultural, sociological, communication-based… That could be a game-changer.
Some of the information we create and share may outlive us. Can we care about that timespan? Can we make the cognitive leap to see our survival in a much bigger context? To face the crisis and find a way to thrive? Or are we with the maracas?
This article is also published at Urban Times.