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Living in a Time of Catastrophe

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There are times when the world seems to run so much in the wrong direction that words almost fail. How does one express what’s going on in a way that actually makes a difference? When the world seems determined to wheel off the deep end.

To start with the fundamental issue. If there ever was a moment in human existence when we were called to exhibit the solidarity of a common human family, it is now. The world’s climate scientists have issued a dire warning. The sixth global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change runs over 3,000 pages. Carbon Brief has aptly summarized the key takeaways.

The threat that climate change poses to human well-being and the health of the planet is ‘unequivocal’ . . . any further delay in global action to slow climate change and adapt to its impacts ‘will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.’ Among the findings, the report concludes that:

+ Climate change has already caused ‘substantial damages and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems.’

+ It is likely that the proportion of all terrestrial and freshwater species ‘at very high risk of extinction will reach 9% (maximum 14%) at 1.5C.’ This rises to 10% (18%) at 2C and 12% (29%) at 3C.

+ Approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people ‘live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.’

+ Where climate change impacts intersect with areas of high vulnerability, it is ‘contributing to humanitarian crises’ and ’increasingly driving displacement in all regions, with small island states disproportionately affected.’

+ Increasing weather and climate extreme events ‘have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security,’ with the most significant impacts seen in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands and the Arctic.

+ Approximately 50-75% of the global population could be exposed to periods of ‘life-threatening climatic conditions’ due to extreme heat and humidity by 2100.

+ Climate change ‘will increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions, undermining food security and nutrition.’

+ Climate change and extreme weather events ‘will significantly increase ill health and premature deaths from the near- to long-term.’

Yet even as this urgent call to action was being issued, war was raging in Ukraine. Underscoring the incongruity of the situation, Ukrainian scientists involved in the process “forced some members of the Ukrainian delegation to pull out of the approval session and hide in bomb shelters,” Carbon Brief notes.

A world that urgently needs to come together to address the greatest crisis in the history of humanity is instead breaking apart into Western and Eurasian blocs. At the same time, the threat of nuclear war that seemed to have faded has now roared back. Nuclear arsenals are on high alert across the world.

The forces that divide us

Let’s be real about this. Powerful forces in the world seek exactly the outcomes we are seeing. A world divided into blocs enhances the potency of national security complexes on all sides. Even before the Ukraine War broke out, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said the company is seeing, “opportunities for international sales. We just have to look to last week where we saw the drone attack in the UAE, which have attacked some of their other facilities. And of course, the tensions in Eastern Europe, the tensions in the South China Sea, all of those things are putting pressure on some of the defense spending over there. So I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.”

Meanwhile, a long-term economic crisis in Russia has been undermining support for the government. Boris Kagarlitsky, a genuine Russian Communist (the people from whom Putin steals elections nowadays), says, “The major thing is that Russian society and economy is in now in a very deep crisis. The neoliberal model of capitalism actually completely failed in Russia . . . The hard fact is that the system is not working . . . There is enormous social tension in Russia . . . The real background reason this is happening is that people were fed up . . . The unpopularity of every single governing figure in the country, of every single oligarch, of every single official, is absolutely incredible . . . Putin’s entourage . . . thought they were going to have a short and successful war, a little war, just to improve our ratings. It was very much domestic reasons . . . which led them to do that. It was an attempt to avoid reform or revolution . . . by presenting military threats as a reason for keeping sovereign power in a very autocratic, undemocratic way.”

“War is the health of the State,” wrote radical activist Russell Bourne during the First World War. “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate co-operation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”

War is also the health of the fossil fuel energy complex. The connection of the Ukraine War with fossil fuels is so much in the foreground it barely needs to be emphasized. Russia propels its economy and war machine by being one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers. The growing China market gives Russia confidence it does not need Western markets.

Meanwhile, corks are popping in Houston at near record oil and gas prices that are exploding profits in what has been a financially troubled fossil fuel industry. They might even save the fracking industry, which has been a money-losing Ponzi scheme. Already fossil fuel executives and the politicians they own are using the war to argue for more public lands drilling and reversal of the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation.  Of course, the hope is that the war has so underscored the folly of fossil fuel dependence it will cause a more rapid transition to clean energy. But a climate of war magnifies the voices of so-called “serious people” and the status quo they represent, and that is fossil fuels.

The fundamental evolutionary question

At this stage in human history, we have arrived at fundamental questions about humanity’s growing powers. One can argue that the unique power of the human species to dominate Planet Earth is our employment of fire. While other species use natural fire, sometime between 400,000 and one million years ago, humans learned how to make and direct fire. Now our fires have reached a potency that we either learn to control them or be consumed by them, either the slow boil of climate heating or the rapid burnout out nuclear holocaust. The evolutionary challenge is staring us in the face. It is as basic as that.

This requires a new relationship with power itself. We have it in us to make that relationship. Most people do not want war, and certainly not nuclear war. Most people want to leave a world for our children that is not wrought by climate turmoil. It is in our better instincts as human beings. But somehow, the systems of power that rule the world, and those who climb to the top of them, continually violate our better instincts. The bigger are the systems, and the more massive their reach, the more this seems to be true.

We used to think evolution took place in a gradual manner. But evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge took a deeper look at the fossil record and found a different story. Whole suites of species suddenly vanished to be replaced by others. From this they developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, that catastrophes which wiped out previously dominant species opened up ecological niches for new species to rise. The classic example is the comet strike which caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, opening the way for us mammals. Abrupt change seems to be a rule in human society as well. Big changes happen rapidly, as a result of crisis. The French Revolution stirred by famine. The Russian and Chinese revolutions of this century caused by world wars.

This is one of those punctuated moments, with both exclamation points and question marks. It is never easy to live through a time of catastrophe. We can hope we will avoid absolute worst case scenarios such as nuclear war. But we should use this time of crisis to call into question a world system that has brought us to this point. When things go as wrong as they are going today, when a world that desperately needs to come together breaking into pieces, we need to ask fundamental questions about the system itself and how to replace it.

At a basic level, we need to learn to say enough. To restrain the pursuit of power for its own sake, and embed it within broader and, yes, moral goals. There is a basic lesson that ramifies through the world’s major spiritual paths that we must somehow bring to the way the world is governed. Compassion. Respect for the other. That golden mean of actually treating other people the way we hope to be treated ourselves. And when institutions violate it in their pursuit of power, whether they are governments waging wars or corporations abusing workers, we need to find ways to call them back to our better human instincts. That is up to us as people, working in movements for change.

A world grounded in compassion may seem utopian. But sometimes, what seems utopian is actually realistic, and what seems realistic is the road to radically dystopian outcomes. We are presented now with the picture of a world going toward just such outcomes. At this stage of human history and evolution, our powers having grown to the point where it is all too easy to envision us destroying ourselves, let us value the clarity of the moment and ask the fundamental questions of how we live here together. Let us make that other world we have said is possible. It will be if we learn to embody compassion in our institutions and our ways of life.

This first appeared on The Raven.