At the end of Emile Zola’s 1890 novel, La Bête Humaine, a train full of soldiers hurls along the rails into Paris. No one is in the engine, for, after much madness and jealousy, the engineer and the fireman have killed each other. The doomed train is Zola’s vision of technology out of control. The human beast has unleashed the mechanical beast. We might think it quaint, now, but the train engines of the day were a triumph of industrial capitalism, shrinking distance and time, knitting entire continents together. And they were coal-powered, burning through the remains of ancient life, releasing carbon into the air. Zola draws the curtain before the terrible wreck, the wreck, as he saw it, of the Franco-Prussian War, but surely that was only an opening act for the wreck of the 20th century.
This image has not left my head in the 20-plus years since reading the book. It’s what leaps forcefully to the fore when I read something like this, which details the worst case scenario for catastrophic global climate change. The worst-case scenario is … merely a matter of basic physics and chemistry. You know, when vanishing polar ice lessens albedo because dark water absorbs much more heat than white ice, and melting permafrost and methane hydrates bloom, potentially releasing awe-inspiring amounts, in the gigatons, of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, making our industrial inputs look like the work of amateurs. (By awe-inspiring, I mean the old definition, which was full of terror.) This is a bullet Train à Grande Vitesse.
Now, I might, if I’m very, very, lucky, have several more decades of life. What will I witness? My early years were un-American, and perhaps as a consequence I have a tragic sense of history, and thus no “faith” in the future, either of the Whiggish-liberal “it gets better” or the fundamentalist “it gets better when we die” types. I suspect some awfully bad things to come. I take the long view, backwards, that is, where there are precedents in the geological history.
We humans show a remarkable capacity to be unfazed, largely, by distant disaster. Even proximate ones soon fade from memory, although, unfortunately, the hysteria-driven responses to such crises can sometimes stain us long afterwards. But future disasters are the most incomprehensible of all. Others will suffer much more than those of us reading this: the poor, marginalized, all those millions living next to rising seas and greater storms.
There is the high probability of catastrophe. Such things have happened before, feedbacks and individual effects amplifying others (warming, ocean acidification, dead zones, etc. etc.) although they are unprecedented in the short span of human history. How does one react?
Yet “planetary emergency” is incorrect; it’s a human emergency. And a moral one, for it is we who are responsible for mass extinctions of other lifeforms. But the Earth will abide. This is one tough old, gas-wreathed rock. It has seen ’em come and go. The end of our star, and hence our planet, is well-beyond human existence. It isn’t Earth we should be worried about.
No answers here. Barely coherent questions.
But still, on these tortured notes, I may — indeed, must — rise a paw and say “Happy New Year.”