Posts Tagged 'Climate'

The Fate of Us?

Environmentalist eschatology has it that the world is ending. Nature? I think not. The human world as we’ve known it, undoubtedly — that has been the pattern for as long as there have been humans; it’s just a question of timing. But the planet will abide. Much simplified and profoundly poisoned by humans, true, but the Earth will keep spinning, life will keep living, however much we’ve knee-capped it. One day, all this will just be a toxic layer in the geological strata. The HS — for Homo sapiens — Line?

It’s we who are the worry. Among ourselves, anyway. Ain’t nobody going to miss us when we’re gone.

Climate instability, global networks of trade, exotic diseases sparked at the ever expanding human/wilderness frontier. These three horsemen go together.. and have done so for some time now. This is the thought that inevitably bubbles up while reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of Empire. “The precise conjuncture of environmental damage, political disintegration, and religious ferment decided the final sequence of Rome’s demise.”

As we race towards our own climatic fate, much of historiography is now climatological. There was, for instance, a Roman climate optimum (200 BC – 150 AD), when the glory of Rome was something to write home about. It was warm and wet — only August didn’t see rain, unlike now when the Mediterranean climate is essentially dry through the whole summer. (Great for tourists, more problematic for food-production.) Remember marveling at the idea of North Africa being the granary of empire? Times were good (-ish, it depended where you lived and who you were, of course).

Then came three centuries of climate transition, becoming dryer and dryer. This transitional era saw two devastating plagues (165 AD, probably smallpox — hey, anti-vaxxers, this one’s for you, you selfish fuckers) and (249-262 AD, possibly something Ebola-like). Recoveries of sorts were made, but there was no going back; the borders were busted, the economy in decline, the barracks emperors a dime a dozen to the last trump.

Finally (for Rome) the one-two of little ice age (450-700AD ) and the Justiniaic Plague (541-543 AD, then reoccurring for 2 more centuries). This last seems to have been humanity’s first pandemic. Mortality may have been as much as half the population of the Roman empire–in Constantinople they say 5000 died a day. This was plague of the plague, the same bacillus (Yersinia pestis) as the medieval Black Death.

Harper touches lightly on the similarities between that decline and fall and ours — which of course we can’t know beforehand, but…. He doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. History speaks for itself. Climate disruption, political instability, untold suffering, massive migration, dictators promising walls and fantasies of ethno-racial nativism. I read history in light of the present. How will our times be remembered?

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably need some BBs of H.

Solidarity with Youth Climate Strike

What.

Why.

Where.

Greta Thunberg.

Baeolophus bicolor

Wind-tussled Tufted Titmouse in a beech tree with a few old leaves hanging on.
***

So last year was the fourth warmest year since 1850. It was slightly cooler than the top three warmest years since 1850… which were, in order, 2016, 2017, and 2015. This data is from BerkeleyEarth; NOAA and NASA haven’t been able to report because of Trump/GOP’s hijacking of the nation. “The slight decline in 2018 is likely to reflect short-term natural variability, but the overall pattern remains consistent with a long-term trend towards global warming.” And did you see how southern Australia broke the continent’s heat record this week: 115F.

Carbon Democracy

“Humankind has consumed about two trillion barrels of oil since the rise of the modern petroleum industry in the 1860s. It is worth repeating that burning the first trillion took about 130 years, but we went through the second trillion in only twenty-two years. […] The world’s fossil fuels were formed out of 500 million years of buried sunshine. Whether we spend most of this ‘capital bequeathed to mankind by other living beings’ within a span of three hundred years or four hundred, from the perspective of geological history, or even merely of human history, the era of the Anthropocene is brief and extraordinary. […] The geological language captures not so much the brevity of time in which the energy from fossil fuels has enabled agency on a new scale, but the extraordinary length of time, looking forward, over which the effects of this brief agency will be felt. The modes of common life that have arisen largely within the last hundred years, and whose intensity has accelerated only since 1945, are shaping the planet for the next one thousand years, and perhaps the next 50,000.”

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, 2013. This is one of a number of Verso’s thought-provoking and paradigm-challenging approaches to the politics of climate change.

Slicing Up the Sky

On a clear day, we can see New Jersey. Straight across is Newark, over New York Bay and Bayonne and Newark Bay. Newark International is there too. Glancing northwards, as above, the twin cities of Jersey City and Manhattan finger the sky. This particularly clear morning was all sliced by condensation trails, better known as contrails, produced by water vapor freezing in the wake of high altitude jets. It’s pretty basic chemistry and a contributor to atmospheric warming.

However, in all too typical ignorance-paranoia-stupidity fashion, a whole industry of “chemtrail” conspiracies has arisen around them. We were once in Great Swamp NWR and a nice older couple started chatting with us. They’d been going there for decades and had noted a marked decline in bird life. The male half confided that it was all due to chemtrails, secret government emissions from airplanes. I could read about it on the internet if I wanted to know more, he suggested.

Not rampant suburbanization and other sprawling development surrounding the NWR and the destruction of habitat in wintering regions, not the pesticides and pollutants in the air, water, soil, working up the food chain, etc., no, no, nothing like that, folks. Just some sinister, decades-long experiment by the dang blad gummerment!Another cold day, ripe for more scarification of the sky.Every single cloud in these pictures originated from an airplane. No conspiracy necessary. It’s just what we do.

Leviathan?

“What is to be done?” asked Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in the title of his 1863 novel about the situation of Russian. Chernyshevsky wrote, from prison, something of a “handbook of radicalism,” postulating a sort of utopian peasant/commune/industrial socialism. Perhaps, though, the most important thing about the book was the burning titular question, which fired debate and influenced, among many others, Kropotkin, Luxembourg, and Lenin. Tolstoy, too, although of a different tenor: his What is To Be Done? was published 1886. Lenin used the question as the title of his 1902 pamphlet arguing for a vanguard party to lead the workers and peasants towards communism, part of the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into “majority” (Bolshevik) and “minority” (Menshevik) factions.

I think of this question, and its ultimate disaster of an answer in Bolshevik dictatorship, when it comes to climate breakdown. (George Monibot argues that “climate change” is entirely too mild for is going to — excuse me, I mean, what IS happening now.)

Because… What is to be done? “How will the world respond politically” to climate breakdown?

In Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright offer some…guidance? They argue that a globally sovereign “Climate Leviathan” is taking shape, via the existing international order/hierarchy of the capitalist economies of the global North (largely responsible for burning fossil capital in the first place), “to enable the world’s most powerful states to engage in planetary management.” Since we essentially already have this, and the “state of emergency” model that liberal democracies already frighteningly depend on, this definitely looks like the approach the world is taking. But can a green Keynesianism do the trick, allowing adaptation to rising waters, flood/draught pattern shifts, intolerable heat, agricultural transformations, mass migration, political conflict, resource fights, etc? Will liberal capitalism (liberal in the economic sense) get us out of the mess it has created? Or will it just save its elites, and maybe some of their lucky dog-walkers and maids along the way?

Our authors postulate three other responses:

Climate Mao: an authoritarian, anti-capitalist model which justifies state terror in the interest of the collective (the “red thread running from Robespierre to Lenin to Mao”). The current Chinese state-capitalist regime is definitely more Leviathan and Mao now, but Asia, with its billions of climate-breakdown victims to come, is the potential locus of this model, which would also use the emergency model (“we have to do this to save human lives”).

Climate Behemoth: this is the reactionary conservative, “populist,” anti-reason model in vogue now in Central Europe, India, Russia, the Philippines, Brazil, the US…. Here militant minority factions (in the US: older white religious conservatives) rally to demagogues fronting for plutocrats, especially resource-extractors. “Different forms of racial, national and gendered prejudice” organize voters for Trump, Modi, Obran, Putin, etc., but all call for the necessity of otherness, an enemy, as foundational to these new fascisms. You will not be surprised, I think, to discover that the MAGA-bomber was foreclosed not by any of his would-be targets, but by his idol Trump’s rapacious Secretary of the Treasury.

Climate X: the authors choice, X for the unknown, but non-authoritarian, non-capitalist built on equality, inclusion and dignity of all, and “solidarity in composing a world of many worlds.” They leave the details vague. (The point, it seems, is not to philosophize about the world but to change it.)

“Whether we know it or not, all our thinking is environmental, even when it rebels against nature.”

“If good climate data and models were all that were needed to address climate change, we would have seen a political response in the 1980s. Our challenge is closer to a crisis of imagination and ideology; people do not change their conception of the world just because they are presented with new data.”

“The planetary crisis is, among other things, a crisis of the imagination, a crisis of ideology, the result of an inability to conceive any alternative to walls, guns, and finance as tools to address the problems that loom on the horizon.”

Referencing Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene “[…] we do not need to learn to die, but to think, live, and rebel. Moreover, the problem is hardly ‘us’ in the abstract, as if the catastrophe were built into human nature. The problem is largely associated with a specific minority of ‘us’ and the way that minority’s ‘civilization’ have determined the fate of the entire planet. Rather than accept that ‘civilization’ is dead, we need to struggle to create one that is truly civilized.”

Frankenstein’s Planet

I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, recently. The book is 200 years old this year (see the exhibit at the Morgan). If you have not read it, it is profoundly different from the Frankenstein created by the commercial media over the years.

The strangest transference may be the naming thing: “Frankenstein” has become the creature created by Victor Frankenstein. The man has become his monster. And the prefix “Franken-” has become shorthand for any and all technological nightmares.

Above all it is an astounding work, especially when you consider that Shelley was twenty when it was published. True, her parents, anarchist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, were remarkable in their own right. Mary Godwin (or Mary Jr. as I like to call her), however, never knew her brilliant mother because she died soon after giving birth. And of course Mary Jr.’s partner was no mean cultural force himself. Percy Shelley wrote the preface to the first edition, published anonymously, which he dedicated to his hero William Godwin. (He was initially thought to be the author of the whole thing.)

The novel begins and ends in the Arctic. The first of three narrators, Walton, is determined to get to the pole, that icy lodestar of the northern hemisphere, focus of so many European obsessions. On the voyage into the ice, he runs into both Frankenstein and the creature. Cue Frankenstein’s narration: he is chasing his creation. And his creation is urging him on: “Follow me: I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive.” (Yes, this creature talks, and talks well.)

It’s notable that the early world of the industrial revolution makes no appearance in the novel. (The Romantics were quite reactionary in some ways.) The sciences, too, are scarcely discussed: Victor’s means of animating life are kept a secret. But there is no escaping this context of the novel; coal-power was exponential increasing the power available to humans. Their own muscles, those of draft animals, wind and water, were as nothing compared to steam heated by burning ancient fossilized lifeforms. Here was the letting loose of a creature of another kind, Prometheus unbound, burning past millennia for power… and carbon dioxide.

Frankenstein’s creature, that unnatural born philosopher, is last seen heading into an Arctic that two centuries later has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. He plans on burning himself to death in a funeral pyre. presumably made out of the wood of the sled.

The fire was lit: the “everlasting ices” turned out to have an expiration date.

[Pictures: Iceland, 2010, the closest I’ve been to the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle.]


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