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Impossible Contemplation and Our Existential Threat

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

That’s the first line in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Here’s the last line:

“You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.”

I’ve only just begun reading The Uninhabitable Earth, so this is not a book review. I did, however, read a couple of reviews and apparently the book is quite devastating—unless you are a climate crisis denier, or are in deep denial, or you just don’t give a shit. Why I’m reading the book is, well, at least interesting. It’s not as though I need more information to drive home the reality of the existential threat that we are now facing. Every day in the newspaper I read about:

  • melting ice;
  • rising sea levels;
  • heatwaves running through the oceans killing life in their paths;
  • coral reefs dying; mass extinctions;
  • the collapse of biodiversity;
  • the significant, and frightening, decline in insect populations;
  • the increase of areas on the planet that for periods of time in the summer months have already become uninhabitable for human beings without air conditioning (google WBT, “wet bulb” temperature); the increase in extreme whether events;
  • the truly frightening release of methane bubbling from the oceans and spewing forth from permafrost (CH4 traps up to 100 times more heat than CO2 in a five year period and 72 times more heat in a 20 year period);
  • the decay of the Antarctic glacier;
  • the rise in sea levels and increased coastal flooding;
  • longer and more damaging fire seasons;
  • more severe droughts;
  • disruption of our food supply;
  • changing seasons;
  • widespread forest death.

The climate crisis is not some distant future event. It is happening now. Just ask insurance companies and the U.S. military if you don’t believe me.  

It’s common to blame our predicament on the Industrial Revolution, placing it back in history far enough to absolve us of responsibility. While it’s obviously true that the crisis can be said to have begun with the Industrial Revolution, Wallace-Wells points out that more than half the carbon being released into the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels has happened in the last few decades. As he says: “The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85%.”[1] This is a crisis created in one human life time.

Many believe we can still avoid the worse of the predicted disaster. Some turn to technologies not yet invented, some to technologies we now have, and others to the human spirit. What is of considerable concern, however, is that we are running out of time. A couple of years ago the UN announced we had twelve more years to deal with the climate crisis, after which it would be too late. Whether or not you believe that seemingly extreme assessment, most who are paying attention admit time is now short and fixing the damage we do to the planet takes time. An example.

In 1987 the world came together in the Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were destroying the ozone layer—no ozone layer, no life on earth. CFCs can take 50 to 100 years to completely disappear from the atmosphere. The effort to fix the ozone layer, begun in 1987, will only reach completion sometime between 2060 and 2080. Time.

So, time for true confessions: I don’t believe there is any hope for us. First, we will experience the collapse of human civilization. Second, the extinction of the human species.

The definition of “contemplation”: the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time; deep reflective thought; religious meditation. 

I find it impossible to contemplate the end of us all.

Some who agree that at the very least human civilization is doomed, while perhaps being agnostic about our extinction, feel we are only getting what we deserve, just punishment for our destruction and stupidity. I can almost agree with that sentiment, but then, and this is very unlike me, I think for every act of human destruction there is an equally profound act of human creativity. For every moron defecating the public square and polluting the internet, spouting absurdities and fantasies or just plain lying, there is an intelligent, caring human being seeking information and truth and proclaiming reality.

Amazingly, again for me, I would, if I had the power, give the human species a reprieve and tell it to try again. Except for one thing. The reason we become extinct may be justice or simple cause and effect, but the fact that we will be taking millions and millions of innocent species with us is utter sinfulness. I use the word “sinfulness,” not because I have a literalist biblical and theological understanding of sin, but because I can’t think of another word to communicate the utter horror and depravity of what we are doing to life on this plant—both flora and fauna. If there were some kind of ethical intelligence overseeing this vast universe, surely it would find the time to never forgive the human species for what it is doing and will do.

So, how do I embrace, incorporate into my life, the conflicting truths that, one, I believe the end is coming and, two, that I find contemplation of that fact impossible (meaning I can’t think about it for long and not very deeply when I do)? That which I believe is so overwhelming I cannot think about it, let alone make peace with it.

Well, first I do what I can do. I participate in the basic efforts to right the wrong. I recycle, of course. Except for one or two hamburgers during the barbeque season, I don’t eat red meat. I bought an all-electric car and pay extra to the energy company to help the transition from coal to renewables. I’m putting solar panels on the roof of my house. As much as is possibly, I avoid buying products packaged in plastic. I do what I can do, not because I believe it will save us, but because I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. I do these things to maintain some semblance of integrity. Though I don’t believe there will be some cosmic reckoning when I am personally called to account, I nonetheless have to call myself to account each and every day.

Second, I live within the dilemma. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about what will happen. It’s my default setting. I read about some scientific breakthrough that will enhance human life in, say, twenty years and I think, By that time we will have begun to collapse so it doesn’t matter. The end is there all the time. And yet, though I’m aware of its coming and profundity, I don’t let that knowledge seep into my marrow. Or perhaps, I am just incapable of doing so. How do I live with the knowledge, not only that I am going to die, but that my species is going to die? Perhaps I don’t or can’t live with that. And so, I go about my days as if it will be okay in the long wrong. I’ve come to think I cannot live without the application of “as ifs.” Without them I would become paralyzed.

When contemplation becomes impossible, as ifs become important. This is what I mean by their usefulness and importance: “Very often we can reasonably proceed as if what we know to be false is true because it is useful for some purpose to do so.”[2] The quote comes from As If: Idealization and Ideals by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Put simply, I choose to live as if my behavior, and that of others, will eventually result in a happy ending even though I know it to be false. In that way, I still see beauty, enjoy my relationships, and continue to laugh (though it is easier for me because I do not have grandchildren).

So, my closing advice? Do what you can as if it will make a difference. And after you have read The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, read As If: Idealization and Ideals.

Copyright © 2019 Dale Rominger

[1] Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books. 2019, p. 4.

[2] Anthony Appiah, Kwame. As If: Idealization and Ideals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,2017, p.3.

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