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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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A Pyrrhic Climate

A Pyrrhic Climate

What does it mean to fight and win an impossible war?

Battle of Chancellorsville, by Kurz and Allison, 1889

Arecent debate in twitter’s climate community illuminated a schism between those arguing that mitigating climate change is impossible and those exhorting others to continue to “fight” climate change. While the debate yielded no definitive answers, it brought up important questions for those who’ve focused their life on addressing this issue.

What does it mean to “fight” climate change today? Is mitigation really impossible? How would we know? If we want any chance of winning the fight, we have to confront which parts of it may be “impossible” to win and we have to have a sense of what it really means to “fight climate change.”

Let’s start with what’s impossible. Take one sector of the economy that needs to be decarbonized: food. Food is heavily petroleum dependent in growing, processing, and in its complex supply chains. Basically every single calorie consumed by someone in the Global North (and much of the South) is derived from petroleum, either at the point of production or by being moved around in planes, trains, and ships. What would it take to decarbonize industrial agriculture?

First, we would have to stop using petroleum-based fertilizers and petroleum-derived pesticides. The implication of that is: we’ll have a lot less food in the world. That’s just a reality of farming. High, dense food production relies on lots of petroleum inputs. I’ve worked on farms. There’s lots of pests and an increasing number due to climate change, and the soil is now weak thanks to industrial ag. For all the talk of agroecology (which is great!), we can’t get around those realities easily. It also means food will be regionally and seasonally dependent. E.g., no more avocados in most of the Global North. Millennials’ one consolation in the world, gone.

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Crime of the 21st Century

Crime of the 21st Century

Perpetrators of Apocalypse, or, The Seven Circles of Hell

Gustave Doré

Time to have a talk / it will not be fun / buckle up. Feel free to skip to the end at any point for pleasant pictures of adorable animals.

You and I are witnessing the twenty-first century’s great crime: a global holocaust whose first victims have already perished. And I mean holocaust, from Greek holókaustos, translated as “whole” and “burnt” – the whole enormity of life daily sacrificed to flames. That is not hyperbole. Driving this crime is the collapse of the world’s stable climatic and atmospheric systems. Fossil energy economies are doing this. They transform the world into a deathly, suffocating hothouse sabotaging the climate and atmosphere. That’s what they do.

Carbon energy kills 3.5 to 6 million people per year through air pollution alone. Beyond that, this crime is also killing people via extreme hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves, expanding the range of deadly diseases like malaria and Lyme, famines, and conflicts like the Syrian civil war. There is good reason to believe these disasters will destabilizegeopolitical relationships and lead to world war. Every one of these types of disasters will continue to intensify—that is inevitable at this point.

What is not inevitable is degree of intensity. Quantity of death can still be curtailed; we can prevent billions of deaths, even forestall human extinction. But the tragic fact is that some immense minimum of murder is certain. The body count will exceed those of any crimes that have come before. Monarchs and dictators designed the twentieth century’s vast death; this new crime is perpetrated by a global oligarchy – a hereditary aristocracy – a network of governments ruled by a super-wealthy elite. The most culpable among this elite are members of the oil, gas, and coal industries.

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Extinction vs. Collapse

Extinction vs. Collapse

Does it Matter?

Climate twitter – the most fun twitter – has recently been relitigating the debate between human extinction and mere civilizational collapse, between doom and gloom, despair and (kind of) hope. It was sparked by an interview in The Guardian with acclaimed scientist Mayer Hillman. He argues that we’re probably doomed, and confronting the likelihood that we’re rushing toward collective death may be necessary to save us.

The headline alone provoked a lot of reactions, many angered by the ostensible defeatism embedded in Hillman’s comments. His stated view represents one defined camp that is mostly convinced of looming human extinction. It stands in contrast to another group that believes human extinction is highly unlikely, maybe impossible, and certainly will not occur due to climate change in our lifetimes. Collapse maybe, but not extinction.

Who’s more right? Let’s take a closer look.

First, the question of human extinction is totally bounded by uncertainty. There’s uncertainty in climate data, uncertainty in models and projections, and even more uncertainty in the behavior of human systems. We don’t know how we’ll respond to the myriad impacts climate change is beginning to spark, and we don’t know how sensitive industrial civilization will be to those impacts.

We don’t really know if humans are like other apex predators highly sensitive to ecological collapse, or are among the most adaptable mammals to ever walk the earth. One may be inclined to lean toward the latter given that humans have colonized every ecological niche on the planet except Antarctica. That bands of people can survive in and around deserts as well as the Arctic as well as equatorial rainforests speaks to the resilience of small social groups.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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