Back in 2006, Derrick Jensen wrote,
A few years ago I began to feel pretty apocalyptic. But I hesitated to use that word, in part because of those drawings I’ve seen of crazy penitents carrying “The End is Near” signs, and in part because of the power of the word itself. Apocalypse. I didn’t want to use it lightly.
But then a friend and fellow activist said, “What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse? The death of the salmon? Global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day? Four hundred? Six hundred? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word.” – Endgame Vol. 1 p. 3 (excerpt available here)
This question of statistics, degrees, and thresholds is an important one, and the gradual nature of the changes we are living through is part of why so many have been so complacent for so long. Rhetorically, the inability to covey the seriousness of the problems in a powerful way without sounding like one is over-reacting is part of why thinktanks and energy companies have been so successful at sowing mistrust of climate science (and all science), and how the financial industry and their media mouthpieces have hoodwinked people into the ongoing belief that they are what John Steinbeck supposedly called “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
The ongoing, multi-faceted crisis, which will lead to a dramatic change in how we live, lacks a singular event and, therefore, doesn’t feel apocalyptic the way we have been taught to expect it to. This apocalypse, and I’ll use the word, lacks the theatrical, dramatic elements that make everyone stop and pay attention. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
While NASA’s landing of a relatively insignificant, but costly, rover on Mars has the dramatic flair that draws people in (circuses when we should be more concerned with bread), a far more important announcement was made from another NASA source. Top climate scientist James Hansen and a team of researchers released a paper in PNAS outlining the relationship between recent extreme weather events and global climate change (you can view a pdf of the whole article here). Writing in the Washington Post, Hansen summarizes some of the key findings:
The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the United States is suffering through right now.
These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.
. . .
Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 percent of the globe.
This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe. (“Climate change is here–and worse than we thought”)
To me, this is pretty apocalyptic. But if that’s not enough to sway people, the real cost of extreme temperatures is coming home, especially to those living in the U.S. plains and midwest. The most recent drought monitor map makes the case better than words can:
Beyond wildfires and the strain on outdated electrical grids to run AC in buildings not designed to disperse heat, the ongoing drought means that crops are failing (around 80% of U.S. corn is affected), food prices will rise domestically and abroad, and this will probably lead to unrest in places that used to be relatively self-sufficient but now rely heavily on food imports (thanks IMF, agribusiness corporations, ideology of globalization, etc!). We saw this before in 2008. This would all be a manageable, short-term problem but for what Hansen wrote above: “Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.”
Monoculture, fossil fuel-enabled, industrial farming across the center of the U.S. has destroyed the soil and drained the aquifers, and now shifting climate and extreme events are going to render it a gamble annually to even plant. It won’t be surprising a few decades from now when there are large patches of desert across the plains and midwest (the situation is arguably already worse than the dust bowl). Why are we subsidizing corn production again? Especially for making ethanol?
All of this has to be hell on the livestock as well. I’ve not seen any comprehensive articles on the health of dairy cattle or other animals during all this, but I’d assume that casualties and decreased production are part of the situation.
In addition to this, there have been unprecedented fish die-offs across the midwest. Small scale die-offs due to heat happen every summer, and they stink and create a low-level biological hazard, but those are nothing like the scale we are seeing now. This is anecdotal, but in one area of Illinois:
a large number of dead fish were sucked into an intake screen near Powerton Lake in central Illinois, lowering water levels and forcing a temporary shutdown at a nearby power plant. A spokesman for Edison International, which runs the coal-fired plant, said workers shut down one of its two generators for several hours two weeks ago because of extreme heat and low water levels at the lake, which is used for cooling. (source)
There’s a bad combination. Having to shut down a power plant during a heatwave. And, yes, the irony is that it is a coal burning plant. But really, a lot of power plants require large bodies of water for cooling; they are situated on lakes for this purpose. In a drought situation, the efficiency of these plants may be reduced due to low water levels, dead fish or not.
Alongside all of the weather problems, there’s that ongoing recession (and a lot of silly talk about when there will be an economic recovery rather than if there will), a lot of people out of work (and a need to redefine work), and a growing crisis of student loan debt (amid rising college costs) that totals nearly a trillion dollars. The student loan crisis, as many have remarked, resembles the recent housing crisis in a lot of ways. On the base level, underqualified borrowers were lent money that the “investment” of a college education is unlikely to allow them to pay back. These very young and inexperienced borrowers were, essentially, misled about the value of a college education in today’s world. Now some are calling for debt forgiveness programs for student debtors on a scale never before considered.
There are a ton of other things I could add here, but I’d forgotten about how draining thinking and writing about all of this can be and want to keep it relatively brief. So, in closing, we’re living in rapidly changing and critical times, but we are only learning this by degrees. Sometimes I think an apocalyptic event would be better because it would be easier to process and move forward from than this gradual collapse that is easy to tune out and choose to watch horse dancing or whatever in the Olympics instead.