The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Thanksgiving Yet to Come

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“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a fairly cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to think Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Well, yes; we want to be seasonal, don’t we?

And yes, there are linkages to be made. A brief Internet search on the subject yields two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in what you have to do with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings sometimes thrown in among the other topics of discussion at the dinner time. And yet, there is one thing that being surrounded by more food than one could possibly eat is good for; it brings home a sense of bounty, the reassurance that, no matter what, there will always be enough. And that is something to be thankful for.

It’s an illusion, of course. There is no such thing as an infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even renewable resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. Ever more efficient harvesting techniques hide the extent to which our fisheries are depleted. Expensive extraction procedures, like deep-sea oil drilling and tar sands mining, are now economically competitive–the more accessible oil is mostly already gone. It’s not necessarily that humans don’t have enough food and water. As a general rule, famine is a distribution problem, not a production problem (so far). But we no longer have abundance, a planetary Thanksgiving table groaning with reassuring excess.

Want a visual of the problem? Check this out:

Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

The bottom line is that there is no way to sustainability that does not involve radically reducing our resource use–and the longer we put off doing so, the more stringent a budget our descendents will have to keep. We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as a Thanksgiving feast that would never end, but the feast is over now, and has been for a long time.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels reassuringly infinite, and it is that feeling that is important. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re actually remembering to be thankful for today.

The psychological power of the illusion of abundance does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished, and nobody goes into debt.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out–a paradoxical but very real form of abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than what we have.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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