The Climate in Emergency

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


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The following is a somewhat edited article I originally wrote for a class assignment–it was immediately after the lecture I describe in the post, The Good Fight. The assignment was to simply write about how we felt in and after the discussion. The “you,” therefor, is my professor, Tom Wessels. Note that ellipses (series of dots) do not signify deleted material, as in formal writing, but rather extended pauses, as in informal writing.


How did I feel in and after the class discussion? This was not the first time I’ve watched you chart out the context of the current crisis in terms of entropy, so it did not pack the emotional punch of surprise. The first time, in Community Ecology class, I was quite literally nauseated…I had been familiar with most of the information you presented, but was lacking a few pieces and the overall structure that so starkly and rigorously defined our position as that of members and murderers of a dying planet. And I put it that way well aware that this condition of dying will not likely result in actual, overall death…I’m aware that the biosphere has survived five mass extinctions before, and will survive this one. I just don’t want to be culpable for it. And it saddens me to be here for it, although when I talk about it with most people I emphasize our position of opportunity and power; I used to do an interpretive talk, ostensibly about sand dynamics on barrier islands, where I took the opportunity to tell people that we are the most powerful generations (deliberate plural) that have ever lived…I want people to see this positively so they don’t shut down, remain apathetic in guilt and fear. But to you, since you have invited candor, I can admit to being scared and pessimistic myself.

I don’t think we’ll collectively turn this around voluntarily. The critical issue, as I understand it, is perceived limitation. People adjust themselves not to what is but to what seems to be. Fossil fuel gives us the illusion of a bigger, less vulnerable planet than the one we have. I think the thing that will make us change will not be a culturally driven realization, though I am trying to foster one, but rather the onset of more obvious limits. Wars, famines, plagues…and I’m going to live through it, I think. Maybe I’ll be able to help some way. Maybe that’s why I’m here. In which case, ok, I’m here, I sign up, I agree. If I can help, fine, I’m ok with being here now, whatever trouble that turns out to entail. But it makes me sad and angry.

This is not new. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, trying to formulate my ideas, make myself into a being of some use…I’ve been going in circles. I’m not a very practical person, I’m not very good at getting things done, thirty-two years old and I can hardly support myself, let alone get myself into a position where anyone will listen to me. What have I done? Of course, at my age [President] John Adams was asking himself a very similar question, working through radical new ideas about democracy and independence and wondering if history would pass him by…I tend alternately towards despondency and something bordering on self-inflation. I’m afraid this is way-too personal an essay, but you asked. What is new this year particularly is that starkness…and a better way of organizing these ideas. And of course going to graduate school has everything to do with my attempt to DO SOMETHING.

Today in class I got all kinds of neat ideas. Like I think that our species’ timeline is not only one of gradual growth recently succeeded by rapid growth, but also it is a story of the progressive increase of the scale on which carrying capacity is calculated. The scrub jays are part of a very local ecology; when their population peaks and crashes, it does so locally. Their scale of feedback is local. When they change their local environment, their local environment changes them back, and so a kind of rough balance is maintained. We were that way once, but very quickly our ancestors built trade networks that lifted our relevant scale to the regional. So a community could exceed its local carrying capacity and not notice, not stop drawing resources, until it triggered a regional crash, as you said the Maya did…and as you said, the regional collapse is deeper and lasts longer than local scale collapses are. Then we became continental, global…. The Industrial Revolution extended this trend dramatically by artificially and temporarily extending our scale to something larger than the actual planet by accessing the stored solar energy of the past (not quite a new idea there) thus preventing us from collectively “hearing” the feedback of the actual planet—at least for a while. Then the crash larger than a whole planet.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe everyone will wake up. But I fear it won’t happen until the limits become more than an intellectual thing for most people, until we have no option. I wish I could say “I’m not with them.” I hate feeling powerful enough to be culpable but not powerful enough to change.

One more note. I mentioned not being a very practical person. I think that’s changing. I heard your question “what can you do?” in very concrete, practical terms. I can shrink my foot-print, I can be an example, I can start up a website, I can run my Yahoo group, I can go to graduate school, I can start emailing around to get somebody to figure out how to turn those lights off in the class-room. I’m doing all those things (except I haven’t addressed the lights yet). When I figure out more to do I’ll do it. I hear your question as a request for a plan, a concrete proposal I can enact today. Most of the other students addressed the questions in conditional, abstract terms, in generalities. I don’t know what to make of this….

I am glad you’re teaching this class, that someone is. Before class, a few of us were talking briefly about imaginary friends, and I was thinking of how children often let go of imaginary friends and stuffed animals because they find no one else believes. It is hard to go on treating something as important that people around us do not. And it is hard, too, given that there is a certain strategic quality to any discussion of this subject—always, there is the need to consider whether saying the wrong thing might frighten away “light green” allies. How much can I say, how serious can I be, before my audience reaches overload and shuts down or lashes back? But who do I talk to when I’m overloaded, when I despair or I don’t know what to do, when I want to run gibbering off into the night?

Tom, this paper has turned out a good deal more personal than I would normally address to someone I do not know outside of a professional context. I have never chatted casually with you, much less told you anything about myself. But you asked, and I find myself unwilling to do less than answer the question. I hope you do not mind.


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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