As mentioned previously, the Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to an extraordinary piece of narrative journalism by Nathaniel West, titled “Losing Earth.” A single line, in bold white centered on a black page, said, “Thirty years ago we could have saved the planet.” What followed was an explication of a decade that, in effect, led to four words: We chose not to. The why of it is both elegantly simple and tragically complex.
West explains that today, in our lifetime, a global transformation is taking place. Events such as extreme weather were once referred to as black swans, but no longer.
Consider the following, haunting in its truth yet still elusive:
“Since 1981,” writes West, “artic sea ice has decreased by an average of 1.3 percent per year. Since 1989, the global mean temperature has increased by one degree Fahrenheit. By 2030, the number of people worldwide affected by floods is expected to triple. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause the deaths of roughly 250,000 people each year. By 2050, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be largely ice-free in the summer. By that same year a million species will face extinction. By 2080, the frequency of heat waves in the New York metropolitan area is projected to triple. By the turn of the next century, global sea levels will have risen by one to four feet, potentially turning hundreds of millions of people into refugees.”
This is the future. It might have had a different arc, but today, the train has left the station. And West asks the penetrating question: Could it have been any other way? Grimly he points out that global environmental scientists knew. The U.S. knew. Congress has been holding hearings for 40 years, our intelligence agencies even longer. Going green has been a resilient thread woven into our lexicon and consciousness, and the unavoidable fact that globally mankind has entered into a suicide pact with fossil fuel was long ago revealed and then repeated. We know that in 2017, 32.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas was emitted into the atmosphere, representing an inexorable rise.
“We have also known for decades,” states West, “that the transformation of our planet will come gradually and suddenly and will reconfigure the political order. And we know that without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, whose lives our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.”
Clearly we were and are still faced with an existential crisis of global proportions and yet we seem fundamentally unable to act. Michael Glanz, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, wrote presciently, in 1979, that democratic societies were constitutionally unable to confront the climate problem.
“Human beings,” elaborates West, “whether in “global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. If we were capable of taking the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time.”
And then West makes a compelling statement that addresses the ultimate question of why: “We have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds.”
In other words, for all of our abilities, our deep well of intelligence, we are faced with a global problem, harrowing and intractable, that we simply cannot or have not the will to solve.
West does, however, offer a whisper of hope. “Fear,” he opines, “may bring about that moment when the children of our children will demand revolutionary change.” Hopefully, there will still be time to invent and adapt. He mentions “negative emissions” as one possible solution. But catastrophes beyond our capacity to imagine await us and most certainly our children.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.