I just read an article in an online journal countercurrents.org called, “How bad can it get?” In it, Robert Hunziker describes a book by Bill McGuire, Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. McGuire, a highly respected scientist, does not mince words in describing what he calls Hothouse Earth (Icon Books, August 2022). “There is no chance of avoiding climate breakdown.” In other words, it can get a whole lot worse than we have yet imagined. Why do so many people think we can fool Mother Nature?
How Bad is Bad?
The thing about the accelerating climate emergency is that it is unprecedented, to use a word that seems to apply to more and more events and situations these days, especially when it comes to weather and politics. We have entered an era when things are no longer as they seemed in our remembered past.
The idea that an extreme faction could take over the Republican Party and pass anti-democratic legislation in numerous states while denying the obvious scientific evidence of Earth-System destabilization, is unprecedented—well not entirely. Remember, ever since the New Deal the party represented interests of the most powerful business elites in keeping its ruling class ideology of maintaining a strict societal hierarchy with economic elites calling the shots. A radical transformation of the long-standing climate and biosphere conditions fall entirely outside the party platform—despite the obvious evidence. The new reality, however, affects everyone deeply.
The idea that the relatively stable climate of the last 11,000 years, so conducive to human population growth and economic expansion, is changing radically and moving into entirely uncharted waters, is also unprecedented. That kind of change is so inherently in conflict with the dominant culture of industrial consumerism that it threatens our survival.
So, how bad is bad? We can’t be exactly sure, but we can be sure that the coming bad is so bad that it will be extremely dangerous. Bad is very likely to be very bad, and very bad in unprecedented ways. The thing about politics and climate when they go off the rails, is that the exact direction of badness is very hard to predict for either one. However, ecological-climate-societal disintegration is, in any case, Very Bad.
What Existential Threat?
We do know some things for sure. When what were once stable seasonal weather patterns become unpredictable, many crops will fail. Food insecurity will soar and migration will result, as well as armed conflict over food, water, and other resources needed for survival. Armed conflict? Of course. So many people have already armed themselves here and abroad, that we can expect the existential threat of extreme conditions to produce armed conflict.
We also know that general disruptions to society will result from rising sea levels, severe drought, and extreme weather events. We already have lots of evidence of Antarctic ice sheets collapsing and melting into the sea much faster than projected just a couple of years ago. The so-called ‘doomsday arctic ice shelf’–the Thwaites Glacier–may produce sea-level rise up to ten feet. Imagine Miami and New York under those conditions. Such recent revelations are not so surprising when we consider that most projections of climate disruptions by the IPCC over the years have underestimated the changes and had to be adjusted upward in later reports. The estimates of severity have always been underestimates.
So, the very accelerations of collapse of various Earth sub-systems that were not anticipated by scientists in public reports (their findings were routinely ‘moderated’ by political authorities) are rapidly growing into immediate existential threats. Bad things are much worse than you thought, and have been for too long.
Anyone who makes explicit prediction when a complex system is breaking down, is overconfident. That is because complex systems are too complex to be predictable in more than just the basic trends as they unfold. Some changes are gross and appear quite simple. As the ice melts, the sea rises, simply because water runs downhill and glaciers melt when they fall into the sea. But as Kim Stanley Robinson demonstrated in speculating about life in and around New York City in 2140 after significant sea rise, the complexities of Earth-System transformation are less than entirely predictable.
It is increasingly clear that our cultural framing of reality that worked so well for so many hundreds of years is largely irrelevant now, even dysfunctional. The paradigm of modern industrialism is an increasingly bad fit for the evolving conditions of the Anthropocene.
Unfortunately, culture is not easy to change. People, especially those in power, resist changing a system from which they benefit so abundantly, and they work hard to influence others. Nevertheless, research on survivors and victims of various kinds of disasters clearly demonstrates that survival depends on shifting from one’s paradigm of ordinary reality to a new paradigm that fits the non-ordinary reality of the emergency. The idea that we are ni a ‘climate emergency‘ is not hyperbole. We desperately need to change our understanding of reality in order to survive the climate/ecological emergency that confronts us. As a society, the U.S. has not yet even contemplated such a radical shift in our consciousness. Yet, that is exactly what is required for our survival. Unfortunately, it will probably take an extreme large-scale catastrophic event to shake us out of our cultural slumber.
8 thoughts on “How Bad can It Get? Reality Transformed”
Thank you Suzanne, for pointing to the one most urgent roadblock to viable climate action, which is precisely where my analysis has led me. The fact that to really reduce carbon emissions (the proximate cause of climate chaos), ‘we’ must transform the global corporate political economy into low energy consuming local-regional ecological communities is simply not discussed. Only lovely utopian dreams of wellbeing-based economies achieved (somehow) are under discussion. The key is how to get there from here, and that is frought with having to face the unknowns of massive societal transformation.
Unless ‘we’ can rouse a sufficiently committed sector of the population to force change upon the mega-institutions, while simultaneously constructing ecological alterntives, all will be lost.
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We need to look at how to deal in a world running on acquisition where our representatives are more beholden to funders than to constituents. If I ran the word I’d get conversation going about what we-the-people could do. We need big thoughts. Different thoughts. Different ways to think and to see.
We need a voice and a force made up of millions of us. Here’s what we-the-people could create:
A WISDOM COUNCIL of well-known, influential people. One volunteer could start it — say MacKenzie Scott. She would get one more. The two of them would decide on the third, and so on. If this group deliberated on what they would do, everyone would listen.
A SUGGESTION BOX for anyone to make contributions of things that could be done, with discussions to hone them before they go to the Wisdom Council.
THE HUMAN SURVIVAL COALITION for millions of people of goodwill to be a force. The internet, reverberating with communications for the good, can spark what used to require masses of people taking to the streets.
I’ve been working this up for a while. There’s more. I’m looking to get some thought leaders to toss these ideas around!
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Very accurate and frank analysis of the present reality. May I recommend a book on the topic?
If will check it out. Sounds rather…hopeless…
Perhaps the most profound aspect of our “cultural slumber” is our relationship with nuclear weapons. If Putin should resort to tactical nukes in Ukraine we may see a transformation in our addiction to denial.
Sadly, I don’t think that even an extreme large-scale catastrophic event will shake us out of our cultural slumber. An earlier Kim Stanley Robinson novel, “Galileo’s Dream,” tells a somewhat accurate (or so I’ve read) story of Galileo Galilei and the culture in the late 16th and early 17th century. It weaves this story with Galileo’s abduction and travel to a faraway future planet where he is shown the devastation to come, this in an effort to have him change the destiny of the planet. That’s what we need, but of course it won’t happen.
Well, ‘Anonymous,’ I do agree that things are getting ‘badder and badder,’ but I do not share your certainty of complete failure.. I prefer to hold out hope (certainly not optimism) that a globally networked social movement may yet rise up and force so-called authorities to radically change policie and institutions to shut down carbon emissions and organize massive ecological restoration programs using human and animal power to forge the new reality we seek. Collapse of ‘industrial civilization’ as we know it does seem certain, either as a direct result of our not doing anything or in part by humans taking some part of the transformation we forced to happen. It could/should/must involve some human intention to shape new social formations in harmony with our habitats.
My realism tells me we have an increasingly slimmer chance to achieve ecological communities to avoid complete extinction despite major population decline (which at this point seems close to certain). When that chance is no longer viable, hope will have no standing.
Onward! (to whatever future we may be able to shape, to whatever degree we may be able to shape it)
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I’m new to you. You are clear and compelling. I was struck by this: “…hope… that a globally networked social movement may yet rise up.” How about being proactive in creating such a thing? It is astonishing to me how there’s good analysis, like yours, of what’s going on, and there are beautiful evocations of how an enlightened world would be, but there’s no bridging going on to get from one to the other. Do you want to have some conversation about that?
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