Is the Climate Emergency a Buzzkill?

Well, that depends. I know of nobody who considers the climate emergency a cheery optimistic prospect to look forward to. On the other hand, some get their buzz from the strangest things—the pain and suffering of others, the death of some creature who did them no harm, the wasted lives of victims of mass incarceration. Others may value the leveling of a forest for replacement by a big-box store and a giant parking lot—perceived as progress, or they may be buzzed just walking around the mall, wandering in and out of various stores making the occasional impulse buy. I once knew a professional assassin who marveled at the ‘progress’ of multilayered interchanges intersecting freeways in Los Angeles. That struck me as odd, since his personality was so focused on destruction and death.

But really, most folks just want to be left alone to pursue their ‘individualistic’ lives of either quiet desperation, a happy family life, social media obsession, a successful professional career, or profligate shopping—or is it something else? What, exactly, is your buzz? Will a walk in the park or a hike in the wilderness do it for you? What activity really engages your attention and gives you satisfaction to do. Is it knitting, woodworking, or tennis? And what would kill your buzz?

Of course, there are many uplifting answers to that question. If you are in the flow of acting entirely ‘in the zone,’ time disappears. For me, riding my bicycle fast, woodworking, writing, or flying an airplane do it. But there are many more buzz-inducing activities that are not so uplifting; they result from habit and mostly function to ward off boredom.

Buzzkill, Personal and Social

Here’s my current personal buzzkill: I have been a pilot since 1976. I have flown all over the American West, from New Mexico to southern Baja, and from Florida to California–great fun! As time passed, I found less and less time available to fly and more and more cost to do so. In flying, performance level is measured by what we call ‘currency,’ in other words how much flying experience have you had in the last couple of weeks. You see, proficiency in flying skills drops off rapidly after your most recent flight. You may have 10,000 hours of flight time in multiple types of aircraft, but your pilot proficiency is only as good as your last flight. Now, at 82, I have found that proficiency takes more practice to maintain. The insurance companies express their perceived actuarial risk in exponentially higher annual rates as you age past the 60s, which is now driving this accident-free pilot out of the market. Besides, having fun flying around burning 8 gallons of avgas per hour is exactly the opposite of responding appropriately to the climate emergency. That is my personal climate buzzkill; what’s yours?

But whether the climate emergency is a social buzzkill depends on who you talk to and who perceives Earth System heating and its catastrophic consequences as an existential threat, or not. Humans are creatures of habit and it takes a lot to get us to change our beliefs or our behavior. A social buzzkill is the collective first step toward recognizing that real climate action does not happen until a large number of people face the necessity of societal change. Doesn’t the term really mean, “Don’t bother me. I’m having too much fun to deal with your doom-saying!” To face the necessity of overcoming the buzz is what we collectively need.

Throughout the tenure of humans on planet Earth, we have had to deal with various risks to our safety and to our lives. The proverbial Saber-toothed Tiger could take us down for lunch. We learned to defend ourselves and also to hunt, but non-predatory beasts like buffalo, elk, and the like. Such work was well integrated into a package of survival techniques and practices, which did not change much over long periods of time. Our skills became habits, resistant to change. We expanded them greatly with the technologies of industrialism. Only recently have the conditions of life on Earth radically changed.

Now, claims of imminent climate catastrophe, produced by scientists whose work many don’t really understand, result in recommendations that we transform our entire economy and the way we live, including our own occupations and professions. To many it sounds a bit like, “The sky is falling!” The response is often something like, “Don’t Look UP!”

Looking Up is a Buzzkill, but Extinction Kills Us All

The geo-scientists have determined that the Holocene geological epoch lasted over eleven thousand years. Some say we are at its end. We know of no other Earth System epoch with which to compare our mostly pleasant environment. But wait for the Anthropocene; well, no, it is already upon us and we have begun to feel the chaos it brings.

We call it that because the evidence is clear that human behavior writ large is the most important factor now determining the changing conditions that threaten our survival and are rapidly deteriorating as a result of the accelerating energy consumption and waste by industrial civilization. It is really a buzzkill when Earth-system scientists, ecologists, and climate scientists, work long hours to analyze huge amounts of data, check and recheck their work, and present their research findings to the public, only to find themselves accused of fraud, fakery, and conspiracy to deceive us.

The Irony of Indifference to Impending Tipping Points

Complex living systems that operate over significant amounts of time are quite resilient. They have internal subsystems that act as checks and balances assuring ongoing stability, unless something seriously intervenes, causing a disturbance big enough to constitute a threat to the whole system. Once the disturbance does enough damage to throw off the balance between self-amplifying and dampening feedback loops, the consequent breakdown in a damaged subsystem can spill over to adjacent subsystems and cascade into total system failure.

As I have come to see it after a couple of decades researching the increasingly volatile disturbances in the Earth System–itself a complex living system–and in the political, economic, and social systems that comprise the complex globalized political economy of growth, we are rapidly approaching a condition of global destabilization leading to total collapse.

Buzzkill, you say? Now, that is an understatement if ever there was one. Our response should be the exact opposite of “Don’t bother me; I’m having too much fun.” An extreme explosion of disturbances in multiple dimensions now confronts us, which only extreme coordinated collective human intervention can have a hope to set right. The only buzz we will have a chance to muster is the one that results from magnificent achievement in the face of terrible odds—if we have the collective will to do what must be done. If that buzz is killed, it will be entirely on us.


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