On the Precipice
The Collective Asteroid of Human History
By Tom Engelhardt
Worlds end. Every day. We all die sooner or later. When you get to my age, it’s a subject that can’t help but be on your mind.
What’s unusual is this: it’s not just increasingly ancient folks like me who should be thinking such thoughts anymore. After all, worlds of a far larger sort end, too. It’s happened before. Ask the dinosaurs after that asteroid hit the Yucatán. Ask the life forms of the Permian era after what may have been the greatest volcanic uproar the planet ever experienced.
According to a recent U.N. global assessment report, up to one million (that’s 1,000,000!) species are now in danger of extinction, thanks largely to human actions. It’s part of what’s come to be called “the sixth extinction,” a term that makes the point all too clearly. Except in our ability to grasp (or avoid grasping) our seeming determination to wipe away this version of the world, we’re in good company. Five great moments of obliteration preceded us on Planet Earth.
And by the way, that impressive figure for endangered species should probably be upgraded to at least one million and one (1,000,001!). As anthropologist Richard Leakey said years ago, “Homo Sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.” In other words, it’s evidently not enough for us to turn ourselves into the modern equivalent of the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs, ending the Cretaceous period. It looks as if, in some future that seems ever closer, we might be our own asteroid, the one that will collapse human civilization as we’ve known it.
Planet on Fire
While there are deep mysteries in our present situation, its existence is — or at least should be — anything but a mystery. It’s not even news. After all, in 1965, more than half a century ago, a science advisory committee reported to President Lyndon Johnson with remarkable accuracy on the coming climate crisis. That analysis was based on the previous two centuries in which we humans had been burning fossil fuels in an ever more profligate manner to fashion and develop our way of life on, and command of, this planet. As one of those scientists told Bill Moyers, Johnson’s special assistant coordinating domestic policy, humanity had launched a “‘vast geophysical experiment.’ We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.”
In the process, we would put ever more carbon emissions into the atmosphere and so change the very nature of the planet we were living on. Ignored at the time by a president soon to be swept away by an American war in Vietnam, that report would offer remarkably accurate predictions about how those greenhouse gas emissions would change our twenty-first-century world. A small footnote here: since 1990 — stop a second to take this in — humanity has burned approximately half of all the fossil fuels it’s ever consumed. As my father used to say to me, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” And by the way, in the age of Donald Trump, U.S. carbon emissions are once again surging (as they are globally as well).
By now, it should be clear enough that this planet is in crisis. That reality may finally be sinking in somewhat here, as CNN’s recent seven-hour climate-change town hall for Democratic presidential candidates suggested (even after the Democratic National Committee rejected the idea of a televised debate on the subject). And yet this crisis continues to prove a surprisingly hard one for humanity to get its head(s) fully around.
And that’s no less true of the mainstream media. A Public Citizen report, for instance, recently offered a snapshot of the then-nonstop coverage of Dorian, the monster Category 5 hurricane that, at one point, had wind gusts up to 220 miles an hour and obliterated parts of the Bahamas before moving on to the U.S. Even though the storm’s intensified behavior fit the expectations of climate scientists to a T, the report found that “climate [change] or global warming was mentioned in just 7.2% of the 167 pieces on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox.” In the 32 newspapers Public Citizen followed that were covering the storm, “of 363 articles about Dorian…, just nine (2.5%) mentioned climate change.” And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that Fox News went out of its way to denigrate the very idea that there might be a connection between Dorian’s ferocity and the warming of the planet.
One reason awareness of the crisis has sunk in so slowly is obvious enough. Climate change has not been happening in human time; it hasn’t, that is, been taking place in the normal context of history on a timescale that would make it easier for us to grasp how crucial it will prove to be to our everyday lives and those of our children and grandchildren. It’s operating instead on what might be thought of as planetary time. In other words, autocrats or, in the case of our president, potential ones, come and go; their sons take over (or don’t); a revolt topples the autocracy only to turn sour itself; and so it goes in human history. However disturbing such events may be, they are also of our moment and so familiarly graspable.
The climate crisis, however, has been taking place on another timescale entirely and the planet that it’s changing will assumedly feel global warming’s version of autocracy not for a few years, or even a century to come, but potentially for thousands or tens of thousands of years. The results could dwarf what we’ve always known as “history.”
Given the immediacy of our lives and concerns, getting us to focus on predicted events decades or even a century away remains problematic at best. If, as predicted, by 2100 the North China Plain, with its tens of millions of people, becomes partially uninhabitable or Shanghai is drowned thanks to rising sea levels, that’s beyond horrific, but hard to focus on when you’re a government or a people plunged into an immediate trade war with the globe’s other great power; hard to react to when the needs of today and tomorrow, this year and next, seem so pressing, and when you’re still exporting hundreds of coal-fired power plants to other parts of the world.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s been so difficult for most of us to respond to the climate crisis over these last decades when its effects, while noticeable enough if you’re looking for them, hadn’t yet impinged in obvious ways on most of our lives. It seemed to matter little that what was being prepared for delivery might be the collective asteroid of human history.
Consider this the ultimate sign of how difficult it’s been to take in a crisis that, in its magnitude and span, seems to mock the human version of time: in these years, vast numbers of people haven’t hesitated to elect (or support) a crew of pyromaniacs as their leaders. From the U.S. to Brazil, Poland to Australia, Russia to Saudi Arabia, coming to power in these years across significant parts of the planet are men — and they are men — who seem intent on ignoring or rejecting the very idea that we are altering the planet’s climate at a rapid rate. They have, in fact, generally been strikingly transparent in their blunt urge not just to overlook the climate crisis, but to actually increase its intensity through the greater use of fossil fuels, while often trying to deep-six or ignore alternative forms of energy.
In other words, blind to our future fate and that of our children and grandchildren, humanity has been installing in power leaders who are the literal raw material for ensuring that the collective asteroid of human history will indeed be delivered. In an ongoing gesture of self-destruction, humanity has been tapping what might be thought of as Pyromaniacs, Incorporated, to run the world.
The Greatest Crime of All
All that may be changing, however, for an obvious reason — even if the first sign of that change couldn’t have been more modest or less Trumpian: a 15-year-old Swedish girl who, in 2018, began skipping school, Friday after Friday, to perch on the steps of the Swedish parliament building, holding a handmade banner (“school strike for climate”). Not even her parents initially encouraged her “Fridays for Future” protest against what this planet’s adults were visibly doing: stealing her generation’s future. In the end, Greta Thunberg would unexpectedly spark a movement of the young, increasingly aware that their future was in peril, that, in various forms, spread (and is still spreading) across the planet. It may prove to be the most hopeful movement of our times.
As it happened, Thunberg began that strike of hers at a crucial juncture, just at the edge of the moment when climate change would start to enter human time as a crisis in everyday life. In retrospect, we may come to see the summer of 2019 as a turning point in the reaction to that phenomenon. This summer, almost anywhere you lived, climate change seemed to be in view. The Brazilian Amazon was burning (as were similar rain forests in Africa and Indonesia); Alaska, too, was burning, its sea ice gone for the first time in history, its fire season extended by two months. Burning as well in record fashion were areas across much of the rest of the Far North, especially Siberia, where forests and peatlands sent vast plumes of smoke into space (while releasing startling amounts of carbon into the atmosphere); flooding hit the American Midwest in an unparalleled fashion, while record summer heat, drought, and an early fire season clobbered Australia; water scarcity struck areas of the planet in new ways, including Chennai, an Indian city of nine million that practically lost its water supply to drought; and Europe experienced three unprecedented heat waves, with temperatures soaring across the continent. Much of this seemed to be happening at a pace that exceeded the predictions of climate scientists. The government of Iceland held a “funeral” for the first glacier lost to global warming, while Greenland’s ice sheet experienced what may prove to be a record melt and sea ice continued to disappear at a startling clip in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The Arctic was already heating at double the rate of the rest of the planet, as was Canada. And don’t forget that, as the globe’s oceans continued to warm in a striking fashion, storms like Dorian were intensifying (and the numbers of weather-displaced people hitting record levels globally).
And so it went. We humans were no longer simply living with predictions about what might happen in 2030, 2050, 2100, or thereafter, about possibilities that, while grim, seemed far away when the endless crises of everyday life beckoned. We were suddenly in an increasingly overheated present, one visibly changing, visibly intensifying in ways we hadn’t previously experienced.
In the summer of 2019, from the tropics to the poles, we found ourselves, in short, on an already burning, melting planet and it showed, even in opinion polls in this country. An acceptance that climate change was actually happening and mattered was clearly growing. It would prove increasingly visible in the Democratic rollout for the 2020 election and even, as the New York Times reported, in the secret worries of Republican strategists that younger conservative voters, “who in their lifetimes haven’t seen a single month of colder-than-average temperatures globally, and who call climate change a top priority,” might in the future be alienated from the party.
In a remarkable recent article, Stephen Pyne, historian of fire, offered a vision of what’s happening as humans, a “keystone species for fire,” essentially toast the planet. Historically speaking, as he points out, the crucial development was that, with the industrial revolution, humans turned
“from burning living landscapes to burning lithic ones in the form of fossil fuels. That is the Big Burn of today, acting as a performance enhancer on all aspects of fire’s global presence. So vast is the magnitude of these changes that we might rightly speak of a coming Fire Age equivalent in stature to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. Call it the Pyrocene.”
And if, from Paradise, California, to Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, we have indeed already entered the Pyrocene Age, expect the pyres only to grow. After all, the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is almost literally setting fire to the Amazon rain forest (a job that human arsonists may have started, but that those forests could self-destructively end all on their own). Similarly, in the U.S., the Trump administration has been reversing climate-change-related rules or regulations of every sort, trying to open ever more American landscapes to oil and natural gas drilling, and working to ensure that yet more methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere. And that’s just to begin a list of such horrors.
Keep in mind as well that the brutal summer of 2019 is guaranteed to prove anything but “the new normal.” In fact, there can be no new normal as long as those greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere. Admittedly, we humans are a notoriously clever species. Who could doubt that, if we ever truly mobilized, launching the equivalent of World War II’s Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb — the other way we’ve found to asteroid ourselves to death — something might indeed happen? Various methods might be found to deal with or sequester carbon emissions, while far more effort might be put into developing non-carbon-emitting forms of energy.
In the meantime, from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to the CEOs of all those fossil-fuel companies, we’re still left with the pyromaniacs largely in charge. If they have their way, they will undoubtedly take their pleasures and profits and not give a damn about turning much of this world into an oven for the Greta Thunbergs of the future.
Think of this as a planet on the precipice. If Pyromaniacs, Inc., succeeds, if the arsonists are truly able to persevere, there will have been no crime like this in history, none at all.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt