“You know what this country is?” she said. “This country is a man trying to describe a burning building without using the word fire.”
— Omar El Akkad, Riverbed
“You were born for this resistance, for this preparation, for this life. You were born to fight.”
— Maria Dahvana Headley, Read After Burning
I listen to a lot of very heavy Doom Metal music, and let me tell you — it feels a lot more hopeful than what our most insightful climate writers have to say right now.
The mood is grim, folks. They fear the game of life is up.
But there is one thing that unites these apostles of doom. At the end of an uncompromising song on YOB’s deeply emotional new album, Our Raw Heart, the lead singer screams, “There is nothing else, this is all there is, there is nothing else, this is all there is,” over and over again.
In other words, no one is coming to save you. Or your kids and grandkids. Or the planet. We are the generation that must save ourselves and our world. That’s our climate emergency in a nutshell. And that is actually the good news.
Now for the bad news.
He continues with writing that is almost too elegant for the brutality of his subject matter.
“The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed… that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true.”
I can’t quote the entire book here, but you get the picture.
Bill McKibben, whose perspective on climate change has been honed over decades of unrelenting activism and scholarship, expresses a similar sense of terror and exasperation in Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out:
“Put simply, between ecological destruction and technological hubris, the human experiment is now in question…And — to kvetch and whine a little further — because of the way power and wealth are currently distributed on our planet, I think we’re uniquely ill-prepared to cope with the emerging challenges. So far, we’re not coping with them.”
Read together, Falter and The Uninhabitable Earth take us from warnings about climate change into the unfolding climate emergency that is already upon us.
“This is what is meant when climate change is called an ‘existential crisis,’” Wallace-Wells explains, “a drama we are now haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at the scale of twenty-five Holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.”
Now that’s grim.
Doom Metal doesn’t even approach this level of existential darkness.
Both books lay out our climate emergency’s primary elements: water, fire, heat, and wind, and the devastating interactions between them, the consequences of which we are just starting to understand.
But wait, that’s not even the worst news.
McKibben does a masterful job shedding light on the corporate-conservative Radical Right conspiracy that captured government and has stymied public efforts to address the climate emergency in the United States. He digs deep into the ideological framework of the Western white male elites that found comfort and safe harbor in the hyper-individualism of Ayn Rand.
McKibben traces “the most consequential lie in human history:” Exxon’s efforts to “emphasize the uncertainty” in the scientific data about climate change to undercut Dr. James Hansen’s Congressional testimony on global warming in 1988.
“Within a year, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, and others had joined together to form what they called the Global Climate Coalition, to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate on climate change…Bush’s pollster, Frank Luntz, further emphasized this point: ‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.’”
Yes, the really, really bad news from these authors is that the crisis we are in was preventable. We had the science, and enough time to address the crisis. But the Radical Right’s seizure of power prevented action then, and they continue to push us to the brink of extinction. McKibben nails it:
“What is certain is that this disinformation campaign cost us the human generation that might have made the crucial difference in the climate fight…So: global warming is the ultimate problem for oil companies because oil causes it, and it’s the ultimate problem for government haters because without government intervention, you can’t solve it.”
Big corporations decided in the early 1970s they needed to pursue a much clearer path to governing power, not just maximizing profits, thanks to a memo from Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They organized down the pathways of deregulation, privatization, money in politics and attacks on us (workers, people of color, indigenous people, women, poor people, immigrants, refugees, asylees). They captured government and its rule-making and regulatory apparatus to remove any and all limits on their desire to profit from extractive industries.
We cannot underestimate the centrality of racist panic and white supremacy to the Radical Right in winning and maintaining governing power. Wallace-Wells explains, “Beginning in 2011, about one million Syrian refugees were unleashed on Europe by a civil war inflamed by climate change and drought — and in a very real sense, much of the “populist moment” the entire West is passing through now is the result of panic produced by the shock of those migrants.”
Let’s be super clear. The climate emergency was born of genocide, slavery, colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. The stolen wealth of fossil-fuel capitalism has been twice paid by slaves, low wage workers and the Earth through labor and resource extraction and now climate change. As the climate emergency escalates, the Radical Right is moving from climate change denial or obfuscation to outright xenophobia and racism to maintain its hold on the levers of power.
The climate induced refugee crisis is a through-line from Syria to Guatemala, and one that is only beginning. “The U.N. projections are bleaker: 200 million climate refugees by 2050….The high end of what’s possible in the next thirty years, the United Nations says, is considerably worse: “a billion or more vulnerable poor people with little choice but to fight or flee.” A billion or more.”
What, then, should we do? To Wallace-Wells, the only possible solution is unconditional solidarity, on an unprecedented scale. “If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation,” he says, “climate change would be it — the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total.”
McKibben, too, attempts to turn the corner toward hope and solutions: in Greta Thurnberg’s school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal, McKibben finds hope in the new energy of young people organized in nonviolent movements, and urges us to join and follow them.
The big solution McKibben offers is solar power, and the massive job-creating and hope-filled undertaking to move away from fossil fuels and other drivers of climate change toward renewable energy that benefits the Global South and people on the frontlines of climate and energy crises.
Wallace-Wells takes a different approach to solutions, largely by not landing on a single one. He says:
“There will be those, as there are now, who fight as unrelenting activists, with approaches as diverse as federal lawsuits and aggressive legislation and small-scale protests of new pipelines; nonviolent resistance; and civil-rights crusades. And there will be those, as there are now, who see the cascading suffering and fall back into an inconsolable despair. There will be those, as there are now, who insist that there is only one way to respond to the unfolding ecological catastrophe — one productive way, one responsible way. Presumably, it won’t be only one way.”
Neither Wallace-Wells nor McKibben perfectly nail the landing. Wallace-Wells oscillates between cynicism and cautious hope, and McKibben laments, “I do not know that we will make these choices. I rather suspect we won’t — we are faltering now, and the human game has indeed begun to play itself out.”
You could read these books and easily feel crushed by despair you could be energized by the responsibility for our generation to get this right.
I took a break between reading these two books to recharge my own batteries, and see if today’s best speculative fiction writers could imagine us into a better future.
Both Wallace-Wells and McKibben reference the growing genre of climate science fiction, or “cli-fi, ” which features prominently in A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers, a new volume edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams.
As a fan of this genre, I found myself revived by what McKibben calls “the flow” of inspiration when reading what these authors propose about what could be, if we are bold enough to re-imagine the future.
LaValle and Adams put forward a bold call: “We are seeking stories that explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice: narratives that release us from the chokehold of the history and mythology of the past…and writing that gives us new futures to believe in.”
Two common themes strike me in the work of these twenty-five authors. First, there is no escaping the apocalypse that is already upon us — the climate catastrophes Wallace-Wells and McKibben survey grimly.
It appears that even if you can paint the future, you can’t escape the present.
But the second theme is more optimistic: with imagination we just might rise to the challenges of survival, healing, reparations, and repair, even now.
The magical thinking in O.1 by Gabby Rivera is liberating, even though she tells the harrowing story of the first birth after a genocidal climate catastrophe. Rivera reminds us that sometimes you just have to let yourself dream.
IMBALANCE decimated 40 percent of Earth’s population, hitting the 1 percent first and devouring the rest of the world one consumer at a time. Never in the collective imagination could we, humans, have prepared for a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed. It destroyed the lives we’d known and effectively neutered us. IMBALANCE is the reason my folks got pregnant. You should know that part. The sentient bacterium, birthed of Mother Earth, evolved enough times to affect reproduction forever. As it sought out greed and excess, the bacterium learned to affect life and only allow it to bloom where there was compassion, empathy, and real love between peoples.
What if solving the climate emergency was not just up to humans (though we certainly created it)? That future is imagined in the more light-hearted Good News Bad News by Charles Yu.
Early talks have been fruitful, most likely due to the presence at the summit of the G200’s newest members: delegates from Kingdom Plantae, the world’s first nation-state of sentient trees. Trees are demanding major changes in the relations between flora and fauna. “We’ve long been silent in the face of unspeakable acts. Deforestation. Clear-cutting. Toxins in the soil,” said Eondo’or, an eighty-foot, six-hundred-year-old redwood and senior representative to the U.N. for Kingdom Plantae. “Not to mention getting peed on by drunk people.” “Here’s the thing,” Eondo’or added. “We definitely outnumber you. Also, you need us for food, shelter. Also carbon removal,” he said. “Also oxygen.”
It may come to the reality that Merc Fenn Wolfmoor imagines in Our Aim Is Not to Die, but even then hope rises.
It begins with one person, a stick figure, who holds up a sign in front of a courthouse. DON’T TAKE OUR RIGHTS AWAY, says the sign. The person is arrested. Two more people take their place. They too are arrested. More people arrive, holding signs. Some also are holding phones. From the phones flows a datastream: ones and zeroes forming arrows. The code slips into the courthouse. Police arrive and shoot the people with signs. Still more people come, holding up phones. PURGE displays on the screens… It sweeps them offscreen and then becomes a bridge, connected from the feet of the people to two words in the distance: OUR FUTURE.
In Read After Burning, Maria Dahvana Headley shares a magical story of resistance and memory as people struggle to hold their histories in the face of oppression.
“This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.”
All is not lost, these brilliant visions suggest, even if our climate catastrophe feels insurmountable. The human spirit has not perished. Whenever the path forward is not clear and we lack inspiration, we should stop and listen to the voices of and stories of women, people of color, Indigenous People, workers, non-binary people, young people, and the people who have paid for the climate emergency coming and going. They can still imagine our future. Let’s all do this together now.
Remember, we were born for this fight.
This article was first published in Social Policy Magazine’s Summer 2019 issue. Please join me in subscribing to this vital publication about economic and social justice.