Today it occurred to me for the first time that I might actually live to see the collapse of civilisation and the ‘End of the World’ as we know it: a eureka moment indeed.
To explain how I’ve reached this conclusion, I can best begin by going back thirty years or so to when I was in Space Policy and Law class at MIT. Among the policy exercises we used to do, there was one to find justifications for mankind to leave Earth and go out to colonise space and other planets. Scientific curiosity, the innate human urge to explore, and so as to obtain new raw materials and resources to help maintain economic growth were all taken to be valid reasons, but there was once which was completely taboo, and that was the need to escape from a failing ecosystem. Anyone in class who dared advance it was immediately subjected to an extreme moral backlash. The rationale for this was very simple – should mankind not be able to avoid fouling its own nest, then it immediately abdicated the right to leave it and go out and similarly destroy other worlds.
Thirty years on, it seems incredible that this should have been the case. Today, the Elon Musks amongst us cite escape as one of the most pressing reasons to get on with colonising the Moon or Mars and nobody demurs. That’s because sadly, they are right.
Back in the day, I cannot emphasise how strongly the taboo against this was espoused, by all the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Europeans in the class alike. In order to understand this, we can of course point to such landmarks as the publication, not long before, of Frank White’s influential book The Overview Effect, but mostly it is because the political climate was very different then. Thirty years or so ago we were tantalisingly close to getting global agreement on real action to address climate change (as the New York Times recently reminded us). The prize slipped through our fingers like sand and now the world is going to Hell in a handbasket – there’s going to be no going back.
In 2002, George W. Bush coined the term ‘Axis of Evil’ to pigeonhole certain rogue states whose perceived militarisation, aggression and penchant for global terrorism was a danger to the civilised world. In 2018, we might equally well identify an ‘Axis of Environmental Evil’ headed, it would seem by the United States and Brazil, for their current environmental policies are going to kill millions of people in peaceable nation-states around the world, just as surely as it was predicted Iraq and the Taliban would do. And just as was put forward by Bush in 2002, it is equally clear in 2018 that only the collective military intervention, this time of the environmentally responsible nations, is likely to put a stop to it. But this will never happen, for the military industrial complex of the US is too powerful and the resulting war would just trash the world another way.
One might equally despair of the vast energies of millions of activists frittered-away in recent decades on other issues, like equality and the rights of minorities. Strangers may castigate me mightily for so daring to say; those who know me, know I would fight until my last breath for true equality between people of every gender, race and sex, but if mankind does ever achieve that, it would really be quite nice to have a world left to enjoy it all in. I wonder where we might be today if all that colossal amount of effort had instead been directed towards saving the planet first. Hindsight is a terrible thing.
There now seems to be no good reason not to take even the most catastrophic of the climate change models currently in play as anything other than ludicrously optimistic. Why? Well for a start, they don’t take into account things like the United States rolling back all its environmental laws of the past few decades, nor of Brazil razing the rest of the Amazonian rain forest within a few years, both of which are happening already or going to happen. But the big thing, I think, is the effect of the huge methane releases that are going to come from melting permafrost. This is a relatively recent geophysical phenomenon which it has not yet been possible to accurately add to the models, and it’s huge. After that, all that is left is for the dreadful engines of positive feedback to administer the coup de grace.
Can anything save the world? Frankly I doubt it, but possibly, just possibly there could be some sea change, twenty or so years from now when Miami and Shanghai and dozens of other cities are already under water. One could not then completely rule out the technological ingenuity of the entire global military industrial complex being re-directed towards the construction of huge machines to purge the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, sequester and store carbon, re-freeze the permafrost and increase the Earth’s albedo, whilst the ordinary men and women of the planet labour to reverse desertification one plant at a time. What the timeframe for that is, and whether it’s possible to pull it off while keeping everyone fed and with a roof over their heads, who knows? One thing’s for sure, the elite of Elonville, living in the shadow of Olympus Mons, will be laughing.