Dealing with Near Term Extinction

This has been a difficult post to write. I write mainly for my friends and my children, so I don’t have many pretensions. I try to make things clear, and get to the root of things. In that sense I am radical. My children cut me some slack, so if you, reader, are neither my friend or my child, please read this and hear what I am trying to say with that same attitude of forbearance for my foibles.

I read recently Daniel Drumright’s The irreconcilable acceptance of near-term extinction which presents an series of reflections of mostly a philosophical nature to “near term extinction” – which is the realization that we are likely to live to see the end of civilization as we know it. As a matter of fact I was referred to Drumright’s article through Carolyn Baker’s blog and was intrigued by her presentation of uplifting possible responses that we can unfold to this horrific fact. There are several modes to my thinking about this which I will try to unpack here.

Drumright begins by assuming that you agree with his premise – that near term extinction or NTE as he calls it – is very likely, or even fact.

This essay is written in acceptance that humanity has now crossed numerous irreversible climatic thresholds. It is also written from the perspective that by so doing, we have ushered in intractable near term extinction (NTE) of most of life within the next several decades. (If nature fails to bat last, nuclear containment pool fallout from grid collapse surely will.)

I have absolutely no interest in attempting to persuade anyone of this conjecture being either true or false. No one should allow themselves to be persuaded by anyone regarding this subject matter. The decision to accept this, is ours and ours alone… The available evidence is easily accessible, the writing on the wall doesn’t need to be deciphered. The theory of runaway climate change has been around for decades, and now the whole world is able to watch this catastrophe unfold in real-time. But this by no means implies the world is watching.

And whether you agree or not with the premise will affect whether or not you can grok what follows. However I will add a few comments on the “thresholds” that we have collectively crossed.

Feedback loops

These thresholds are initiating actions which trigger positive feedback loops in the environment. These are now taking hold. The meaning of positive in “positive feedback loops” is not  “good.” The phrase comes from cybernetics and in the context of climate systems it means that they increase the variable that is the control. So in the case of warming the system tends to automatically create greater temperature deviation. Guy McPherson in his most recent (April 2014) update of his Climate Change Summary lists 33 loops. Among the most potentially explosive are (in my opinion):

  1. Arctic sea Methane releases
  2. Siberian Methane releases
  3. Peat decomposition
  4. Greenland ice darkening
  5. Greenland Ice melt
  6. Arctic Ice Melt
  7. Antarctic Ice melt
  8. Bog Fires
  9. Boreal Forest Fires
  10. Ocean Warming
  11. Ocean Acidification
  12. Plankton die-offs

Not to mention the fact that we have not stopped adding CO2 to the atmosphere by continued and accelerated burning of fossil fuels. As a result even if by some miracle we could stop carbon production within 10 years these feedback loops will continue to heat the environment at an accelerating pace for a long time. Much more time than we have. Some scientists see the possibility for 5o C warming by 2030. Not the end of this century, but in my lifetime and (I fear) yours. At that temperature the habitat for humans will become so shrunken that total human extinction within a short period is a real possibility.

The bankruptcy of politics and policies

All climate activism seeks to address this, to stop the juggernaut, to bend the curve of global warming. At the base it seeks to change climate policy. But, it is obvious that climate policies are bankrupt. There is no political will to pursue the hard strategies needed to move human civilization from a growth oriented political economy to a sustainable one.

In addition it is clear, as the Wired reports, the climate change opposition is well funded:

“…a network of 91 think tanks and industry groups are primarily responsible for conservative opposition to climate policy. Almost 80 percent of these groups are registered as charitable organisations for tax purposes, and collectively received more than seven billion dollars between 2003 and 2010.”

That’s a billion dollars a year spent forcing policy to support carbon intensive fossil fuel agendas. Regularly we see the carbon barons the Koch brothers supporting anti-sustainable regulatory moves such as reported in the LA Times:

They are funding a campaign to shackle solar energy consumers who have escaped the grip of big electric utilities.

Of all the pro-business, anti-government causes they have funded with their billions, this may be the most cynical and self-serving. On Sunday, a Los Angeles Times story by Evan Halper outlined the Koch’s latest scheme. Along with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, several major power companies and a national association representing conservative state legislators, the brothers are aiming to kill preferences for the burgeoning solar power industry that have been put into law in dozens of states. Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona are their first targets, with more to come…

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates….

[The] Kochs and the utilities claim solar’s success is a threat to the future of the power grid. If there are more and more households freeing themselves from total reliance on traditional power sources, there will be less money available to maintain the electricity delivery infrastructure.

They may have a valid point, but the problem could be addressed with modest adjustments to the system. That they have opted for an all-out war against key laws that promote alternative energy suggests the real motivation may be more crass: protecting the profits of the entrenched fossil fuels-based energy industry.

This is using their money to change state regulations to kill solar interconnect pricing that support house scale solar independence. While sometime conservatives rail against regulation they are not against setting up laws which profit themselves.

In the face of this and the unshackled political donations to candidates it is no wonder that we get politicians who are not keen on saving the planet, just on lining their pockets.

To anyone who is watching it is clear that climate change activism focused on climate policy will NOT stop the degradation. This is due to three facts which we should not ignore.

  1. Policies are made by politicians who can be bought
  2. The climate change opposition is extremely wealthy and well funded
  3. Laws are bent in favor of those who have the money

Difficulty of getting people to understand and act

David Roberts in Grist had a great article on “Why Climate Change Doesn’t Spark Moral Outrage” which explores the social psychological reasons for not (wanting to) acting on climate change. He summarizes an article in Nature Climate Change which gives six reasons for this anomaly:

1. Abstractness and cognitive complexity: Climate change is tough to understand. It “requires cold, cognitively demanding and ultimately relatively less motivating, moral reasoning.” People underestimate this. Very little that arrives in our worldview through a purely intellectual route ends up stirring the viscera.

2. The blamelessness of unintentional action: Nobody is heating the atmosphere on purpose. It is seen as an unintended side effect of other activities. And people treat intentional harms much more severely than they do unintentional harms. So “understanding climate change as an unintentional phenomenon with no single villain may decrease motivation to right past wrongs.”

3. Guilty bias: We’re all somewhat to blame for climate change. To avoid feeling guilt, shame, and regret over that, “individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimize perceptions of their own complicity,” especially when “individuals and communities feel incapable of meaningfully responding behaviourally.”

4. Uncertainty breeds wishful thinking: It’s not clear exactly how climate change will play out, and “uncertainty about future outcomes generally increases self-oriented behaviour and … promotes optimistic biases.” When scientists communicate the probabilistic nature of climate impacts (for instance, through analogies like “loading the climate dice”), “recent research shows that individuals often misinterpret the intended messages … and tend to do so over-optimistically.”

5. Moral tribalism: Messaging about climate has tended to focus on liberal values (harms and unfairness) and disregard conservative values (loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity). As a result, many conservatives “have been left not just uninvolved in action on climate change, but morally hostile to it.”

6. Long time horizons and far away places: Victims of climate change are viewed as far away in space or time. “The consequence of this spatial and temporal distance is that victims of climate change are likely to be seen, at best, as relatively less similar to oneself than are nearby contemporaries, and at worst, as out-group members.” Climate victims are seen as Other, and you know how we tend to treat the Other.

I summarized this recently on Facebook as:

I don’t understand it, I didn’t do anything wrong, it doesn’t concern me, the government/scientists/others will fix it so I don’t need to worry, Anyway it’s the concern of other people (not me) and won’t happen in my lifetime.

We have to deal with this attitude, not least within our own minds; but also in the responses that we continually get from others. I would like to look at a few of these and how they play out at least in my mind.

Complicity and guilt

Individually it is also hard to feel that we can do something ourselves. It is clear that we all, by participating in Western industrial capitalist civilization, are co-creators of the degeneration of the planet which is likely to kill us. I feel this very deeply. At some level in order to deal with this we have to come to some form of acceptance of our co-responsibility and transcendence of the guilt and potential for freezing our ability to respond in the present.


Of course one of the most classic responses to bad news is denial. At the outset one is facing a denial of death not only on the scale of my individual life, but on the scale of all of my family, all of my friends, all of the large terrestrial species, all fish in the sea.

One of the most classic is the survivalist denial. There are at least five levels of survivalist denials that I encounter in my discussions of this:

  1. Some things will fail to work but civilization will not change irrevocably;
  2. My country (The USA! Switzerland!) can survive the coming storm, other (lesser) countries will fail to mitigate the coming environmental disasters;
  3. My community can survive – I live in a place that can produce its own food, fresh plentiful well water, sustainable non-grid energy, not on a earthquake fault, not near a nuclear power plant (which will melt down), and there are enough people with skills to survive together;
  4. My family or children can survive, I have a bug out farm upstate, out-of-town, with provisions and we can survive.
  5. I can survive I’ve got my bug out bag and know which road to take on foot out of town when the SHTF.

Of these my favorite is number 3. It only depends on how badly the collapse will be. But a skillful communiyt has the best chance of survival.


Living, Loving, Dying in the real world

What is the way forward for those of us who like to live with our eyes and hearts open and yet have a sense that we may live to see not just our own deaths but the death of the Earth as we have known it? Carolyn Baker speaks of the “planetary hospice.” I like the idea within – to hold consciously to witnessing people as they die is the heart of the hospice movement. When one can help a person, often not by doing anything but by mere presence and being, to pass the thresholds of denial, anger and despair and to accept dying, then one can see the light in the soul of someone who is truly alive.

In the end all we have is love. As Guy McPherson puts it (better than I can):

Finally, more than a half-century into a largely unexamined life, I have come to love humanity and the living planet. The wisdom of Jimi Hendrix, [“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”] long hidden beneath the cultural programming one would expect in the backwoods, redneck logging town of my youth, nags at me.

The living planet and a decent human community sustain each of us, whether we realize it or not. Our years on this most wondrous of planets, regardless how numerous they are, are to be celebrated.

After all, we get to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. It means we get to live.

Our knowledge of DNA informs us that the odds against any one of us being here are greater than the odds against being a particular grain of sand on all the world’s beaches. Indeed, the odds are much greater than that: they exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.”

The privilege to be here, on this life-giving planet at this astonishing time in human history, is sufficient to inspire awe in the most uncaring of individuals. At this late juncture in the age of industry, at the dawn of our day on Earth, we still have love: love for each other, love for our children and grandchildren, love for nature. One could argue it is all we have left.

Those who pull the levers in this life-destroying culture care about power to a far greater extent than they care about love. This culture will not know peace. It is much too late for love to extend our run as a culture or a species — too late to employ the wisdom of Jimi Hendrix — but love surely offers redemption to individual humans.

Will we, as individuals, know peace? That’s up to us. I suggest most of us will know peace only when we find ourselves lying helpless in the broken arms of our doomed Earth.

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