The climate crisis’ stakes and why I don’t mind so much
How many of you read the Freshman Reading Program book this summer, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert?” (A smattering of hands tentatively go up.) “Well, that’s a start.”
How many of you actually care? (Nobody moves.)
Welcome, class, to a dying world. Let me tell you two reasons why you should give up. And then let me tell you one reason why you shouldn’t.
To begin, the world is not worth its perceived salt. The world is saltless. We believe in progress. We invent things that are better and better at organizing our time and making our work efficient so we can do more things and occupy every moment of our time with some social, financial or metaphysical productivity.
We believe in capitalism. We believe that it is okay for McDonalds to have a store in every square mile in the United States because, well, supply and demand. Because people want McDonalds.
We believe in the power of knowledge. We believe that the faux-progressive mindsets of a majority population of a tiny number of top American universities has the ability to triumph over the irrelevant zeitgeist of the masses, and thus, figure out what is best and most practicable for those masses.
Unfortunately, class, that’s only number one. Judge for yourself whether it bodes better or worse than the following. The world, for us (humans), will end. It will end really, really soon. Those of you who read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book understand that it is almost impossible, even with a great amount of political and economic will, to prevent the oncoming disastrous climate change.
Those of you who picked up the supplementary and more intellectually satisfying “Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright understand that the human race is not wired for that kind of collective, or even individual, will and long-term thinking. At best, we will wait until the effects of climate change have killed more than one half of us, until we personally see those deaths and until it is tangible and unescapable in our minds that we, too, will die. At that point, we will struggle, a last, suddenly hopeful remnant of the human race beating off unliveable conditions with our advanced technology until a freak and vast shift wipes out the final ones of us.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Again, none of you will have to face this, fully and undeniably, until much later. And it might not even be you personally who has to face it. You may well be dead by that time. But am I trying to tell you to lose hope? No, class, I am not. You can be sure that if I were trying to tell you that, I would not be here right now. I would not, in fact, be.
The same reason I have not cast myself into the lovely Grand Canyon is the same reason that none of you ought despair. We will all die. There are good and bad things about life. Life is extremely difficult. Life is full of negativity, full of personal and social hurt. But life is also full of beauty and, potentially, meaning. Each life leaves its mark on the immutable map of time.
So, too, will the species we have called Homo sapiens die. We appreciate the human race more than our own lives. Its destruction scares us more than our own. But its destruction is at this point, like our own, inevitable. There are terrible things about humans. They ravage, obliterate and kill each other and other things. But they have also created so much that is good. (“But isn’t the concept ‘good’ itself a human invention?”) That’s right, Tim. Humans even introduced “value” to the world.
Ronald Wright nears the end of his history of progress with a revealing sentence: “…the number in abject poverty today is as great as all mankind in 1901.” He, here, tries to shock us. But in my estimation, he succeeds only in bringing up the ambiguity of our own value judgments about the human race. Is it better, you should be wondering, to have a smaller human race and less suffering, but also less progress? Or is it better to have so much more humanity and happiness in the world, but for such a larger percentage of it to be miserable?
I sense I’m losing you, class. Please bear with me. I only ask, if we go on forever, and produce more and more happiness, and produce more and more misery, what more has the universe gained? I feel that humans have proved their point. They have given to the universe what they had to give.
(A hand goes up.) Yes, Rachel. (“It’s time to go, Mr. Sweeney.”) That’s right, Rachel. It’s quitting time. And to be truthful, I don’t find doomsday so upsetting.