As I write this, a storm of never-before-seen magnitude is pushing a thirteen-foot high surge of water into the New York area. Elsewhere, destructive winds are raging, inches of rain falling, blizzards setting in. Though as I sit here in my kitchen drinking coffee there’s no clear word about loss of life, damages and costs, it’s clear that this is one of the most serious weather disasters to impact North America in written history [indeed, since I wrote this it’s become clear that Sandy was the most destructive storm in American history, killing almost 100 people and destroying at least $50 billion in property]. It also seems clear that it is a harbinger of things to come on warming planet.
One of the more surreal aspects of following this superstorm from afar has been the combination of bewilderment and careful avoidance of the term “climate change” on the part of American news media. Of course, everyone is appalled at what may be happening to the people in the path of this storm, but many anchors, reporters and pundits seem at a loss to understand how such a storm could be happening, how it could so thoroughly confound expectations built on long experience of a certain kind of normalcy. But more so, there is an unbelievably uniform avoidance of discussing the strong likelihood that this storm’s ferocity has been increased by global warming we’ve already experienced, or that such storms (and a variety of other catastrophes) are likely to become more and more common as we continue to warm the planet.
I think this is because the implications of that connection are too unnerving for many people to acknowledge. To acknowledge that we are living in a world dangerously destabilized by our own way of life is something most Americans are not yet willing to do.
I wrote before about the need for planetary thinking and the difficulty of planetary thinking (especially as a task undertaken alone), but there’s still a third challenge here: the ways in which planetary thinking runs directly into the face of some of the most cherished beliefs we humans hold about the world and our place in it.
”Reality” as too many of us understand it is at odds with the facts and their implications. The surge of water rising through the streets of major American cities implies a breakdown of that reality. We are shocked and shaken, but still, in a very real way, we cannot allow ourselves to see truly.
The evidence is all around us: The world is not as we dreamed it to be for the last 150 years. This presents a cultural crisis, because most people have no other way of looking at what unfolds around them, having left behind our traditional ways of seeing when we went through industrialization. (And we have left the old ways behind, for the fundamental characteristic of those ways is their unity and holism; to be forced see through an industrial lens on the world is actually to never be able to look through traditional eyes again. This is a wound fundamentalisms of all sorts attempt to salve by re-insisting on the primacy of their traditions—an insistence that of course can only be made, only needs to be made, when those traditions are no longer unitary or all-encompassing, when they have lost their central claim to authority.)
And now, in the face of painful facts, we are losing the myths of industrialization in the same way, and being forced to step into a new world whose meaning is not at all clear to us. This is no small thing; indeed, it’s the kind of strain that rocks societies off their foundations.
So, what is this new reality into which we have stepped? First and foremost, it is a place of limits, in which we must recognize that the planet is fundamentally singular, ﬁnite and balanced.
For 500 years the idea that a new world of some sort—the Americas, the frontier, the colonial jungle or the Moon—was waiting for us to conquer and tame it has been a central myth in our pantheon. But the world we face now is singular: There is no “new” world left to settle, no place on Earth that’s untouched, unclaimed, unencumbered by history; and, though we’ll come back to this point, no place off-Earth, either.
It is ﬁnite because what’s here is all there is. We know this now, but we have not absorbed it yet. We have not yet begun to think in truly modern terms about our situation, which is this: We already have everything we will ever have, at least for the meaningfully imaginable future. What you see is what you get. Oh sure, we can perhaps add some inputs to the Earth’s systems, by capturing stray asteroids, for instance, exploring yet-unseen sources of nuclear energy or developing nanotechnologies that might transmute common elements to rarer ones. But these and other similar cornucopian dreams share two common characteristics: It’s not clear they’re actually feasible, and it doesn’t look like they’d change anything at large enough scales to redeﬁne earthly limits. So far, at a planetary scale, they change nothing of any importance.
Finally, this new reality is balanced. The systems on which humanity depends are themselves a web of interconnected systems, with complex relationships and non-intuitive processes of change. What the ﬁrst generations of modern scientiﬁc and industrial thinkers made out to be a planet of pure mechanism, a clockwork world, is instead, in effect, a living community. And while we will one day (I hope) come to understand its workings in detail, right now our grasp of those systems is still rudimentary and our ability to mimic them primitive.
All human civilization exists within a very narrow range of hardiness. The balances that were in place when civilization arose are the balances upon which our systems depend; it’s not entirely clear that those systems can continue to exist in a world where balances have been disturbed and settled into a different order. Our smartest plan by far is to preserve, as far as possible, the balances we inherited. At a planetary scale, the central ideas of the Industrial Era simply don’t match reality.
That means that almost every system developed within that mindset now fails to connect to reality as we now understand it, as well. We’re talking about bedrock beliefs of our political economy: that growth driven by greater and greater extraction, production and consumption will over time alleviate poverty worldwide; that consumerism can produce ever-rising amounts of happiness as personal material prosperity increases generation after generation; that getting rich (by whatever means) now will allow us the power to restructure natural systems later to produce a sustainable civilization. The belief most divorced from reality is the one we believe most deeply: that we can meet every crisis created by industrialization with more of the same brute force industrialization.
How we build our cities and suburbs, how we manufacture and sell our goods, how we grow food and harvest resources, how we debate long-term problems, how we educate our children, how we structure our civic life, how we describe the destinations towards which humanity itself might be moving—all of the old ways of doing things are being washed away by a ﬂood of new insights. The problem is, most of us living within these systems don’t know that yet. Most of us can’t even see the ﬂood, or realize how fast its waters are rising.
We are exceeding the limits of the planet’s systems, and that, in turn, is destabilizing the balance of earthly systems on which our very lives depend. When we say something is “unsustainable,” this is what we mean: that continuing to do it degrades natural systems and unsettles the balance between them. This often has incremental, increasingly dangerous results. But in practice, unsustainability means something more: it means we are moving towards tipping points.
We know that the systems and the balances between them that we wish to preserve, if pushed far enough, can change suddenly. A redwood forest ecosystem can remain a redwood forest ecosystem, however bedraggled, through a set of increasingly unsustainable clearcuts, human-intensiﬁed wildﬁres, new roads and monocropped plantation trees, but, at a certain point, it will tip over into a state so perturbed that it becomes something very different, like scrubland or a meadow. Even the cycles of nature can tilt if we smack them hard enough.
And what’s true for individual ecosystems is even more true for the largest planetary systems that weave those ecosystems, along with climate and ocean chemistry and other processes, into the planet whose whole we live within. Indeed, one of the scariest possibilities facing humanity— on a level with all-out nuclear war or being hit by a planet-killing comet—is that our greenhouse gasses will “tip” the climate into a state where warming generates ever more warming. Dry, pest-weakened forests burning and spewing formerly trapped carbon into the atmosphere; permafrost melting and releasing trapped methane; natural processes that once absorbed CO2 out of the atmosphere breaking down—all could lead to a runaway greenhouse effect, producing a planet that would be extremely inhospitable to people, and perhaps even to all terrestrial life, for millions of years. Avoiding that fate is something we should be prepared to do “literally at all costs” as the climate scientist Kevin Anderson reminds us, because the damage such a catastrophe would do would cost more than all of human civilization is now worth.
Our challenge, in other words, is getting harder all the time. The blunt reality is that the longer we postpone change, the larger and quicker that change needs to be. This creates a “timing gap”—the expectations that we had 40, 20, or even 10 years ago about the kinds of changes we need are already out of date. Plans made based on those expectations are now usually insufﬁcient in scope, scale and speed. Sometimes they are actually harmful, given the realities we face.
Many of the limits we face are absolute, in the sense that our damage is cumulative, not comparative. We have only so much ﬂexibility in the climate system, for example, so what matters is the total accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, not the rate at which we emit them. Further, we are depleting these systems as we go, meaning we are actually narrowing the limits within which we have to work. Once-resilient systems can take less and less variation before collapsing. A ﬁshery that once could have recovered through moderate catch reductions needs, instead, active restoration and a complete hiatus from use. Many systems are like this; since the planet is a system of systems, every system we deplete further limits our scope of action.
We have already postponed change for decades too long; with every year, the nature of the changes we’re about to go through morphs, accelerates, becomes even less familiar.
For example, the rate at which we need to reduce our carbon emissions in order to stop atmospheric accumulation at, say, 450 ppm is far more drastic now than it would have been 20 years ago. Because we have waited so long, the kinds of changes we now need are not adjusted versions of our current systems, but our current systems remade or replaced to work in fundamentally different ways.
Every day, the rift between the world we must make and the world we have made yawns larger. Those just grasping the difference often experience a profound psychological dislocation, a sort of “planet shock.”
We have no choice but to face the future together with a world full of planet-shocked people. Which means planetary thinking must be able to respond to the profound disorientation it creates—we need new ways to understand and reorient our political systems, our cultures as peoples, our natures as human beings. It is impossible now to separate the natural and the human (if it ever was possible). We must learn to see them both at once, to understand them as dual entities that endlessly inﬂuence one another.
Which obliges us to come to know ourselves in new ways. We people do mysterious things. We are, ourselves, mysteries. I do not believe we will fathom those mysteries soon, or perhaps for centuries to come. But we do not need to fathom every mystery to get a sense of its workings. Indeed, we regularly work with aspects of ourselves we do not fully understand— through the arts, literature, spirituality, ritual, politics and all the intangible skills we have inherited and created. These human skills mean more to our task of survival, ultimately, than all the formidable science and technology at our disposal— indeed, it is the acknowledgement of ourselves as full, complex, mysterious beings whose systems often operate in ways that are still beyond quantiﬁcation that I believe will bring science and technology into their full maturity.
All these human systems are built from the accumulated experience and insight of a thousand or more generations our ancestors. This is an enormous strength, and, in totality, humanity’s greatest treasure. But those insights are never perfect or everlasting. They are products of their times, of the eyes through which our ancestors saw their worlds. They are, to use the academic word, contingent. And vanishingly few of our ancestors understood well the planetary realties we face.
This means that everything we understand about “how things are” needs to be tested against new realities. Many of our beliefs will need to be replaced with something new. We will not remain unchanged while everything around us changes. To engage in planetary thinking must be, at some basic level, to expect to co-evolve with new versions of human culture. It must be to know that the ways we feel about the world around us are no more permanent than our coal plants, coal ﬁelds or mega-highways, and our hearts will change as we leave the past behind. Planetary thinking must mean not only to think new things, but to feel new ways.
For this project, we must be ready not only to learn in public but to imagine in public as well. That will require of us the courage to interrogate the dreams we now inhabit, to delve into their origins and peer beyond their veils. It will require the vulnerability of opening ourselves to that we have not yet imagined, but must.
The waters rise already, and the storm is not yet here.