Guest post: This time it’s global

Originally a comment by Your Name’s not Bruce? on The climate has no pronouns.

Yes, the climate disaster is here, and it is going to get worse, especially for people who aren’t lucky enough to make it to rich Western countries. Some smart dude has a couple of posts about how it isn’t going to be end-of-civilisation bad which have caused me to re-think my own position slightly from “humans will probably go extinct in the next thousand years” to “billions of people will remain a permanent underclass while a small percentage of the species explores and colonises space”.

I’m just thinking out loud here, too.

I think humans as a species are tough and resilient; it’s civilization that is fragile. For the forseeable future, as long as Earth remains to any degree habitable, humans are going to be inhabiting it, albeit in far smaller numbers, as iknklast noted. Supporting billions of people requires civilization, and if that collapses, then you can’t feed billions of people, so there won’t be billions of people, “underclass” or no. The surviviors of such a collapse will be those who are able to exist within the limits of natural, living systems rather than artificial, industrial ones. The West’s dependence on a small number of industrialized monocultures requiring massive inputs of industrialized chemicals and machinery for planting, growth, and harvesting is a weak point, not a strength. The few human communities which have managed to remain unentangled with and dependent upon modern civilization may have a better chance of survival if they can adapt their lifeways to the changing world around them.

As temperatures rise, climate zones and biomes will tend to shift northward. If they can. Not all of the things that make up a given biome can just get up and trek north. Like soil. There will be massive disruption. Some species and combinations thereof will be squeezed out as they run out of “north” to go, or leave conditions upon which they’d depended behind them. This will be as true for human agriculture as it is for natural ecosystems. The Canadian Shield is not noted for its crop-ready acreage.

Life on Earth is actually pretty resilient, too, if not particular species and ecosystems. We are disrupting the current configuration of plants, animals and climate, but we are not destroying the foundations for life itself. A new balance will emerge, but not necessarily on a timescale convenient for human lifespans, or conducive to human civilization, but life will go on, with or without us. As for putting our hopes on space for continued human survival, even a post-nuclear-holocaust, post-climate-change world will be far more hospitable to life than anywhere in the solar system we can get to or build. Any space colony will always be a few critical technical failures away from extinction.

But it seems…funny, to me, how so many people in the West can look at the most prosperous and healthy and free and equal society in the history of the world and only see doom and gloom and evil and suffering. Yes, doom and gloom and evil and suffering all exist, but they have existed everywhere, for all time. And every generation has had lots of people who were absolutely certain that theirs would be the last generation, or at least would be the apex, with nothing but chaos and dissolution and destruction to follow. It has been that way at least as long as we have written records, and likely far longer. Yet we are still here, and we have made a civil society out of the chaos of nature, regardless.

The problem is how much of Western prosperity, freedom and equality is dependent upon the infliction of doom, gloom and evil upon others? As iknklast noted, humans are operating beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Earth cannot support seven billion people living at a North American or European standard of living; it’s just not possible. Stripmining asteroids only works for some materials. It doesn’t address the destruction of biodiversity brought about by expanding agricultural production. Either we reduce our numbers, or it will be done for us. We are swiftly destroying the natural systems upon which our own civilization depends, before we’ve had a chance to figure out how they all work and interact. We are in fact, entirely dependent on “the chaos of nature.” As we diminish the natural world, we destroy the very foundations upon which civil society is built. That society is only possible because of nature, not in spite of it.

Previous collapses of cultures and civilizations have been relatively local. This time it’s global. There will be no safe havens. Western wealth and power will insulate us from disaster for only so long. Grotesque levels of inequality can be maintained for only so long. We are animals. We have to eat. We can’t eat money. We are dependent upon the air, water and soil just like everyone else. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

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