In a recent article for Frontiers in Conservation Science, a group of climate experts published research which shows that the outlook for global climate stability is even worse that scientists can comprehend given current models. “The research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.” A climate apocalypse is coming.
It seems that we’ve passed the point of being certain that climate change is going to have some effect on our lives, and are reaching a point where we’re reasonably certain that it will be a devastating effect. Reasons to think that the future will be bright seem further away than ever. Perhaps they are even unreachable. What, if anything, is there to do? If climate apocalypse is unavoidable, are there any options left?
Should we throw in the towel in the face of climate apocalypse?
I caught myself asking this question when I first read the new research a few days ago, but the question’s tone was panicked and fatalistic. I wasn’t asking what we could do expecting an answer; it was more like I was throwing up my hands in frustration and defeat. “What can we do?” Shrug. I guess it’s too late. Climate apocalypse. I kind of like the ring of that.
After a while of wallowing in my own apathy, though, I began thinking of all of the ways that accepting unavoidable consequences opens us up to new ways of acting and being in the present. Accepting the fatedness of our actions to release billions of tonnes of emissions into the air may leave us rejecting the possibility of the result being different, but it also gives us the opportunity to focus whether or not we, in this moment, even deserve to survive.
Are we even worth saving in the first place?
Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s certain that we do, in fact, deserve to survive. If we take a purely evolutionary perspective on things, a species that evolves to the point that it destroys its habitable areas is a pretty clear case of asking for it.
Even if we broaden our criteria to include moral justifications of our continued existence, how many of our greatest philosophers’ ethical frameworks do we meet? Individuals, communities, and governments frequently treat others as mere means to ends, so Kant is out. And the number of suffering beings on our planet seems to belie the idea that we’re seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people, so it seems like we’re pretty bad utilitarians, too.
In a nutshell, then: we don’t seem to be very good at proving our worth. Maybe that’s because we’re just not worthy?
What kind of human species would deserve to keep existing?
Please don’t mistake me: I’m not making any final pronouncements about the goodness of humankind, here (though I am… not optimistic). But now that our shared fate is becoming perhaps a little clearer, instead of wishing for different consequences we can take stock of the mentalities that got us here in the first place, and imagine what kind of species we would have to be to overcome them. What kind of human species deserves to live?
It’s a big question, and I don’t have answers for you here. But in a way that’s my point: whether we have been focused on profits-over-planet, or focused on environmental sustainability, our eyes have always looked to the future, and to the consequences we want to achieve (ie. limitless growth, a healthy planet). If we already know what the consequences will be (ie. climate apocalypse), then all that’s left is to focus on our intentions and our comportments to the world and each other.
This is where the question of deserving to survive comes into play. A species focused on consequences doesn’t have the tools to even ask this question, let alone bring them to bear on answering it. But by finally knowing that the consequence is unavoidable, we can begin to turn our attention here.
Turning to face our world and all the beings in it
How do we relate to each other? How do we relate to our environments? Perhaps answering the question of deserving to survive means beginning to understand ourselves as participating in ecosystems of beings and processes far beyond us. Perhaps it means considering further what it means to be embedded in communities. Maybe it means calling into question the obligate individualism of our societies; “I can’t just care about me, because caring about me necessarily presupposes caring about us all.”
Worrying about consequences often prevents us from prioritizing our comportments to others – other humans, and non-humans, too. And our individualized mindsets make it difficult to envision our participation in community wholes at many scales – neighbourhoods, markets, networks of interests, flows of energy like water and heat, transfers of materials, ecosystems, nations, affinities of background, class, age, gender, sexuality, etc.
We relate to each other (and other others) in all of these ways, but they so often play second fiddle or are completely eclipsed by the places we are trying to bring ourselves to.
But now we know: we tried to get ourselves to those places at the expense of anyone or anything else. The quest for our idealized consequences left the world behind, and now we will pay the price. In the face of climate apocalypse, what else is left but to turn back to each other, and remake ourselves in the image of a species that would have deserved to keep existing in the first place?