The Coming Climate Catastrophe in Words and Song

Only the introductory portion of this post will be mine, and I hope the rest of it will ring loud alarm bells in your mind while also causing you to consider for a moment just how ardently you love this earth, and what you might do to defend it.  Two  different sources here: One is a review in the current “London Review of Books” of “The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future,” by David Wallace-Wells.

I have not read the book but the review itself has put a chill in my bones on this otherwise warming and pleasant summer Sunday morning that will not soon subside. Nor should it, as I trust you will realize soon enough.

The second is from Jackson Browne’s absolutely prescient and heart-rending 1974 song, “Before the Deluge,” written when he was 25 years old, and which I had often sung and hummed along with over the years without ever really picking up on the words’ prophetic power—until today.

My thanks to reader and friend David Jolly for sending these materials along to me, and to his friend John Ward who had done the same for David.

***

“All the news is bad. Marshaling research from across the sprawling field of climate studies, Wallace-Wells paints a picture of disastrous change on an almost incomprehensible scale. Transformations that will have consequences for thousands of years to come are already being expressed in sudden crises that spring up overnight. The changes are at once planetary and minute, affecting everything from the earth’s variable ability to reflect light from the sun to the microbes inside your body. Everything, it seems, is dissolving.”

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature

“Of the five previous mass extinctions, only the most recent was caused by an asteroid. What was responsible for the other four? ‘Climate change produced by greenhouse gas.’ The deadliest occurred 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, when 96 per cent of life on earth was wiped out…We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a rate ‘considerably faster’ than it took to cause this near-total erasure of complex life. ‘By most estimates,’ Wallace-Wells writes, ‘at least ten times faster.’”

While the sand slipped through the opening
And their hands reached for the golden ring
With their hearts they turned to each other’s hearts for refuge
In the troubled years that came before the deluge

***

 

***

There are now more than four hundred such dead zones in the world’s oceans, totaling an area the size of Europe. Most cluster around cities and river mouths, where the combination of warming waters, sewage pollution and fertilizer run-off causes blooms of algae whose decay leaches oxygen from the water. Others are caused by upwellings of the green sulphur bacteria, which has survived from a primordial planetary era before oxygen, waiting in the deep ocean for a chance to turn the seas back into a toxic microbial stew. Warmer seas and the subsequent changes to ocean currents mean their chance may be coming.”

Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain

“The Baltic Sea now contains a layer of anoxic water all year round; the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is nine thousand square miles in size; it’s possible that the recently discovered dead zone in the Arabian Sea is large enough to consume the entire Gulf of Oman. Dead zones are examined briefly by Wallace-Wells in a chapter called ‘Dying Oceans’; only briefly, because he also has to consider ocean acidification, ocean warming, coral bleaching and the attendant die-offs of ocean life, as well as the slowing and potential failure of the Gulf Stream and other currents whose movements are intimately tied to regional climate. Should this last come to pass, the results would be ‘inconceivably catastrophic.’”

And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge

“The US military is ‘obsessed with climate change’, Wallace-Wells writes, and the Pentagon is actively ‘planning for a new era of conflict governed by global warming.’ They are not alone in thinking this way. The Chinese government is responding to the anticipated loss of military and naval bases in the rising Pacific by creating militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea, ‘a dry run, so to speak, for life as a superpower in a flooded world.’ A new era of geopolitical contest looms, and it sounds like science fiction: end-time resource wars on a dying planet.”

Let the music keep our spirits high
Let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky

“Most of what Wallace-Wells describes has already happened. The phenomena he documents in the first part of the book are not hypothetical outcomes or doomsday prophecies: they are accounts of real events. Take wildfires. Wallace-Wells concentrates on California, which has always been susceptible to burning. In 2017, more than nine thousand separate wildfires were recorded, including five of the twenty worst ever recorded in the state. Two thousand square miles burned. A similar area was destroyed again in 2018 by six thousand fires, among them a giant network called the ‘Mendocino Complex’’ which blazed across four counties between July and September. It grew to be bigger than New York, destroying almost half a million acres of land. Wildfires now burn twice as much land per year in the US as they did fifty years ago, and that figure is expected to double again by 2050 to twenty million acres per year.”

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power

Like everything else that happens within a responsive and interconnected ecological system, fires contribute to cumulative processes. Soot and ash from boreal fires blacken the northern ice sheets, which then absorb more solar heat and melt faster. Denuded hillsides increase the likelihood of disasters such as flooding and landslides (thousands were evacuated and many killed in the mudslides that followed the 2017 California fires). Burning forests release vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. One major wildfire in California can set the emission gains of the entire state back to zero for the year, making ‘a mockery of the technocratic, meliorist approach to emissions reduction.’ Recent news reports suggest that Arctic wildfires have released as much carbon dioxide in the last month as Sweden does in the course of a year.”

And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour

“As the unprecedented disasters, terrifying statistics and nightmare scenarios continue to mount, the links between them multiply in tangled profusion. Climate scientists refer to ‘systems crises,’ Wallace-Wells to ‘cascades’: tumbling sequences of events connected within a dynamic chaos of feedback loops, amplification and reinforcement. ‘Complexity is how warming articulates its brutality,’ as Wallace-Wells puts it. Most of the known feedback mechanisms look as though they will trigger even more warming.”

And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge

“Wallace-Wells is scathing about the oil industry, whose disinformation clogs public discourse and waylays political processes: ‘A more grotesque performance of corporate evilness is hardly imaginable, and, a generation from now, oil-backed denial will likely be seen as among the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being as have been perpetrated in the modern world.’”

Let the music keep our spirits high
Let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky

“What will real action look like, if and when it finally comes? Wallace-Wells reminds us that we have the tools to change things, and even—a rare moment of optimism—‘to stop it all.’ His remedy involves ‘a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.’ But whether the changes that are already underway could be stopped by such measures is presently moot: ‘We … haven’t yet discovered the political will, economic might and cultural flexibility to install and activate them.’”

***

I will never again hear this song in the same way that I had, and letting the music “keep my spirits high” will today include a contribution to the presidential campaign of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose voice, it suddenly dawns on me with crashing volume, we desperately need to keep in front of the world. I invite you to join me by clicking the link above.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Fish eye ocean by Kelsie DiPerna, Honolulu, Hawaii  https://www.flickr.com/photos/kelsiedipernaphotography/

Inferno photo/artwork by David Meyer, Kingsburg, California  https://www.flickr.com/photos/dclmeyer/

Smokestack photo Patrick Hendry, Utah  https://unsplash.com/worldsbetweenlines

19 comments to The Coming Climate Catastrophe in Words and Song

  • Timothy Lauridsen  says:

    “250 million years ago” is when I stopped reading

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Which is exactly why we will suffer the catastrophic consequences we will, Timothy: too many people have their minds stuck in cement and stop reading when the one line they’ve read seems to be in accord with their biases, which allows them to conveniently—and lazily, and ignorantly—keep their minds closed before they get to the next lines.

      • Ginny Laird  says:

        That is why I love reading the children’s books TOUCH THE EARTH and HEAL THE EARTH by Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s son. We need to start early, two year olds love it all the way to sixth grade. The message is a good one.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Ginny, I am reading about the increasing urgency of Millennials and the leading edge of Gen Z on these matters, but huge questions remain about the scope of the damage already done and baked into the forthcoming pie. What inroads might technology make to reduce the damage? We don’t know, we can only hope, without indulging in foolish optimism (hope and optimism being two different things). Thanks for these book reco’s; I have a couple of young ‘uns in my life for whom a Christmas gift is now set!

        • andreakm2252  says:

          Ginny, so very well said…

    • Jeanette Millard  says:

      We can’t afford to have you stop reading. Please do more reading and then take some action that is meaningful to you. Doing nothing feels like watching Rome burn.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Between climate disruption and mass (and individual) shootings, it is easy to feel overwhelmed today. And every day. I try to do my part to care for our earth, and ask others to do so. And I march and rally and contribute to end or even start to address gun violence. The last two years have felt like a long draining of my heart and soul. I rarely feel helpless but today I do.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I hear ya and feel ya, Jeanette. I try to let those feelings of near despair wash over me as they will, giving them their due for a while—but only a while. Not sure what turns it around in the end, other than another sunrise. This post-election reflection will perhaps provide more context: http://andrewhidas.com/the-moral-imperative-of-hope/

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew, I too shall purloin comments from other sources which address both directly and peripherally the subject at hand. And they probably to a degree even connect the horrible dots between the recent tragic events and the larger climate change monster looming over everyone. Eco-anxiety……..
    Depression, anxiety, grief, despair, stress—even suicide: The damage of unfolding climate change isn’t only counted in water shortages and wildfires, it’s likely eroding mental health on a mass scale, too, reports the American Psychological Association, the preeminent organization of American mental health professionals.
    Recently the NIH reported on a longitudinal study from 2000-2018 which measured on a state by state basis the increase in suicides by percentage over that period. The figures are beyond startling! They have a map you can look up but I will recount a couple of the figures that jumped out at me. For the country as a whole it was well over 20% but the numbers for some individual states were staggering. For instance the rates in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana approach nearly 60%.
    And sadly even in light of the horrific events in El Paso and Dayton, nearly two thirds of all gun related deaths in the US are the result of suicide.
    As the APA has reported the impending doom from climate change is having a profound effect on the mental health of everyone and causing untold damage in ways we are just beginning to recognize.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great stuff, Bruce; hadn’t much considered the mental health aspects of this issue, but of course they are there in abundance. As goes the outer, so goes the inner—at least to some degree. Pretty hard to stay sanguine when the incoming data strongly warn that your planet is imploding…

      What is your take on the Inslee candidacy,? And while I’m asking questions, the recent debates with their “Your plan on such & such has this horrible shortfall while my plan fixes everything,” all while the planet burns… ??

  • David Meyer  says:

    I’m in the middle of Wallace-Wells’ book, and, while it is not that revelatory to anyone who has been paying attention, it is a jarring reminder of just how far down the path we’ve gone. Personally, I don’t think there is any hope that humans will become extinct or nearly extinct. We really can’t help ourselves. And the only possible way to save the planet is with world government, or at least world agreement. If that ever comes, it will probably be when we are in planetary death throes. Wish I could be more optimistic. That said, I do what I can to reverse the madness.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks David; that’s pretty much my approach, too—head down, keep on goin’, but reserve the right to kvetch like mad, mutter and yell at the digital arrangement of letters on the screen, that sort of thing. I’m thinking, though, that you may have meant to put a “not” in front of “become” in that second sentence? Double negative sentences can fake us out sometimes!

      And the big issue you raise: If we do get anywhere near planetary death throes, will better angels hold the line and more or less prevail, or will we descend to every nation, tribe and family in a bitter struggle to grab what they can and vanquish everyone in their way?

      • David Meyer  says:

        You are correct that I left out a “not.” Sometimes I just don’t do a good job of proof reading. Thanks.

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew,
    Inslee’s knowledge and focus on climate are well above anyone else. If they win he would be a great cabinet guy for whoever has purview over climate, maybe EPA, but one trick ponies never have a chance in the general and usually not in statewide elections unless the issue is guns or abortion.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Wonderful post, Andrew, and many thanks for bringing the urgency of this situation to the forefront. I am deeply struck by a chilling line from Browne’s “Before The Deluge: “. . . .the resignation that living brings. . .” Resignation and indifference ought to be among our greatest fears. We need awareness, resiliency, and constructive activism.

  • Andrea Kustin-Mager  says:

    For the sake of brevity, may I please say “ditto” to what you Jay Helman wrote…. Thank you.. Andrew, you have an amazing talent for zeroing in on the “moment’. Thank you Andrew.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Powerful post my friend. I’ve long loved that JB song (whole album is stunning), but have never looked at with this lens. I am reminded of the ground breaking work done in evolutionary psychology the past few decades which asserts our cognitive processes have evolved to favor “fight or flight” quick reacting as a primary mode for thinking/doing. This short term “in the moment” thinking/responding has served our species well for some hundred thousand years or so but is clearly not what we need at this juncture in our story in which so much of our impact is now at a scale impossible to have imagined even a century ago. Climate change, nuclear energy etc all require a type of thinking that our mental “software” was not designed to do – is it even possible for us as a species to “rewire “ quickly enough to avert, or at least mitigate unimaginably catastrophic consequences?? Stewart Brand created The Long Now Foundation to bring scientists, artists, thinkers etc together to explore this urgently needed notion of Long Term Thinking ( see longnow.org). We will need to marshal personal and collective efforts like this at level that is difficult to imagine, yet urgently needed yesterday, if a horribly dark future is not going to be the legacy of the 21st century… It is so easy to be overwhelmed and just give in/avoid/become “comfortably numb” – the JB line that rang Jay’s bell, “the resignation that living brings” indeed – thanks for planting a flag Andrew – we MUST find ways to address this challenge with the best we can muster!
    Inslee is a start.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    CNN–The Environmental Protection Agency told staff scientists that it was no longer opposing a controversial Alaska mining project that could devastate one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries just one day after President Trump met with Alaska’s governor…The governor, a supporter of the project, emerged from that meeting saying the president assured him that he’s “doing everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns.” The news came as a “total shock” to some top EPA scientists… The copper-and-gold mine planned near Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as Pebble Mine, was blocked by the Obama administration’s EPA after scientists found that the mine would cause “complete loss of” the bay’s fish habitat.

    Nothing more to be said!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Your citation points to the near impossibility of keeping up with the Trump administration’s assault on nearly every aspect of life, Robert—all the things that comprise a functional, safe, sustainable, productive, cooperative and at least minimally stable society. And it is a comprehensive wrecking ball—in policy, professionalism, tonality, honesty, reliability, trust, kindness. The previously unimaginable has happened, and perhaps nowhere will it play out with more deadly, far-reaching force than in the seemingly concerted destruction of our environment. We’ll have tremendous repair work to do if we manage to oust him in 2020. And if we don’t…

Leave a Reply to Robert Spencer Cancel reply