Wednesday, July 12, 2023

What Do We Tell the Kids?

A couple weeks ago, Obama, interviewed by Hasan Minaj, explained his thoughts on climate change (at 5:37 and 10:25, and 15:29):

"If you're not stressed about climate change at a time when we're seeing record forest fires and haze floating right here in DC coming from the north and flooding and all the evidence is that we're not moving as fast as we need to, that should cause some distress and some anxiety. So the issue for me at least, and maybe this helps you out, is not to be blind to the genuine challenges and threats that are in front of us. 

Two things I guess I do for myself: Number one is, I do try to maintain some. perspective. When you say this is the worst things have been since you've been around, sure, well, dude, you've only been around 37 years, right? Ask your parents or your grandparents whether this is the worst that they've seen."

We've just had it really good for a surprisingly long time, sure, but I think even my parents would say this is very different. This is a forever kind of problem we're dealing with. 

He never tells us the second thing that he does for himself.

"There have been times where my basic optimism about the human spirit is tested, and I say to myself, I'm not sure that we can get our act together fast enough to solve these really big problems like climate change, not because any individual person doesn't want to solve it, but because of a basic collective good problem: How am I going to get the Chinese and the Indians to cooperate and, when I look at demographic bulges in places that are poor and you know how are we going to get them education fast enough, it feels overwhelming. At least three to four times a day I think I'm not sure we can manage this because we're a bunch of chimps with guns and big machines. Talk that talk, but we're basically still operating at chimp-like levels, and it doesn't matter if you have enough, you got a banana somehow you still want everybody else's banana. We're greedy, and we're cruel. All those things are true. And yet, what I also say to myself, because I witness it, is the capacity for us somehow to keep this thing afloat and, in this messy way, kind of muddle through. And when we muddle through long enough in small increments, things get a little bit better, and we get a little bit kinder."

Excepts other primates don't hoard bananas. They'd be kicked out of the group if they tried to do that. Our society is far too big and complex and hidden for us to notice when someone's taking more than their share, and we glorify it as if they deserved it, or are special. I think he's grasping at straws here. And China and India and the poor aren't as big of a problem as Americans and Canadians. Per person GHG emissions has the United States at the very top. Canada's up there too, mainly because of the tar sands. We have to own this. People have ingenuity and creativity and the capacity for unbridled innovation, but, collectively, we don't seem to get kinder. Muddling through an extinction of our species isn't an option. And we didn't just muddle through the depression and wars; people in power took decisive action.

"Malia comes to me, she says you know what, she's 24, all our friends sometimes talk about climate change and we just feel like there is no way we're going to be able to solve this. We're looking at the science. It feels as if we're on a trajectory that we're going to sail past this 2°C benchmark where, after that, potentially things are getting cataclysmic. I'll be honest with you, Dad, a lot of my friends feel as if, what's the point? Because the world's burning and there's nothing I can do. 

And I said to her, look, we may not be able to cap temperature rise to 2°C, but here's the thing: If we work really hard, we may be able to cap it at 2.5°C instead of 3 or 3 instead of 3.5. That extra centigrade, that might mean the difference between whether Bangladesh is underwater. It might make the difference as to whether a 100 million people have to migrate, or only a few. These incremental changes matters. It's worth fighting for."

Sure. Don't stop trying. Absolutely. But at 2.5°C, a third of the world will be trying to migrate to somewhere more habitable; it will mean the heat death of tens of millions and global crop failure. His calm, soothing chat about it feels pathological. After seeing Denver's crops destroyed by hail, and watching the recent documentary, The Need to Grow, it makes it very clear that we need indoor, climate controlled, vertical agriculture. I know nothing about it, and the doc could be complete malarky, but it appears that we can no longer depend on having the kind of weather that produces crops reliably. But, as the doc also makes clear, it's somehow bad for profits for those in power. In one case, innovative agriculture was shut down to make room for skating rink. The kids need a place to play! I'm not sure if it's the real story, or the whole story, but the idea that the rich are psychotically fighting for every last cent they can get at the expense of the lives of billions of people is a narrative that sure has sticking power. 

Like all other animals, when backed into a corner, when we feel like someone's invading our territory, we'll fight with all we have to destroy others. And for some in control, it might feel like it's all their territory.

Jon Hanson, a professor and the Director of Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law, has a different answer to Malia's concerns:

"With all due respect: I hope Malia and her friends know to seek advice from others on this topic. If I were Obama and my 24-year-old daughter or son came to me with that question, I might say something like:

My generation of privileged and powerful people screwed up. Among other things, we allowed ourselves, our institutions, and our entire system to be captured by corporate interests. For some, this was intentional; for others, it was negligence and culpable ignorance. Some of us genuinely wanted to make the world more just, but we were also easy targets. We too readily fell for ideologies and manipulations that exploited our gullibility, myopia, yearning for status, wealth, and power, and the naive believe that we could have it all. We were too willing to capitulate to power, too pragmatic and incrementalist to gain leverage, and too vested and dependent to resist. My generation, with my help, has passed along to yours the price of our privilege, hubris, and greed. I regret my role, and I'm truly sorry. 

You and your friends should feel daunted by the unfolding cataclysm of climate change. That's real. But please don't be fatalistic. That would be its own form of dishonest moral disengagement. What happens next is not predetermined and depends in part on us. Instead, you should feel anger for the injustice we have imposed on you. BUT you should also recognize that you are among the relative beneficiaries of that injustice, which is why you can consider the luxury of nihilism. Like it or not, your position is only different in degree, not different in kind, from what mine was. 

If you want a habitable planet, believe we owe such a planet to posterity, or hope to avoid aching regrets, then I urge you to harness anger and hope to fuel your resolve to respond to social problems with the urgency they deserve. Otherwise, you risk someday looking back to realize that, for lack of courage and conviction, you too squandered your best opportunity to help solve this tragedy. Here are some guidelines that might help.

Don't be seduced by the false beliefs that: (1) the existing systems will save us; (2) you lack the power to change them; or (3) you can achieve anything useful or lasting alone. 

Be skeptical of our captured ideologies, institutions, and systems. Don't trust conventional practices, processes, and presumptions of the political and legal systems that led to this. 

And beware the seductive rhetoric of incrementalism that also led to this. "Changing minds" is not the goal. The goal is to produce just systems and outcomes. That requires democratizing power and enduring all the uncomfortable friction, polarization, and risk that entails. 

For all of that, find strength in numbers and courage in solidarity. For that, look to, and learn from, the activists, organizers, and organizations that have for a long time been building inclusive coalitions and power and challenging unjust systems, without corporate entanglements. Find out how to connect, support, join, and build power with them. 

When you're ready, and have a sense of what is needed, please tell me how I can best support you and the larger effort. I have learned lessons and am eager to devote myself in earnest." 

Well said! It's a rousing speech. 

But, those that want to act and try to change the system to be more just, those who can see beyond their own immediate desire for pleasure, have a rough road ahead. There's a good chunk of kids who are absolutely amazing. But the group who used to just be less inclined to help, the ones who used to just goof off and get nothing done and accept the consequences, are now louder and feel justified in satisfying their needs at the expense of others. And their dads will come in to back them, openly threatening the lives of teachers. That's where we're at. And, yes, we've fought Nazis before and won, but never with so many political leaders in the freest countries, the good guys, colluding with some very bad actors.   

Working to put restrictions back on corporations - like we had in the 50s and 60s - and to have more public assets instead of privatizing and more social programs is one thing that we've done before, and maybe we can do it again, this time with a Green New Deal that uses innovation to focus on viable food production and dramatic ways to immediately cut energy use because we HAVE TO CUT ENERGY USE no matter how we slice it, like by shutting down all unnecessary flights on a dime. Maybe that kind of thing can happen politically. But what do we do with our peers who fight us at every step of the way? The people will fight for planes in the air and comfortable lives and all the toys and the right to play and work closely with others without a mask. It feels like what it must have been like watching the neighbourhood kids join the Hitler youth all around you. At some point, you just start to get quieter. I'm not confident that PP won't win the next federal election.

But definitely find your people. Having support is vital to keep going amid the chaos of our times. My advice: remember it's not happening this minute. Send of an email to your MPP and MP and Mayor, and talk to friends about working for change even if it's just for your own mental health. It really helps to find others who care about the future. But then also enjoy the day. Play some music, read a book, paint, draw, sing, dance, garden. It's beautiful out there.



MoS said...

What do we tell the kids? "I'm sorry". We're down to that.

There's a terrific NGO, the Global Footprint Network, that measures human impact on the environment, globally and nation by nation. Their analyses show how humankind is exceeding the sustainable ecological resources and the approximate date by which we enter "overshoot."

When I first learned of GFN, Earth Overshoot Day fell into November. Beyond that we were dependent on depleting resource reserves, raiding the pantry, eating our seed corn. This year EO day fell on August 2nd. That means we consume/contaminate an entire year's supply of renewable resources by the beginning of August leaving us to encroach on wild habitat, drain our aquifers and groundwater resources, degrade our soils with ever greater applications of agri-chems (fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides) and so much more. For five months we're raiding the pantry.

A few years ago I spoke with a GFN analyst about the Earth's degradation and it's human "carrying capacity." She said we arrived at the limit in the early 70s when the population reached 3.5 billion. Today the Earth and its resource replenishment has been degraded to the point that the sustainable population is around 2 billion. Yet here we stand, 8 billion and growing. That means we need to shed 6 billion humans but we can't imagine how to do that and so we invite a chaotic future in which natural disasters probably combined with wars will cull our herd. Lovelock once predicted we might be heading for a world with a few hundred thousand humans existing in brutal conditions.

We have become untethered from the Holocene, unwittingly and uncaringly ushering in an ersatz, man-made new epoch, the Anthropocene. It's payback time. Drought, flood, heatwaves; vanishing glaciers, sea ice and ice caps; acidified oceans, the mass migration of humans and other creatures, marine and terrestrial, wildfires as we've never known them before and we didn't need a single god - Christian, Muslim, Judaic, Hindu, you name it - to bring this Armageddon down on ourselves. We did it ourselves. We did it to ourselves and, in an historical sense, in the blink of an eye. Yet we have leaders who govern as though Earth was still basking in the gentle Holocene. We have populations that avert their gaze rather than see what we have done. But it's not the politicians that pose the gravest existential threat to humanity and life on Earth. It's us. The real gods.

Marie Snyder said...

Absolutely. I'm not sure if Obama is hoping to keep us all calm in an illusion of a peaceful demise, or if he's also bought into the idea that we can survive 3°C. I would love a way for us to go quietly into that good night, but there isn't a meditation app in the world that will keep us calm through the coming decades. That would require adding Ativan to our drinking water.