Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Heat Kills

Growing up, I remember hearing the story of a famous volcanic eruption and developing as a result a strong personal fear of volcanoes. The likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the Bronx in the 1950s was admittedly negligible, but my fear was real. Later I learned to distinguish better between likely and unlikely environmental catastrophes, but that such catastrophes were a real possibility to be wary of remained there in my consciousness.  Of course, one saving grace about such catastrophes, as I then understood them, was that (unlike wars, for example) they were natural disasters - not calamities we humans were inflicting upon ourselves by our own bad behavior.

Soon enough, of course, I learned about those as well. I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in high school and came of age in the early years of environmental awareness. I remember attending the first Earth Day celebration in Central Park on April 22, 1970. I was a college student then. And it was in a college science course that I first heard about the greenhouse effect and global warming. I knew already that heat kills. Now I learned that the human race was in the process of killing itself with heat.

That, of course is what we are doing, have been doing for some time now, most of it quite recently. As New York Magazine's Deputy Editor David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), "the slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn't happening at all." Scandalously, "more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades," which "means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance." In short, "the climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead."

Unlike the volcano I once improbably imagined was threatening my life and the culture and civilization of my native Bronx, climate change is really here, really threatening human life and human culture and civilization as we have known it. If my imaginary volcano was scary. how much more frightened ought we all to be because of this threat that is actually here and now?

Like the author, I too remember the Cold War with its possible threat of nuclear annihilation. But the threat from climate change, he argues is "more democratic, with responsibility shared by each of us." Meanwhile, "our political fatalism and technological faith blur, as though we'd gone cross-eyed, into a remarkably familiar consumer fantasy: that someone else will fix the problem for us, at no cost."

The sixth episode of the British dystopia Years and Years, which takes us 10 years into our increasingly fragile future, begins with the nearly century-old grandmother Muriel telling her extended family, It's all your fault. In the show, that frank assignment of actual responsibility results in a revolution of sorts as the younger generations belatedly accept their responsibility to do something about the society their complacent consumerism had helped to create. With this book, David Wallace-Wells is challenging us with our responsibility for what our own complacent consumerism has created. Given the complicated combination of the enormous scale of the problem, the complete dysfunction of the political process, and our continued complacency and consumerism, it seems somewhat unlikely Wallace-Wells' challenge will be as effective as the fictional Muriel's in inspiring the radical kind of response the author seems to be calling for.

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