Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
By David W. Orr
Oxford University Press. 261 pages.
Because environmental studies professor David Orr’s book is gracefully written, with a lucid and comprehensive vision, it is easy to read. But because of its subject and its messages, it is very difficult to read. For all of those reasons, it is important that everyone reads it, because it is about your future, which is likely to be very different from the present.
Orr begins with a view of the future that close observers of climate change are increasingly coming to, and it’s a real difference from just a few years ago. Despite current denialist noise and other snowjobs, it’s not a question of “if” anymore. It’s how fast, how bad and how long.
For those playing catch-up: Even Al Gore’s expositions of the massive evidence, for example, were accompanied by suggestions on how to “solve” the Climate Crisis. For awhile there was a popular impression that changing light bulbs would do it. Though it’s true that a shocking amount of of carbon could be kept out of the atmosphere with some simple efficiencies, that wasn’t going to change what had already been set in motion. Some experts (like Mark Hertsgaard) cautioned that because of a 30 year or so time lag from cause (greenhouse gas pollution) to effects, the crisis was already underway, and we need to prepare for some consequences.
After more climate data was collected and evaluated, books by respected figures like Martin Rees and James Lovelock in the UK that foresaw more cataclysmic consequences were taken seriously but still seemed extreme. Then came observations of Arctic sea melts in 2007 that were far sooner and far more advanced than climate scientists had predicted. “Instead of the long, slow problem many had imagined climate change to be, we seemed to be staring at a dynamic system bent on flipping into some new state,” writes Bill McKibben. More urgent warnings followed, by the chief U.S. climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, among others.
So the dire situation that Orr outlines is becoming more generally accepted: Continued greenhouse gas pollution will result in an unrecognizably hot planet for hundreds of thousands of years, shorn of the life we know. “But a sober reading of the science of climate change indicates something else: we have already set in motion forces and trends that threaten the stability of the biosphere in a few decades and that will persist far longer.”
This is the growing consensus: severe and long-lasting effects are already in the cards. They may well be so overwhelming and persistent that they will absorb most of our attention and resources. Orr discusses some of the variables, and I’ve seen recent comments by climate scientists suggesting a time frame of from ten to thirty years before the cascade of multiple and interacting crises become painfully apparent. Orr writes: “Climate change, like the threat of nuclear annihilation, puts all that humanity has struggled to achieve—our cultures, art, music, literatures, cities, institutions, customs, religions, and history, as well as our posterity—at risk.”
“Climate change, in other words, is not so much a problem to be fixed but rather a steadily worsening condition with which we must contend for a long time.”
Orr looks at issues of governance and attitude as well as more specific ideas for getting through the coming climate collapse, and what elements of human civilization and human beings will help that process, while suggesting that the survival of these qualities—from inventiveness to compassion and community--are reasons for the human adventure to continue. For instance, we will need to understand and put into practice the home truth that the global economy is a subset of the biosphere. In this period of fear, anger and stress, personally and nationally, we will need to learn and employ the skills of peace, or we will lose what chance we have to survive.
“The long emergency ahead will be the ultimate challenge to our political creativity, acumen, skill, wisdom and foresight,” Orr writes. Though he doesn’t dwell on the worst implications—like deaths in the millions or worse—he realizes that such crises in the past led to war, tyrannous gangs, barbarism and the haunting ignorance that characterizes a Dark Age. In a coda, he even suggests the added difficulty of keeping a cool head in a hot world, when the heat itself is bending and breaking the world we assume and depend on.
He titles one late chapter "Hope at the End of Our Tether," which is a pretty direct reference to H.G. Well's last book, Mind At the End of Its Tether, in which he found humanity fated to fail because it was too late to save itself. (The expression, by the way, means to have exhausted one's options, like an animal tethered, unable to go farther than the rope will allow. It goes back to the 16th century, but became an expression with this meaning early in the 19th. Like a lot of cultural metaphors from agriculture, it's pretty much lost its referent, except of course for dog-walkers.) He ends this chapter with this paragraph:
"At the end of our tether we must imagine the unimaginable: a world rid of nuclear weapons and a world powered by sunlight, safe from the possibility of catastrophic climate change. Utopia? Hardly. But those are the only realistic options we have."
That's a powerful, present-tense restatement of how far we've stretched our possibilities. In 1960 and especially in his 1961 Inaugural, President Kennedy noted that humanity now had the power to abolish poverty, and also to abolish human life. Humanity could choose utopia, or it could choose oblivion. But as Buckminster Fuller and others soon suggested, the power of nuclear weapons etc. really meant that either we choose Utopia or we get Oblivion. It's an either/or. Orr stretches the tether even tighter, by noting that resource problems and catastrophes from the Climate Crisis make nuclear war more likely and therefore more dangerous. So we don't have much of a choice--though as Orr notes, even if we save ourselves from our two principal scourges, without losing civilization in the process, we still won't wind up with Utopia, the perfect society. That at least forestalls the objection that he's asking for perfection, which is by definition impossible. He's just saying the just about impossible is just about essential.
“There is no historical precedent, however, for what we must do if we are to endure,” he warns. And though he admits “I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,” he opts for hope—but of a particular kind: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” He quotes Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope as “an orientation of the heart” and “ability to work for something because it is good.” Orr believes the only thing that will save us is “people behaving heroically.”
Orr begins his book by noting that UK scientist Martin Ree’s 2003 book (Our Final Hour) which suggests that humankind has about a 1 in 2 chance of surviving the 21st century, was almost entirely ignored. Orr’s book has been out since last spring, I believe, and has also been pretty much ignored. In one sense it’s not surprising: even if the science is admitted, the message is so apocalyptic that it cries out for a grief response, starting with denial and anger, and maybe moving up to bargaining (i.e. technological fixes that few believe will change the immediate future, even if they work.) I had a tough time with this book myself, and only copious amounts of high-quality chocolate and some sleepless nights got me as far as this review.
But while this is one of the first books about how to contend with the coming “long emergency,” (and this phrase devised by Jim Kunstler looks like it will stick) it won’t be the last. For instance, Bill McKibben’s new book to be published in April, bears the subtitle: “Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Maybe it's groupthink, but I don't think so: these sentiments are becoming pretty common among those closely observing climate and climate science.
If we keep hearing this, and evidence piles up (and we have the wit to understand it--for instance, that the northeastern snows this month support global heating theories, they don't contradict them), sooner or later we’ll move through depression to acceptance, and then maybe we’ll get to work salvaging a civilization. Meanwhile, we ought to be grateful for writers like Orr who are preparing us for this future, as well as the scientists and scholars who are bringing their skills to bear on these topics, regardless of the terrified barbarians at the gates.
And this future doesn’t include continuing global failure to cut greenhouse gases, which makes the farther future even bleaker. “I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would cause runaway climate change,” Orr adds, “otherwise, there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge.”
How hard it is to read and then write these words, because it’s real now: very probably, the world we’ve known is ending, and humanity faces its greatest challenge, including the dual tasks of living in this harsher world while still doing what is necessary not to make things worse. Ending greenhouse gas pollution is still necessary, but it alone is no longer enough. We enter the age of consequences.