Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you
Paraphrase to that title “at least human civilization”; the Earth ain’t going nowhere, to exercise all of the nuances of 20th century bad grammar and borrow a bit from George Carlin. This is nothing new, human society is constantly experiencing a “the sky is falling” moment for any given generation, epoch or movement. Fatalism is as part of humanity as life which makes perfect sense as humans are mortal beings. Death has a profound and prescient meaning to most of us, even if we don’t think of it much, it controls our lives. We cannot escape it, it will literally be the end of us.
History has no shortages of these moments: revelations of the apocalypse, the end of days. Human beings just happen to be the first species on the planet which can record their sentiments to pass to future generations as warnings, or spooky bedtime stories. Probably the most memorable “Oh S**T!” moments of our young species have come in the form of the Black Plague and World Wars I and II. The plague ravaged Europe centuries before the New World was colonized, arguably, smallpox had a similar if not more horrific effect on the native populations following invasion. The Great War officially pitted the entire world against itself, or rather Eastern Europe, in the conflict to end all conflicts. This was followed in less than 30 years by WW2 which saw the birth of the true apocalypse weapon: the atomic bomb. What followed was decade after decade of stalemate due to mutually assured destruction. This involved plenty of cold-war posturing and wars of colonialism that affected developing countries on a small-scale conflict context. Even the War on Terror that began as a result of Middle East based terrorism has largely isolated the perpetrators to regions of the world and involved only spasmodic outbursts of violence. For all of the 20th century’s catastrophes, none truly evolved into the shattering, world-ender that books, films and TV depict.
Fast forward to 2021, the 21st century is in full swing and offers much more promise if you choose to speculate on how the human race and planet may meet its demise. Sure, there is always the possibility of a rogue asteroid striking the planet or Moon, but that scenario has been done to death and offers less appeal these days. We’re living in the real age of apocalypse and most of our fellow citizens scarcely even acknowledge it! Fake News? The Liberal Media? Government Hoax? Look no further than your favorite biased news outlet or social media thread to scream alarm into your brain at the false threats right outside your doorstep. Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a hoax, Global Warming is a hoax, nothing to see there, go about your business and let’s drain the swamp! The irony in this division of opinion brought about by misinformation and non-credible sources is that they have eroded trust in the institutions that made possible the potential end of the world scenarios in the past century: science and progress. The information age and rise of global communications has resulted in mass skepticism instead of mass knowledge. The danger of this is not only from the propagation of bad information, but of the denial of information that can potentially save lives and stave off actual disaster. I suppose it would be poetic justice if the human race were to succumb to disasters of their own making, not a “bolt from the blue” or unavoidable cosmic event, but more or less the result of hubris run amok. This is exactly the scenario that lies before us at this current moment of humanity.
The human race is no stranger to plagues and diseases over the past centuries, they are part of who we are and even help regulate and modify our species as time passes. They have seen the rise and fall of countries and empires; they have demonstrated to us our fragility and at the same time resolve. They are an enemy of life while a species unto themselves. In the past we have held them in fear and reverence, attributing their occurrence to everything from germs from space to curses by demons and witches. In reality the pathogens which wreak havoc upon towns, cities and nations are often the cause of careless hygienic habits, cellular mutations, foreign parasites or unbeknownst mechanisms of nature that take years of genetic study to unravel. The occurrence of such afflictions is inevitable, all organisms suffer diseases and afflictions. Human beings are in the biologically envious position to interpret the origin of these outbreaks which equips them with better means to combat them. This is what is so peculiar about the Covid -19 or Coronavirus pandemic, we are more prepared than past generations to deal with it, yet many groups of our species have become less willing to do so.
Of some of the past scourges to blight humanity, many were regarded with the gravest of concern as they caused fatal or debilitating illness. Some resulted in crippling conditions even after the pathogens were eliminated such as Polio. Smallpox took more than a century to eliminate, yet it still exists in laboratories to be studied by virologists for clues to help fight future similar outbreaks. In each case leading up to the 21st century, when a cure for an outbreak was discovered it was accepted as a necessary antidote; an undeniable opportunity to live a healthier and longer life. This also helped facilitate control of the disease or virus so that less time was spent battling it from continent to continent and life could return to normal more swiftly. The longevity of Covid-19 has already been assisted by the resistance of many to receive vaccinations that have been made available widespread in many urban and rural communities. The result has been the mutation of the virus to what is called a delta-variant which has been observed to be more highly contagious and potentially hazardous to the unimmunized.
What was once projected as a pandemic that could be controlled within a year to a year and a half now may take much longer to contain. Continued resistance to vaccination could prolong the period in which the virus is active due to continuing mutations. Medical science and virology has proven that the longer infection cycles are likely to stimulate more mutations in which the virus, essentially an organism, can adapt to survive in environments better. This behavior is not unlike that of all living organisms, including humans. In this case, as host organisms, it is peculiar that so many of our species with the power to control its own fate and ensure a greater chance for survival would choose the latter. This is a decidedly anti-survivalist tactic from a relatively resilient species! So why would this be a concern in a day and age in which we possess superior knowledge, technology and the means by which to disseminate both to all corners of the world?
Humans are nothing if not stubborn, this attitude allowed us to move from living in caves to grass huts and from relying on travel by ground to artificial wings. In the 21st century it empowers us to defy sometimes even the voices of reason for no better excuse than the same reason than to defy authority itself. There are innumerable articles and observations written on the subject that the connections allowed through media, the global internet and other technologies have had the effect of pushing us farther apart rather than closer together as logic would dictate. Complacent societies are the realm of discord, breeding grounds for a different kind of virus. The virus of disinformation is perhaps the more insidious threat to our species at this point. Perhaps we can view the effect of Covid-19 as having a parallel “pandemic” on human society. The illness the virus itself causes and the social and emotional reaction to disseminate incorrect information and refuse treatment for the virus. This has already resulted in the dubious distinction of the United States surpassing the fatality rate of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” outbreak by September of 2021.
To be sure, this will not be the last outbreak our species sees, but if there were a blueprint for allowing a virus to follow the path of least resistance the last 1 ½ years has offered it. It is unlikely that a global pandemic alone will be the end of our species, but pair it with the more pressing crises we will face in the coming decades and there should be cause for concern.
Mad Max vs Waterworld
How’s it going to go down? Which of these dystopian end-of-the-world scenarios will we get to experience? For many who live in developed nations, the nightly news and science fiction shows are the only context they have for the effect that Climate Change is already having on the world. Two decades into the 21st century and it is clearly evident that the last 200 years of fossil fuels use is sitting badly with the atmosphere. More importantly, the effect of more powerful storms and longer fire seasons will continue to “sit badly” with the human race as it is we who have the most to lose. The worse the effects we experience the more it appears as if industrialization and exploitation of coal, oil and gas is a Faustian bargain. The 21st century will be the point at which the devil comes calling for his due.
Each hurricane season has equalled or surpassed the previous one, each wildfire season is accompanied with hotter summer temperatures and longer durations. California has already declared virtually the entire year as “wildfire season”. The United States is not singularly unique in punishing weather events either. Every other continent on the planet has their share of severe weather events to relate to regardless if a hurricane is called a typhoon or a wildfire an inferno. The answer to the heading of this section is: Both. The coastal regions will see flooding and increasing tropical storms while the inland and elevated regions will experience droughts and more severe fires. Every several months the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issues a report that outlines the steps that are being taken to mitigate the effects of climate change and how they are insufficient relative to the latest models. Thus far the major players in world economics and industry have made only trivial commitments to reducing carbon emissions and switching to green fuels for decades to come. With targets set that do not meet the projected temperature increase levels, the results will only portend worse climate conditions for all life on the planet with the most destructive effects being experienced by those most in need.
In a sinister reflection that mirrors that of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, scores of citizens from all countries also insist on denying the cause and effects of climate change. I will not go into detail concerning the methodology of refuting scientific evidence that the planet is warming more rapidly than any other time in recorded human history, only make the point that it follows the same persistent “logic” those denying the pandemic as a legitimate affliction follows. For all rhetorical purposes, denier logic in the face of scientific evidence exists for the sake of denial and only that. Or does it? Recent developments allow climate denial to be a profitable industry, and not just for corporate juggernauts. Once again, the dystopian nature of human interaction with the capability to search enormous amounts of information in seconds results in narcissism/cynicism. Unlike our social media platforms which usually lead to nothing else except for digital loathing and debates, tackling subjects such as climate change and pandemics seems to have an actual effect. Need proof? We have any number of senators or congress people who have thrived successfully on platforms of denial (See: the Republican party). However the real culprit here isn’t politics, it is corporate interest/influence in politics…which is actually politics these days.
There’s a long history going back to corporate America and climate change denial. No one should find this surprising as corporate interest has always had a stranglehold over politics since the founding of the nation. The three largest corporate interests in this day and age are Big Oil, Pharma and Tech or Silicon Valley. Since the Industrial Revolution the heart of the global economy has subsisted on the use of fossil fuels for the manufacture and consumption of products. Not that everyone could have known, but carbon-based fuel products was a finite solution. After hundreds of years of use and a world that you cannot literally move or breathe in without experiencing the direct effect of oil, coal or gas products, we have now come to an impasse. There’s a saying in the science world, TANSTAAFL or “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. Quid pro quo:something for something. 200+ years of carbon fuel use and CO2 emissions and what do we pay? A climate that has warmed 2 degrees fahrenheit and is projected to increase by 1.5-2 degrees in the next 100 years.
You can read any number of books about the effects of climate change, Bill McKibben has made a career of bringing attention to the alarming relationship of Big Oil to economic policy decisions and influence in Washington D.C. The insidious effects of this relationship have already been shown to mirror the relationship Big Tobacco had for decades before J.R. Reynolds was forced to pay billions for their campaign of misinformation and lobbying the medical industry’s cover-up of its health effects on customers. We should view the relationship between climate change and the well-being of the planet’s inhabitants to be no different. However, unlike smoking, the Earth’s population does not have a choice as we are forced to all live in the same environment. This is one case where ignorance or denial to a known health issue will do nothing to shelter an individual from its effects. Those living in New Orleans seem to lie in a region that is most at risk to severe storms, even if they choose not to believe the science of climate change, when a hurricane blows into town they have no choice but to prepare or leave the region entirely. Acting like it won’t affect them could result in their injury or death! That is the reality of climate change that makes the position of denial ineffective. Regardless if you think that the increase in the global temperature is caused by a long-standing cycle or human interference, the results are felt year to year and appear to be accelerating, registering an effect on all of the Earth’s continents. As a living organism that shares the planet’s resources your obligation should not be to resist preservation of our ecosystems but to help restore and preserve them…unless you work for one of the aforementioned corporate industries.
Denial is a River in America
These days the river runs deep and wide. Access to infinite information in seconds has “tribalized” individuals into segments who sometimes have nothing in common other than their opinion about one particular aspect of politics, society or behavior. Like all other things, science is not immune from this scrutiny. Social media has become a lightning rod where forums on these types of opinions thrive. In some cases these lead to organization for the common good: marches, rallies, charity events. In others, these groups form to find common allies in rejecting norms, standards and the status quo. Neither result is the direct effect of social media so much as it is human nature, social media has just provided a convenient avenue to organize and affirm tightly held beliefs and philosophies. The pushback against Covid-19 vaccines and Climate Change science has continued to grow as the duration of these events has become more apparent. Once again, this is human nature at play where some individuals are more likely to be resolved against anything that is decided upon as values or fact. This sentiment will increase as resistance to overall consensus increases. Examples of this type of willful denial are those who believe that the Earth is flat or the Nazi holocaust did not actually happen.
While I don’t have any strategies to offer for dealing with all of the misinformation propagated by our fellow 7 billion neighbors, this whimsical explanation of why denial has become such a popular pastime in the digital age may help. Vigorous debate over these topics does not change the fact that the Covid-19 virus has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last year and a half. Climate change has been monitored for more than the mere 20 years that the public has paid attention. Climate change also can be attributed indirectly to hundreds of thousands of deaths and even more economic, structural and long-term health threats. With all the energy invested in pushing back against the information backed by science and direct observation, a world of difference could be made. After all, regardless of whether you believe in its reality, you can die of Covid-19 and you are already experiencing the effects of climate change regardless of your acknowledgement.
Resisting measures to stop the spread of Covid have very real life consequences for everyone, not the least of which result in overcrowded emergency rooms and overwhelmed hospital staff. For any given community you can read articles concerning a severe shortage of hospital personnel, fatigue and an alarming number of nurses and practitioners who are choosing to leave their field due to burnout or high stress levels. The United States already was experiencing a crisis within the healthcare system due to staffing shortages and complications due to privatization and insurance coverage. Covid came at a time that the system was at its most vulnerable, even with the benefits of modern medicine and technology. Pandemics are nothing to be taken lightly despite the fact that novel SARS-CoV2 is far from the deadliest viral strain in known history. This is likely one of the factors why such doubt remains concerning its serious nature. The longer people have refused to receive vaccinations the more the disease has had time to mutate into multiple variants showing increased resistance to treatment and higher contagion exposures. The world is determined to suffer through a second winter season of the Coronavirus when it could have, should have, been on the brink of its termination.
Climate change is quite the opposite of a pandemic, it cannot be said to be directly “deadly” as its effects occur as a myriad of symptoms ranging from longer and hotter summers to more potent storms benefiting from warmer oceanic flows. Truth be told, the planet’s weather and ecosystems are far more complex that even many professionals can claim to be an expert on. Part of this is due to lack of observation: humans have only been around for an infinitesimal fraction of the estimated life of the Earth so far. This fact has the effect of emboldening deniers’ assertions that we can’t possibly know how human activities have affected the environment and that recent temperature increase could be part of a cycle that the planet experiences regardless of the organisms that exist on the Earth’s surface. As I stated in the beginning of this essay, whatever we may be doing to affect the Earth’s environment will do little to cause harm to the planet itself. It will, and arguably is, having a negative effect on the life that calls it home. Research taken over the last several decades reinforces the fact that the Earth’s temperature has warmed rapidly, more quickly than it did during the previous extinction phases such as the one responsible for ending dinosaurs. How do we know this? Science. But at the core of denialism is the issue that those looking to justify their disbelief or ignorance to very real threats search for only the evidence that will support their theories. The rest is conveniently discarded in order to come to an individual conclusion that is supported by the facts that they choose to handpick. This is not only irresponsible and unscientific, it has resulted in the formation of large groups of society who feel vindicated in this type of misuse of scientific knowledge. In the case of climate change, some individuals (or perhaps a large percentage) feel as if this absolves them of responsibility to act as better stewards for our resources. Whether or not this is justifiable is not the end goal. Because human activity has affected the planet more significantly than the other millions of species that have inhabited it for millenia creates the moral imperative that we should feel obligated to mitigate some of the damage we have caused. If for no other species’ sake than that of our own.
How sure can we be that climate change will become the most important question facing human development in the immediate future? All of the markers already point steadily to measurements taken from the beginning of when scientists first became aware of this possibility. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere alone is an indicator of the effect of burning fossil fuels which is now at the highest level it has ever been since these measurements have been taken. Many communities are already experiencing climate migrations due to prolonged and more severe storm seasons. The western United States has seen the largest wildfires in history during the past decade with each year setting new records. This goes the same for surface temperature measurements from every corner of the globe. The toll climate change will take is already being seen but it is just the beginning. All of this will increase in severity for the rest of our lifetime and affect generations to come.