Friday, April 30, 2010
The Old Earth and the New Eaarth
According to Jungian theorist Edward Edinger, we are currently experiencing the "archetype of the Apocalypse" as a negative archetype representing the smashing of previous ways of thought and ways of being. I won't/can't deny it: these days I pretty much inhabit this archetype as a full-time denizen. The thing that continues to surprise me is that more folks don't live there, too--that others manage not to be preoccupied or obsessed as I am with the drastic meltdown of society and the accelerating prospects of environmental cataclysm.
The volcanic explosion of Eyjafjallajokull through a glacial ice cap in Iceland on April 14th, that threw a plume of ash into the atmosphere seven miles high and brought air travel to a grinding halt for nearly a week, did nothing to assuage or smoothe the feathers of my archetype. Instead, it caused a flare-up of feelings somewhere between eerie, creepy, and scary--despite the extravagant beauty of how it all looked on film. The whole airline economy seemed to hang in the balance, depending on which way the wind blew.
Our utter helplessness in the face of what was happening is stunning. Now the volcano seems, at least for the moment, to have calmed down, but this week we have a monstrous oil spill from another kind of (as yet unexplained) explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, relentlessly advancing toward the shore of Louisiana and getting worse by the minute, because no one can contain it. Now it's the fishing industry that is running scared.
Have you ever had the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something, and you can no longer ignore its message? Have you noticed that the seas are rising and the ice is melting much faster than we once expected? This week I began reading my first climate-change book in years, just published, called "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" by Bill McKibben. I bought it after seeing a review, because I had the feeling that somehow this book would be different to all the others. I have not been disappointed. From the moment he starts writing, McKibben goes full-bore into the eye-popping truth: we had our chance, he says, a brief opening to steer a different course, away from the rocks. But we didn't take it.
McKibben is a no-frills writer. There are no "feel-good" projections about an optimistic future in which we have all significantly "changed our consciousness," no hectoring about humanity's devastating failure to live sanely on the planet. There is neither bristle, nor bluster. Just this excruciating x-ray of what worldwide ecocide actually looks like:
Hurricanes have risen in frequency seventy-five percent in the last thirteen years. There have been four times as many weather-related disasters in the past thirty years, more than in the first three-quarters of the century combined. Polar ice is melting fifty years ahead of schedule. Lightning strikes in the Arctic have increased twenty-fold in 2009, igniting the first tundra fires ever observed. Tons of carbon in the form of methane are being released into the atmosphere from melting permafrost. Large forest fires now burn four times as long as a generation ago, also pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oil, the very basis of our modern, techology-intensive lifestyle, is disappearing. Coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, produces twice the carbon dioxide of oil and so extending its use will trigger even more global warming. The costs of environmental restoration and humanitarian disasters have become prohibitive, the insurance industry is flailing, and we can't possibly afford to repair things fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.
"Here's all I'm trying to say: the planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists," McKibben writes. "The stability that produced that civilization no longer exists...We MAY, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain SOME KIND of civilization, but it won't be the same planet, and hence it can't be the same civilization. The earth that we knew--the only earth that we ever knew--is gone."
You can't refreeze the Arctic or restore the pH of oceans even if we all convert to solar power and bicycles this afternoon. Which we aren't doing anyway. That's not the world we live on any longer, says McKibben, and there's no use in pretending otherwise.
To read this book is to understand how all philosophical debates about whether or not climate change really exists or doesn't--whether it is a man-made calamity or just a hoax driven by politics and money--are hopelessly out-of-date. At this point, such questions are beyond mattering. The provocative events of this past month, for instance, make irrevocably clear just how much any alteration of the features of nature affects the destiny of mankind, and vice versa. Mankind's activities affect nature. It is all one big, totally enmeshed, feedback loop.
What we need to focus on is how to survive what's coming at us, because as McKibben points out, "We simply can't live on the new earth as if it were the old earth; we've just foreclosed that option." The thing to pay attention to now is that life on the new planet "Eaarth" is likely to be a lot harder for humans than on the old one. It won't be easy going, an uphill slog at best, and with considerably less time for hypothetical, pointless arguments.