A little over two years ago, I stood with a friend in a town where we had both elected to go to grad school. “Why are we doing this?” I asked him, “Why is anyone doing what they’re doing? I bet society as a whole will collapse in the near future.”
My friend said he agreed as to my prediction, but continued, “What else are we supposed to do?”
I first learned about climate change my freshman year of college, in a 2010 course I took called Intro to Global Climate Change. Through this course, I learned the intricacies of things like the albedo effect, greenhouse effect, ocean acidification, and the increased incidence of extreme weather events, gathering a picture of the complexity of our growing problem. Most pointedly, I learned that the IPCC’s temperature projections have been inaccurate only insofar as they have underestimated the issue.
During and following this course, I became quite depressed, unsure of what to do with the gap between what I had been told to expect from my life and what seemed likely. From my perspective, especially as a white male attending a private college in the United States, what I had been told to expect is that I could do anything, be anything, and go anywhere. On the other hand, what seemed likely is that the future would hold a life of increasing restrictions, scarcity, and conflict, with the safest bet being to buy land in a hospitable climate and attempt to grow my own food. To say the least, the course left me feeling that I had been sold a lie.
Since then, I have acclimated to a society which is very much out of tune with what scientists continue to elucidate through their findings, making careerist moves such as going to graduate school even though, when I really stop to think about it, these moves make no long-term sense. Instead of playing within the system which itself is threatened by ecological collapse, the truest long-term thinking would be to help discover a different system of values.
Late at night for the past several years, I sometimes toss and turn thinking about the plight of animals on our planet, imagining things like birds struggling to know where and when to migrate given changing weather patterns, fish dying out due to toxicity, etc. A number of times, I have voiced these concerns and anxieties to friends only to have them laugh at me, saying that they don’t think about such things and are the happier for it. I know there is such a thing as free-floating anxiety, but deep in my core, I also know that my anxiety is very much grounded: it is the same kind of anxiety as a pack of antelope feels when threatened by a nearby lion, the panic under which they break into individuals and scatter.
When I think about long-term environmental prospects, the deepest concerns for me always involve my personal life and what specifically I will be able to expect and support. For instance, will I be able to have a wife and children? I badly want to do so, but it does not always seem reasonable to me to bear children in a world whose horizons are as limited as this. Similarly, will I be able to complete my course in academia and become a professor? I have always envisioned this as a sort of life’s purpose for myself, but perhaps it is one relegated to the old world; with the crisis currently facing academia, perhaps there will be no more professorships for people such as myself, or so few that it will not make sense for me to reenroll.
There are some who claim to feel deeply for the plants and animals when they behold climate change, but that simply is not the case for me. When I think about this issue, what I really worry about is myself, my own prospects… I am an egotist in the truest sense, worrying that I will not be able to satisfy my desires in the manner I expect. Is it true that more animals are dying, and more rapidly, than if humans did not inhabit the planet? Yes. But is it also true that if humans were not here, those animals would likely die in some other way? Also yes. All things pass and change; just look at the dinosaurs, and the five other mass extinctions that preceded our current one. To me, there is a parallel egotism in surveying our current predicament and granting humans sole responsibility; we are not even important enough that we can take credit for the suffering we see wrought on earth. Instead, we are only further chinks in that chain.
To me, the deepest grace I can find when I think of climate is that for some reason, we are meant to witness and process this pain, this calamity and shrinking of horizons… Perhaps it is our purpose to feel the truth of this moment in the same way that it was the purpose of those who birthed the industrial revolution to explore, to accelerate humanity on the path to becoming masters of nature. I believe that the universe is energy and that, on the grandest scale, all of nature including ourselves is held in an infinitely loving attention; this being the case, this experience, even with its immensity of suffering, is being served to us for a reason, and ultimately there is no wrong we can do within it. As an added benefit, perhaps mantling this pain in this way will lead us to change our behavior, somehow rectifying the seemingly incorrigible situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps, but perhaps not… In my opinion, letting go of that outcome is the only way to truly face the pain, to truly humble ourselves and recognize that even if we perish beyond trace, God will not blink.