Climate change legacy: What will future generations think of our culture?
What is there to say about a civilization that ignores the quickening pace of climate chaos? When the margin available for preventing vast damage across a hundred generations is already gone, what is there to say about a people who again and again embrace habits and systems and ideologies that deepen the damage?
To heat our homes and shops and workplaces — many of which we don’t bother to seal and insulate well — we burn oil and gas and gulp kilowatt-hours from the electric grid. To heat our water and cook, we consume more gas, more oil, more electricity. We make much of our electricity by burning coal and consider ourselves progressive if the nearest turbines instead burn natural gas. Our commutes are mostly in cars that drink gasoline and diesel. Our vacations are often via jets that guzzle more-exotic fossil fuels, and our companies and professions are addicted to this mode of travel.
We buy carrots from the other side of the continent, coats from the other side of the globe. And one of our primary pastimes is consuming stuff far less essential than carrots and coats — stuff manufactured we know not where, stuff we use up and send to the incinerator or soon cram into closets and forget. Our lifestyles are insatiable. Each carrot, each coat, each gadget, each app, each whim has a carbon cost that, in our somnambulism, we neglect to pay.
With the Arctic melting, seas rising, methane deposits evaporating, and jet stream in disarray, what is there to say about a people who elect a demagogue promising to dismantle even our patently inadequate climate policies and programs — and then stand by as he proceeds to do so?
Looking back from the 22nd Century, what will you think of us?
What will you make of the fact that in our preoccupation with comfort we were willing to make so many people’s lives so desperate? That in our refusal to discipline ourselves we were willing to force so many into famine, privation, and disease? That in our obsession with the good life we were willing to relegate so many people to death? That in our stupor we were willing to condemn so many species — and jeopardize the survival of our own?
Will you believe our failure to question the inevitability of carbon culture made us no better than the Nazis who claimed at Nuremberg they were merely following orders? Will you inevitably see our crimes as grander and more ghastly?
I fear I already know the answers to these questions. I am not expecting your forgiveness.
You will know that those who pled ignorance about the perilous state of the climate were practicing willful ignorance.
You will know that those who pled lack of evidence were disregarding mountains of it — and broad, deep scientific consensus.
You will know that those who claimed scientists and activists were being alarmist about a situation not at all urgent were engaging in ideological theater.
You will know that those who pled intervention was impractical were disregarding a panoply of alternatives.
You will know that those who refuted the need to mitigate climate change on the grounds that it would be cheaper and easier to focus on endlessly adapting to it were parroting — or duped by — the propaganda of fossil fuel executives and their PR firms.
You will know that those who blithely counted on some future technological miracle to suck carbon from the atmosphere or bounce more sunlight into space were lost in reckless techno-fantasy.
You will know that those who pled they had no obligation to the 22nd Century were simply being monstrous.
You will know that those who, although cognizant, declined to change the fundamentals, were dithering as the planet caught fire.
In stray moments you will muse on life in those carefree days before the great rift in climate history. And you will stare ahead into an abyss even greater than the one we today are reluctant to imagine.
Jeff Howard , Ph.D., is a social scientist and environmental analyst. He lives in West Hartford.
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