Don’t mention the climate

Having just watched Before the Flood it is disheartening to see another warning to ourselves of the damage we are doing to ourselves. The movie is a call to action to correct our damaging climate change course. Let us be clear, Earth will exist regardless of whether we work to retain our lifestyle or perhaps even our existence. Advanced civilisations have crumbled and species have become extinct throughout the history of our planet. The warnings are not new, they have been ignored throughout the past two hundred years.

Consider Thomas Malthus writing about the subservience of the human race to the laws of nature in 1798:

Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it.

Or the economist John Maynard Keynes in 1933, delivering a warning to us about how our political and economic processes were not being utilised for the good of humanity:

For the minds of this generation are still so be-clouded by bogus calculations that they distrust conclusions which should be obvious, out of a reliance on a system of financial accounting which casts doubt on whether such an operation will “pay.” We have to remain poor because it does not “pay” to be rich. We have to live in hovels, not because we cannot build palaces, but because we cannot “afford” them. The same rule of self-destructive financial calculation governs every walk of life. We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend. London is one of the richest cities in the history of civilisation, but it cannot “afford” the highest standards of achievement of which its own living citizens are capable, because they do not “pay.” […] Today we suffer disillusion, not because we are poorer than we were – on the contrary even today we enjoy, in Great Britain at least, a higher standard of life than at any previous period, but because other values seem to have been sacrificed and because they seem to have been sacrificed unnecessarily, inasmuch as our economic system is not, in fact, enabling us to exploit to the utmost the possibilities for economic wealth afforded by the progress of our technique, but falls far short of this, leading us to feel that we might as well have used up the margin in more satisfying ways.

How about Sigmund Freud in 1961:

It is true that nature would not demand any restrictions of instinct from us, she would let us do as we liked; but she has her own particularly effective method of restricting us. She destroys us – coldly, cruelly, relentlessly, as it seems to us, and possibly through the very things that occasioned our satisfaction. It was precisely because of these dangers with which nature threatens us that we came together and created civilization, which is also, among other things, intended to make our communal life possible. For the principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’être, is to defend us against nature.

These people were not writing about the specific troubles we are now experiencing and we will continue to face over the coming years. However, there were many specific warnings. Consider this newspaper article from 1912:

COAL CONSUMPTION AFFECTING CLIMATE The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

The newspaper article was likely to be reflective of prior scientific efforts. In 1824 Joseph Fourier talked about the importance of Earth’s atmosphere in keeping the planet warm. In the 1860s John Tyndall showed the importance of carbon dioxide in maintaining Earth’s temperature. In 1896 Svante Arrhenius used calculations to show warming is the result of higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The science continued to improve … humanity knew what it did, and here we are. Perhaps ignorance of the science could be claimed for a certain amount of time, but ignorance is not the cause of our current situation. Consider articles like this from 1953 in the New York Times:

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air will double by the year 2080 and raise the temperature an average of at least 4 per cent.

Or Time Magazine from 1956:

Since the start of the industrial revolution, mankind has been burning fossil fuel (coal, oil, etc.) and adding its carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In 50 years or so this process, says Director Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, may have a violent effect on the earth’s climate. […] At present the atmosphere contains 2.35 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, existing in equilibrium with living plants and sea water (which tends to dissolve it). Up to 1860, man’s fires added only about 500 million tons per year, and the atmosphere had no trouble in getting rid of this small amount. But each year more furnaces and engines poured CO2 into the atmosphere. In 1900, the amount was 3 billion tons. By 1950, it was 9 billion tons. By 2010, if present trends continue, 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide will enter the air each year.

History shows a strong paper trail of warnings, growing suspicion, then certainty, and then evidence of our impact on the environment. It is obvious our systems of collaboration fail us, and the excuse used to continue our path toward destruction is no-one knows how to do any better – Keynes again from 1933:

The decadent international but individualistic capitalism, in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war, is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous;-and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.

Perhaps this will be a turning point, a historical challenge greater than anything humanity has ever overcome. We are more likely to fail than succeed. A global revolution is required, our systems of collaboration need to change, our collective values need to move on from the pursuit of profit and economic “growth”, we have to invent technology to save us because the promises made in the Paris 2015 agreement are unachievable. Yes I am furious. Hopefully you are too, though I do not have faith in anyone else. (Lack of trust is a personal issue, though not without reason.) We need to be different to survive. We have a hard road to travel, we have to seriously consider the meaning of human life and transform everything we do.

Closing words from Abraham Lincoln in 1862 talking about slavery:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We – even we here – hold the power, and bear the responsibility. […] We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
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