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WATCHING THE APOCALYPSE IN SLOW MOTION BY ISMAIL IBRAHIM 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 68
I imagined a future where I would be a father. In the intoxicating moments between being awake and asleep, I slipped into a fantasy rife with pastoral images. In the fantasy I’m sitting on a back porch watching my daughters play. Rosemary and Orchid run around the garden chasing each other, shrieking and laughing, muddying their clothes, playing games with rules inscrutable to parents. They radiate the joy of children, that silly, light kind of happiness, so immense that it makes the scene golden. I fantasize about the iced tea, no, the lemonade, that I sip slowly as the sun sets. When darkness comes, we go into the kitchen and cook dinner from the vegetables and herbs that grow in the garden. I ask Rosemary to smell her namesake herb before I sprinkle it on the roast potatoes. The fantasy father version of me lies down to sleep and the me dreaming him goes out like a light.
Now, my pre-sleep imagination takes me somewhere else. I’m in a car. It’s hot. There’s a fire sweeping towards me but there’s gridlock and I can’t go anywhere. The AC sucks smoke into the car. I’m choked to death by the ash or the car catches fire and I’m incinerated.
The Camp Fire, the most deadly fire in California’s history, in data streams and word counts, keeps me up at night. Seventy-nine and counting people lost their lives to the blaze and hundreds more cannot be found. The fire came after a drought that killed roughly 100 million trees, making fuel for the fire. Soon, barring serious collective action, the devastation the Camp Fire wrought, it pains me to say, will seem quaint. Our world is becoming more extreme and less habitable day by day.
As a child I would stumble into Blockbuster with my babysitter, drool and snot running down my face from abusive Chicago winters, and we’d pick up DVDs and Milk Duds. One evening, we picked up Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a DVD that, with a few stops and misfiring neurons along the way, is responsible for the poor state of my mental health.
“Climate grief is essentially a term that describes the unique grief of being aware that we are on a very slow-mo plane crash to species extinction,” says Marcela Mulholland, a Sunrise Movement activist. “I think a lot about how much tragedy and impending doom I have to ignore on a daily basis in order to just function and not be frozen by it.”
We are inundated daily with push notifications, headlines, and tweets about melting ice caps, forest fires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods, but they’re swiped away as easily as a spam email. There were five times as many natural disasters in the 2000s than in the 1970s, and sometimes it can be hard to keep up. Climate activists, scientists, and researchers don’t have the luxury of turning off, and the horror impacts them psychologically.
Good Grief is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous with a 10-step program for battling climate grief.
“So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts,” climate activist and psychologist Dr Lise Van told Esquire reporter John Richardson in July.
Laura Schmidt, who runs a climate grief support group called Good Grief, describes the symptoms as “despair, powerlessness, and disconnection”. Good Grief is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous with a 10-step program for battling climate grief.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this October issued a staggering report on the amount of warming that has already occurred, its impact, and how warming will continue to increase given current greenhouse gas emission trajectories. This report shortens the timeline for human action dramatically, giving us 12 years to reduce emissions by 45 per cent. This is unlikely to happen since emissions have risen every year in the last three decades.
When this report came out, I was working on my undergraduate thesis on soil carbon sequestration, work I honestly thought might help save us from famine. The narrow timeline outlined in the report dashed my hopes, and struck me personally. I realized I didn’t want to live a life long enough to see the effects that they set out, in official language so sanitized and scientific.
Schmidt calls this the “gut punch”. There will be continuous famine due to drought, endless refugees from lands in drought or swallowed by the sea, and a disgusting scramble for the last available resources. Climate change will cast a glaring light on the most disgusting traits of human nature: greed, xenophobia, hatred, and envy.
“I do have moments where I’m shook as fuck by the severity of the crisis and how much is on the line,” Mulholland says. She agrees that a short life would be merciful. “I’m not going to have children. I am going to fulfill my moral obligation to future generations, but I’m also trying to peace out before I have to fight for water.”
Science historian Spencer R Weart gives a narrative description of the symptoms of climate grief in the opening pages of his book The Discovery of Global Warming. “One day as I was walking home after hours spent studying scientific papers on the possibility of climate change, I noticed the elegant maples lining my street and wondered if they were near the southern end of their natural range,” he writes. “All at once, in my mind’s eye I saw the maples dead—felled by global warming.”
Mulholland is quick to point out that anxiety isn’t new for a generation coming of age, but the knowledge that the planet is collapsing being the cause of it is. “We’re angsty teens,” she says. “But then also there’s literally an apocalypse that is crowding and shading everything that we do.”
Al Gore threw many young people out of Eden, and broke the news that they were living on a dying planet. “The first memory I have of climate change is definitely watching An Inconvenient Truth, and I thought that’s so scary that the polar bears are going to die eventually,” says Michelle Sanders, an NYU student writing her thesis on coral bleaching. “I never thought it would be now.”
But it is happening now. In the US California burned this year. Florida flooded. 2019 is on track to be one of the hottest years on record.
My future has been sold to the fossil fuel industry and no one bats an eye. The rest of my life, even if we stopped emitting the second I’m writing this, will be filled with drought, fire, flood, sea-level rise, and reduced biodiversity.
“I guess I’m not as upset about the end of the world as I am about the more immediate impacts like drought in Venezuela,” says Lucila Dunnington, an environmental engineer with a PhD in mine water reclamation for Colorado School of Mines. “Indigenous people are being forced to flee to Brazil and the Brazilian people are burning down their temporary housing. I should be more I guess focused on the grand scheme of things, but these current things feel more pressing.”
For many that research the climate, and advocate for change, climate grief can be overwhelming, especially in the face of inaction. “I think there’s hope for environmental causes,” says Dunnington “I say that, but then I look at places like Flint.”
This despair often comes with the knowledge that activists themselves contribute to emissions. “I feel guilty but I don’t know what to do about it,” says Sanders. She has to fly to Australia for her research, but berates herself for the amount of greenhouse gas her trip will emit. “It’s almost like calorie counting,” she says. “There’s points when calorie counting is helpful but there’s points when it becomes a disorder.”
Schmidt warns against this form of “carbon counting”. It’s not the individual, she believes, who is responsible for climate change. It’s systems. “We come to terms with this by realizing we’re part of a system, and we can’t completely divorce ourselves from the system and still have an impact,” she says.
“There’s this idea that like you can only do something as an individual and as an individual you can’t really do a lot,” Dunnington says. “When I hear people doing that kind of stuff (recycling, not flushing the toilet, going zero waste) I feel like they’ve been duped by industry because the major sources of pollution are on an industrial scale. I think recycling can make people feel good, but it’s a little sad that they’re being tricked.”
The effects of burning obscenely large and ever-growing quantities of fossil fuels have been known for decades, and because of the greed of a few, nothing has been done to stop it. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the US Senate about the causes of anthropogenic climate change, namely the mass burning of fossil fuels and the impact continued emissions would have on human and planetary survival. Still emissions have gone up 29 out of the 30 years since Hansen testified. The only outlier year was 2009 because of the global recession.
Climate change has made a few people a lot of money, and blocking climate action costs those few people pennies on their dollars. There are fingers to be pointed, there is blame to be assigned, and there isn’t a question of who must shoulder the burden. We know exactly who set California on fire.
Fossil fuel corporations are responsible for 91 per cent of emissions since 1988. The Saudi Arabian Oil company, the most profitable company in the world according to Bloomberg, is solely responsible for four and a half per cent of global emissions between 1988 and 2015. The company made 33.8 billion dollars in the first half of 2017 alone. Exxon, which can take credit for an impressive two per cent of emissions in the same time, profited 19 billion dollars in 2017 alone.
“Fossil fuel billionaires have fucked all of us over,” Mulholland says, and she’s not wrong.
Fossil fuels flow through the veins of industrial life and the longer we wait to quit our addiction, the worse the disease gets. We burn coal and oil to power factories, we use the byproduct to make produce, and we burn more fuel still to transport the goods to consumers. One barrel of crude oil delivers the equivalent energy that 25,000 hours of human labor does.
The oil, coal, and gas industry weaponizes their profits against government, especially in the US. Gas companies in Colorado, where Dunnington works, spent 40 times what activists spent to block an anti-fracking ballot. “The people are being overridden basically by the lobbying power of the oil and gas,” Dunnington says.
Our dependence on fossil fuels won’t be broken with half measures and the consent of the companies that profit off its use. We are so dependent on Saudi oil that the US President has used cheap oil, along with lucrative weapons deals, to justify pardoning Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump claims that the House of Saud will buy $110 billion in arms from the US, which, according to him, will create jobs. The number is closer to $14.5 billion of arms according to analysts, but that is still a huge sum of money.
It was with this understanding that Yvo de Boer, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, famously remarked that to “achieve a two-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy”.
Nothing short of a complete restructuring of our governments and economies will prevent absolute ecological collapse. As the IPCC report that made me want to kill myself put it, “The geographical and economic scales at which the required rates of change in the energy, land, urban, infrastructure,and industrial systems would need to take place have no documented historic precedent”.
“It’s happened before in history that we’ve organized and collectively changed the way the government is framed,” Dunnington says. “It’s happened in other countries too, the municipalization of power in Germany happened through mass movements.” Many cities in Germany voted for public electricity networks rather than private corporations, which is the reason more than a third of Germany’s grid is powered by renewable resources.
The steps to avoid two degrees warming are unlikely, unrealistic.
To put matters very seriously, the steps to avoid two degrees warming are unlikely, unrealistic, and run counter to mainstream economic theory. All extraction of fossil fuels would have to cease immediately, and since they’re still profitable, it would mean outlawing extraction. Fossil fuels reserves would have to be left unused as well, because if all oil reserves were burned, we would exceed the two degrees. This requires regulation, or government investment in renewable energy, and both are anathema to US Republican ideology.
Every administration that knew of the dangers of climate change stalled, the fossil fuel corporations lobbied and bought time and, as emissions rose, the timetable for action got much tighter. While ineffectual governments pussy-footed, our addiction got worse, along with the prospects of my generation having a liveable planet.
“There was a Sunrise Green New Deal action in San Francisco, and they went to representative Barbara Lee and Nancy Pelosi’s office wearing masks,” Mulholland tells me. “All these people are literally wearing masks because the air is not safe to breathe. That is like the future that we are spiraling towards very quickly.”
Unless, of course, fossil fuels are phased out by spending our military budget on renewable energy. Onshore wind turbines produce energy at four cents a kilowatt-hour. The average American household uses 10,500 kilowatt-hours a year. At 126 million American households, that’s around 53 billion dollars to make each household run on renewable energy.
Let’s say the noise and visual pollution of wind turbines is unacceptable to Americans, and they demand solar, the more expensive, renewable. Solar costs 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, so the figure comes out to 132 billion dollars to get off fossil fuels. This may seem like a large amount of money, the kind of money no one willingly throws around.
What I’m suggesting, however, doesn’t need willingness. In 1997, under threat of class action lawsuits, tobacco companies agreed to pay out 368 billion dollars over 25 years to cover the medical expenses of smokers. Many US States also began taxing tobacco products at exorbitant rates, and forced tobacco companies to label their product with the health risks of smoking.
The fossil fuel industry, like the cigarette industry, has profited off of illness and death, has known for decades its product is dangerous, and spends a fortune obfuscating the research that shows just how dangerous it is. The main difference is that climate change doesn’t discriminate between users and abstainers. Every human will be caught in the cancerous, deadly second-hand smoke of fossil fuels, power plants, and forest fires no matter how many times we re-use our shopping bags.
There are people acting to hold those responsible accountable, and fundamentally shift our economy in ways not seen since World War Two. Young people have been collecting to get ballot measures passed, progressive candidates elected, and hold current representatives responsible. US Representative Alexandria Occasio-Cortez is leading the charge by calling for a Green New Deal, a stimulus package that would bring jobs to the renewable energy sector.
The Green New Deal calls bullshit on that false choice of jobs or a liveable planet.
“The Green New Deal calls bullshit on that false choice of jobs or a liveable planet because we have a right to both good jobs and the liveable planet,” says Mulholland.
For many critics of the Green New Deal, the question is who will pay. The answer is simple, make the people who cause the harm foot the bill, and if it bankrupts them all the better.
Despite clear steps to, you know, have a habitable planet, it is unlikely that the current US Administration or any administration the US elects will take the necessary steps in the next 12 years to avoid species extinction. Our forests will still be burning, our coasts flooding, and our species dying of drought as long as that small number of people stand to make a lot of money from it.
The reality is that we are already, now, living in a less habitable planet than our ancestors. If nothing changes, we will have to adapt and find bold serious strategies for living in warmer world.
“When the disaster comes, we need to figure out the best way to cope,” Sanders says. When that time comes, those ways to cope won’t be cheap.
There is no question of who has to foot the bill. We can either demand justice and reparations from the people who are destroying the planet, or let it burn. We will have to look for a seat that’s not too hot, and not too wet, so we can watch the apocalypse in slow motion.
I’m not a writer, I never set out to be a writer. But I happen to write. I write because I have to spend my time somehow. I wanted to front a punk band but I can’t sing, so now I scream in ink. Maybe it seeps into the things I do when I don’t write, maybe it’s a heightened awareness. I look around, and it’s so light, it’s so beautiful, and I want to try and catch it. Even if I never do, at least in the attempt I see it for what it is. So I write because I don’t want to fill out Excel sheets while I’m alive.