It’s a good week to think about the environment and talk about the environment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just a few days ago released a summary of the first part of its big climate report. The contents were not surprising: the earth, the air, the seas, the lakes everything is getting warmer, mainly due to carbon added to the atmosphere and most of that coming from human activities.
This isn’t just another climate report, this one is from of the world’s only globally recognized scientific bodies dedicated to researching climate change and its implications for the planet. The last report was in 2007. It’s worth pointing out this body shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
It’s a big moment and all the big media distributors are reporting it with requisite graveness. But let’s be honest, it won’t matter. It won’t matter until your hometown is destroyed by some freak environmental catastrophe. Oh wait, maybe your hometown already has been destroyed by freak environmental catastrophe. Well then it won’t matter until New York City is destroyed by a freak environmental catastrophe. Oh wait, Sandy did a credible job trying that, but even a 13-foot storm surge wasn’t able to wipe out New York–not even close. Extreme weather phenomena are manageable–even profitable because you have to rebuild! And anyway you can’t attribute a hurricane directly to global warming. There’s no direct line of cause and effect. Which is why this report and all the future reports on global warming and climate change won’t matter. The show must go on, we’ll just deal with the other stuff as it happens.
The earth’s climate has fluctuated rather a lot over the course of its 5 billion years of existence and will continue to do so with or without the help of humans. The earth is quite resilient, thank you. Whether humans alter the environment to such an extent that we make it uninhabitable for ourselves, well that’s a possibility. We may reduce our own numbers significantly, or even go extinct. Well here’s another fact for you: 99.9% of all species that ever existed have gone extinct. That’s not good odds. Homo sapiens will die out someday almost certainly due to climate change or disease. If we are lucky, then we will leave behind our technology in the form of some sort of artificial intelligence. That, I believe, will be our lasting contribution to the universe.
What does all of this have to do with a 9-day bike ride around Taihu? It’s my way of celebrating the last golden days, of touching and being touched by the natural arrangement of things. It’s a conscious expression of pre-diluvian grief and joy and respect. Here in China, you have to understand, simple things like untouched vistas are not the norm. My suspicion is that, in this respect, China is already well ahead of the west in pioneering the post-natural world.
What I am hoping to inspire by my trip is a sense of future nostalgia, an appreciation of something very decent that is about to disappear, and in the process to evolve a language for mythologizing this loss. I think we’re going to need it big time because when the natural order which has sustained the human world for thousands of years is suddenly taken away, we, the people, will be at the complete mercy of those with power and wealth. I mean, we always have been, but in the past nature has always presented a revolutionary possibility, even if in providing the simple opportunity of reinventing yourself. It’s troubling to imagine what will sustain us in a post-natural world completely dominated by technology. Where will we hide? From what perch will be able to register an objection? When we have no natural referents anymore and enter into an entirely de Saussurean existence, it will be only ourselves who provide the referents. That has major implications for morality, ethics, ideology and art. When humans become their own religion, there is reason to be concerned.
Of course, as some people may know, there are a number of different interesting researches going on into alternate–radically alternate–energy sources. Fusion, Tesla coils, all kinds of weird off-the-wall stuff. I’m not optimistic about their chances of success. There won’t be a Manhattan project kind of mobilization to make the breakthrough. And sadly, if a breakthrough is made, it won’t be easily accepted by the current political economy. Maybe if Google decides it really needs to cut its server power bills, then there is a chance. But it’s a long shot.
In lieu of that, we have to assume that economic development will not slow down. The pace of technological innovation will only increase. As a consequence, we’re not going to stop dumping alien chemicals into our atmosphere and seas and lakes and land. We’re not going to stop extracting resources from our atmosphere and seas and lakes and land. The situation is unsustainable, everyone knows that.
But for now, for today and for the next few years and maybe decades, we will have a few moments to ourselves to make peace with the natural world. And bid it goodbye in proper fashion.