Well I was wrong. Two days ago, there was a news story suggesting that the world’s system of insect populations was heading for collapse. I thought that it would disappear by next week. It has disappeared already. To a degree, that’s understandable. C Northcote Parkinson, inventor of Parkinson’s Law,* noted a corollary: an issue will be discussed in inverse proportion to its importance.
Approving a new nuclear reactor will be waved through, Parkinson noted, because it is simply too big for anyone to venture an opinion on. Managing the tea and coffee money will then attract endless discussion, because everyone has views. Parkinson, writing in the 1950s, had the luxury of being flippant. Now we’re talking about the systems that underlie the capacity of human life on the planet.
That’s the other reason why such a story passes through virtually uncommented upon. It’s simply too much to contemplate. It throws too large a shadow over the question of our lives, over the lives of children, over the possibility of life at all. Within one lifetime — indeed within the space of 30 or so years — the natural world has shrunk from its status as infinite horizon. We knew then we could trash and despoil it. Now we know that with the twin forces of global warming and biosphere destruction, we can actually break down the system sustaining human life. Within the century. Certainly within the lifespan of children born now, and quite possibly within the lifespan of an adult reading this.
Thus, the Parkinson effect is playing itself out in the media. The more the fate of the planet becomes monolithic, unitary, and dark, the greater the drive towards trivia, listicles, and debate about popular culture moment No. 2497.
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The second response is that of the right, climate deniers and trivialists. Their politics is no longer a politics, if by that we mean a discourse on the matters of living together. Those on the right, because their politics has died, have decided to ally themselves with death and energise themselves with the thrill of nihilism.
The third response offered is one of hope and the various techniques that radical and reform movements have always used to tackle major challenges. “Eyes on the prize”, “this-sidedness”, “one step at a time”. Hope, hope, hope. Hope has been a political commodity of great demand for the past decade or more. Hope is the fuel that drives such juggernauts.
But in these matters there are two kinds of hope: a general and a particular. The general hope is that humanity can survive. The particular hope is that Earth could be preserved much as it is. The general hope is a given condition for anyone involved in politics or social activism. But the particular hope, still being spruiked, is an illusion. We’re simply not going to come out of this the same way we came in.
Humanity, as a species grounded in nature, will, in this century, pass through the narrow corridor of its essence, and may not make it at all. The denialists, in assessing an apocalyptic scenario, suggest that its very apocalypticism rules it out. Ultimately, that is a preservation of the Judeo-Christian notion of the radical separateness of humanity from nature, the idea that we are immune to its system processes, or that our dominion over it can reverse on us.
But catastrophes occur all the time. You spill coffee on your laptop, and the moisture fries the circuits irretrievably. All the higher functions — your words, your thoughts, the photos of treasured moments — are destroyed in an instant by the collapse of lower functions, electronic circuitry. One cell mutates in one part of your body, and cancer develops. Six months later, the person you are, this immense labyrinth of history, meaning and life, simply stops. System catastrophes are no more unlikely than likely, once a potentially catastrophic process is underway.
Should we avoid catastrophe, the best we can hope for is a world that has been blasted out of recognition. Even some sort of super-rapid global awakening of consciousness and action — an unprecedented species-level historical moment — would see us heading towards 2-3 degrees of warming, and the collapse of particular habitats. And that presumes a moment that is based on a humanism so prophetic as to be quasi-religious, or a liberalism that sees a rational universal consensus as an imminent possibility, lying beneath the surface of the current political chaos.
But that, too, is a quasi-religious illusion. There is no moment at which rationally, by its very nature, suddenly emerges. Needing global and local solutions, twinned together, we remain imprisoned within a system of global nation-states, whose pursuit of their individual interests is lethal to collective interest. We need leaders capable of putting the global catastrophe on a real political footing. Instead, we have on one side Trump, Bolsonaro, Morrison and others, framing the fate of our planet in political culture-war terms; on the other, the Democrats, the Chinese leadership and others, sufficiently rational to recognise the crisis but unwilling to propose or initiate real action that would disadvantage their state.
So the best, realistic hope for a global approach to the global catastrophe is, say, two decades away. It’s more likely three or four. In those years, while habitats will be irreversibly destroyed, thousands of species — including many of the animals we think of as part of the “human garden” — will disappear, ocean life will be taken to the brink and beyond, zones of super heat will be created, disrupting food and water supplies. Political disruption and wars — most likely a recognisable series of conflicts that can be called a third world war — will result. The world we save will be a blighted, diminished place. For the planet we inherited, the catastrophe has already occurred.
Fighting against human and world extinction demands an acceptance of that, that one look this in the eye, and acknowledge that, in effect, it has already happened. Being able to respond to news stories such as the collapse of insect systems, and not simply swipe the screen, can only be done by accepting the radical truth that these stories tell us. What we do with that is for another time. But the first and most important political act is looking the world in the eye, as it is and will be, without flinching, and starting from there.