Coming to Terms with Climate Change. Book Review: David A. Collings. Stolen Future, Broken Present. The Human Significance of Climate Change.
by Alexander Schlutz
Environmentalists celebrated a rare victory at the end of last year, when New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on fracking. The decision was made after the state’s acting health commissioner Howard Zucker – following a two-year study – pronounced this form of natural gas extraction too risky a proposition for public health. New York became the first U.S. state with major natural gas deposits to declare a ban, a landmark departure from “business as usual” that resonated around the country.
Without a sustained, long-term effort by scientists and citizen activists, the New York decision would not have come about. Yet, all their work might not have made a difference, had New York State not already had a law on the books – the State Environmental Quality Review. The SEQR required the consideration of potential environmental and public health impacts and allowed for deliberation to take place before, not after the destructive facts on the ground had been established. Only the combination of legally required precaution with functioning public policy processes, through which scientific expertise and the voices of affected citizens could have an impact, made the ban on fracking a reality. That this success is such a rare exception to the norm is a telling reflection of the sad state of current environmental affairs.
New York State’s decision on fracking is also relevant in terms of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Fracked natural gas, often touted as a “bridge-fuel” with only half the CO2 emissions of coal, is in fact just as bad a contributor to global warming, due to methane leakage in the process. That leakage cancels out any advantages of natural gas over coal in terms of climate impact, as Bill McKibben explains in a Mother Jones piece from September 2014. Leaked methane not only memorably makes people’s tap water flammable, but is also a more potent, if more short-lived, heat-trapping gas [HTG] than CO2. Yet, whatever the beneficial climate impact of the New York State ban may ultimately be, in and of itself it will barely make a dent for the environmental goal of averting catastrophic man-made climate change.
When it comes to the latter, it seems that little else but bad to devastating news is ever to be had, as the arctic (sea) ice consistently disappears faster than even the most pessimistic scientists predicted, while the melting of the vast portion of the West-Antarctic ice sheet announced last Spring scared even the most detached glaciologists. Meanwhile, the oceans not only warm, but acidify, with devastating effects for coral reefs and aquatic eco-systems, and huge methane deposits in the frozen ocean floor and the arctic permafrost begin to be released, as both ocean bed and tundra melt, pushing us towards “tipping points” that, once triggered, will set in motion irreversible warming feedback loops, evil genii that all our efforts at reducing HTG emissions will be unable to put back into their various bottles.
The ongoing charade around the Keystone XL pipeline is a clear reminder of the unlikelihood that policy on the national and international level will take sound scientific advice and the suffering – both human and non-human – induced by climate change into real account any time soon. For that, the processes are too distorted by the tremendous wealth, power and influence of the fossil-fuel industry and other corporate actors. The recent decision on the part of the Obama administration to give Shell the go-ahead for exploratory drilling in the Arctic can serve as another example.
In her 2014 book on climate change, This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein strikes the hopeful note that we still have “Just Enough Time for Impossible,” i.e. to completely remake the global economic system and its attendant energy and value systems in the brief window still left to effect a meaningful reduction of ever-rising global CO2 emissions. Klein takes her cue from a paper by geophysicist Brad Werner, “Is Earth Fucked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism.” Werner identifies civic resistance as our only remaining hope to prevent utter catastrophe, and Klein counts on the combined people power of grassroots movements across the globe, already arising in the “sacrifice zones” where the hidden costs of modern life are not so hidden, to wrestle power away from the fossil fuel industry and to transform global civilization just in the nick of time.
In Stolen Future, Broken Present. The Human Significance of Climate Change, David A. Collings is not so sanguine. Collings’ book, published a few months before Klein’s, is available for free as a pdf-download from Open Humanities Press (a virtue worth highlighting in a time where global catastrophe easily becomes another way to turn a profit). In Collings view, nothing short of large-scale, Arab-Spring-style civil disobedience, in which a significant percentage of the U.S. population refuses to leave the streets before meaningful public policy is implemented, can be expected to make a difference, and there are no signs of such events on the horizon. Collings confronts head-on what very few people openly contemplate for any sustained amount of time: the frightening fact that, given the short window of time left to us, the enormity of the task, the more than considerable obstacles stacked against accomplishing it, and our abysmal track-record, the chances of averting catastrophic, irreversible climate change are at this point infinitesimally small. These circumstances require us to come to terms with the fact that the very future towards which all our actions are oriented has in all likelihood already disappeared.
For a rapidly increasing number of the world’s animal and plant species, who have fallen victim to the human-precipitated sixth mass extinction, the first one in earth’s geological history humans currently have the dubious privilege to witness, this is of course quite literally true already. Species go extinct at a highly alarming rate, in an ongoing die-off that threatens the biodiversity on which the planet’s ecological health depends. While climate change is not the sole cause for this extinction “event,” rising global temperatures greatly exacerbate the other man-made pressures that threaten the survival of non-human species (deforestation, overfishing, wildlife trafficking, environmental degradation, etc., etc.) To believe ourselves exempt from the consequences of our own planetary actions and the ecocide they have unleashed would mean to hold on to the good, old-fashioned human exceptionalism of the global North when it is least warranted.
Because of the inertia of a physical system as vast and complex as the earth’s climate, the planet will continue to warm for some time to come, even if we did manage to stabilize our ever-rising global CO2 emissions. Only an instant cut to zero emissions globally, a practical impossibility in any real-world scenario, might still avert such continued future warming. A warmer future is already guaranteed (we are “committing” ourselves and future generations to an inescapable amount of warming, as climate scientists put it), and the question right now is really only whether we are willing and able to prevent warming on a truly catastrophic scale that would be sure to overwhelm any coping mechanisms future societies might devise.
Doing what a meaningful response to climate change requires us to do, to give up on the unfairly distributed comforts of the contemporary Western way of life, of our own accord, without being forced at gun-point by an outside power, would in fact be, as Collings points out, entirely unprecedented in human history. Violence is in many ways the medium of exchange of modern civilization, and “[f]or half a millenium,” Collings sums up, “we have had to accept the possibility that the invasive power of modern economic and political regimes could destroy entire traditions, cultures, and peoples” (121). From this perspective, global climate catastrophe as the consequence of Western modernity should not be surprising news, while success in averting it would “change everything” indeed, would in fact be well-nigh miraculous.
Stolen Future, Broken Present does deliver the requisite science in the opening chapters, offers sound proposals for environmental policy, as well as for meaningful personal change to off-set one’s modern Western life, and also includes a helpful appendix, “Climate Change is Real,” that addresses the arguments deniers of anthropogenic climate change are likely to put forth. But the heart of the book is an engagement with our ethical predicament in the face of climate change. How should and can we still act morally and responsibly, once we accept the dark prospect that our actions will no longer make a difference in the face of physical processes that will not change their inevitable course on our account, even though they were triggered by human activity? Why should we still strive to find sustainable ways of inhabiting this planet – and Collings makes it clear that it is absolutely essential that we do –, even if the planet effectively no longer exists in the form that sustained human life for the past 10,000 years? On what moral grounds do we stand, in other words, as we enter the Anthropocene (if we accept that new label for the geological period in which we live) and leave the climatic “sweet-spot” for human civilization that was the Holocene behind, aware that no amount of environmentally sound policy (delivered too little, too late) can bring it back? Collings tackles the difficult task most authors on climate change eschew: imagining an ethics in the absolute ruins, a morality of total loss, in a world in which we will have to, as he points out, “grieve for grief itself,” since catastrophic losses and disastrous climate events – the Sandys and Hayans, droughts, fires, and heatwaves that are our “new normal” – follow each other so quickly that we no longer have time to mourn their effects. Collings suggests that the ethical stance we will need to adopt if we are to preserve our humanity in such a future requires itself a near-super-human effort. In an ethical position indebted in part to the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, he calls for an ethics of “infinite responsibility.”
Collings’ hard look at the future Western modernity has created, and the ways in which it undermines our efforts in the present to escape it, also challenges any comforting religious narratives we might still tell to convince ourselves that all will yet be well. The final chapter of the book takes on the biblical narrative of the “rainbow covenant” between the Judeo-Christian God and the descendants of Noah after the deluge (Genesis 8:21-22), which has become a particularly nefarious tool in the hands of climate-change deniers in U.S. congress. They assert that climate change and its devastating future effects cannot in fact come to pass, since such events would undermine the authority of the Christian God and the promise of his covenant with Noah. Collings takes John Shimkus, Republican member of congress from Illinois, as his target, but subsequent to the publication of Stolen Future, Broken Present U.S. congressional elections produced an even more disturbing example. The climate-change denying Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who deploys the rainbow covenant in his 2012 The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future is now chair of the influential Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The self-serving use of biblical narrative in this context is indeed “pernicious,” as Collings rightly asserts, because the “Drill, baby, drill!” imperative it seeks to sanction is a direct violation of the biblical command for humans to act as stewards of creation. As we officially walk away from that responsibility, it is hard to see on what grounds and with what powers Congress might force God to uphold the promise of the rainbow covenant.
On this point, Collings’ argument is now in dialog with that of Pope Francis, whose recent encyclical Laudato Si’. On Care for Our Common Home attempts to infuse the Christian notion of stewardship over creation with new meaning and urgency at our present moment of ecological crisis. The Pope also takes pains to wrest the concept of stewardship away from the narrative of divinely-sanctioned human dominion over the earth that has long served to support and excuse unfettered and ruthless exploitation of the earth’s natural resources and its indigenous peoples. Pope Francis is unequivocal in holding Western nations and a modern, consumerist lifestyle responsible for the root causes and unjustly distributed effects of anthropogenic climate change, and the encyclical emphasizes forcefully that any truly ecological approach must also be a social one, as the needs of the environment cannot be addressed without remedying the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized populations.
Unsurprisingly, Catholic Republican members of congress, presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum foremost among them, were quick to dismiss the Pope as an authority on economic matters. One may of course legitimately call for a more nuanced analysis of economics, as well as of modern technology, media and culture than the encyclical’s framework can ultimately provide, or be wary of some of the other dogmatic positions, particularly on women’s reproductive rights the Pope embraces. To belittle, however, as Rick Santorum does, the official position of the Catholic Church in the instance of climate change and ecological degradation, when its opinions are aligned with sound science, purportedly because “the Church has gotten it wrong on science in the past” is, needless to say, just as disingenuous as quoting Genesis to justify political inaction on climate change. The fossil fuel industry and its campaign donations are writing the script in both instances.
In probing the possibilities for a narrative that might help to give meaning to human life in the face of ongoing catastrophe, Collings ultimately pushes further than the Pope, whose encyclical is grounded in a theological account of a paternal and benevolent divine power as the source of creation, who has entrusted the earth to our care. While the Pope, like his Republican detractors, draws on the narrative provided by the book of Genesis, Collings turns instead to the book of Job and a much less reassuring divinity to give a face to the impersonal and indifferent physical forces that shape our fate on this planet. If the God of the rainbow covenant presided over the Holocene, the Anthropocene will need a new mythology, one that draws on older, darker Gods, to whose violent and unaccountable whims modern technological progress has ironically returned us. Like Job, who is reminded of his insignificance by God’s voice from the whirlwind, we’d be better served to give up all demands that transcendent powers should comply with our human sense of desert. A new-found humility in the face of the utter strangeness and complete otherness of the forces on which our existence depends might allow us to find a way to an ethical behavior that strives to do what is right without any belief in a reward to which we feel entitled.
Pope Francis calls for the abdication of a consumerist, throwaway lifestyle and an “ecological conversion” toward a sustainable way of inhabiting a common home entrusted to our care by a divine father. Collings’ suggestion of a Job-like repentance in the face of an inscrutable violence visited upon human beings by indifferent forces beyond our control is both stranger and spiritually more radical. In the face of such sublime, non-human violence, brought about by our own actions, we might recognize our true place in the vast ecological processes of which we form part and give up the idea altogether that the biosphere should be governed by human concepts of justice and reward. Such renunciation would be beneficial in two basic ways, Collings concludes, “it would allow us to give the wildness of the world its due, to pursue a truly ecological ethics of humility in the face of nature … and would also relieve us of the notion that this wildness will necessarily operate in a manner we might expect” (203).
Collings may be right to claim that “[a] transformative politics” aiming to enact the necessary reforms equivalent to Job’s repentance is “the immediate consequence of that spiritual breakthrough” (202). But an engagement with such fundamental questions, rarer and rarer even in the Humanities, is unlikely to have much of a place at COP 21, the upcoming climate talks in Paris this December. A binding, international agreement will finally need to be forged between national delegations that have been unable to agree on the demands of climate justice and meaningful emission reductions for two decades. The chances that the Paris agreement will reflect a “spiritual breakthrough” or an “ecological conversion” on the part of world leaders and that it will be formulated in a spirit of humility and repentance are effectively zero. If Jeb Sano’s anguished address at the COP 19 in the wake of taifun Hayan two years ago could not move the delegates, nothing is likely to change their minds in any real way, all efforts of climate activists in the run-up to Paris to the contrary. Whatever benefits for the global climate New York State’s ban on fracking last December may entail are likely to be rendered meaningless by the version of “business as usual” that will be enshrined by the COP agreement at the end of this year. Whatever the outcome of the Paris negotiations, we will need to continue to look for ways to live with the consequences of our collective (in)action.