The Birthday Gift

Unknown In spite of protestations that I do not feel like celebrating, my family insists. They are going to take me out to a birthday dinner, like it or not. They are concerned about my emotional state; they want to cheer me up. I am touched.

And in the short term, it will indeed cheer me. But in the long term, I will revert to what is now a permanent state of anger and despair. I live with that because I cannot avert my eyes from the disasters humanity is creating for itself. Some concerned relatives and friends have suggested that I am ‘depressed’, in need of medication. I should take my meds and stop thinking about things. After all, the argument goes, the situation isn’t as bad as you believe, and in any case, you can’t do anything about it. So, stop already.

Here’s what they want me to ignore: my latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, As the World Burns  Greed and Stupidity in the Age of Megafires. A timely analysis of what is driving this summer of funeral pyres, in California, here in BC, in Ontario, in northern latitudes, in short: everywhere. Several fire fighters have already lost their lives as well as grandmothers and children who didn’t get out of the way in time. The prognosis is grim: Fueled by Climate Change extremes in weather and a hundred years of forest mismanagement, these mega-fires are unlike anything we’ve faced before. We might have taken better care of our forests by listening to the sage advice of the native population, which has always cleared the underbrush and managed the land through small, controlled burns. We ignored that advice, and still do. Hubris, anyone?

A recent article in the Tyee about the plight of an Orca mother who refused to abandon her dead newborn, and the overall threat of extinction to this iconic species dwindling slowly on BC’s coast. The reason: too much pollution and too few Chinook salmon. The resident pod feeds almost exclusively on salmon, and the salmon runs are no longer what they once were. This is one of many species at risk of extinction, like a herd of Elk in the Similkameen region, gone. It’s simply a reminder that we, the most successful species on the planet, is killing off the life on which we, ultimately, depend. It’s the sixth Great Extinction; it is ongoing; we are doing everything to help it flourish.

Today, the Guardian reports that an urgent ‘summit’ between British farmers watching their crops wither and various government agencies has been called because between Brexit and drought, the fear is that soon there won’t be enough to feed the island nation.

And a few days ago, the Guardian informed me that on my very birthday, August first, we’re going to overshoot the annual ‘ecological budget’ for the globe. It used to come much later in the year, which means that our consumption of finite resources is out of control. To get the rest of the global population into the cozy fold of our twenty first century western lifestyle would take roughly two earths, maybe more. In other words, everything we do contributes to a long-term trajectory to catastrophe.

But wait. There’s good news: Hans Rosling, a Swedish researcher has published a book that proves we always get our facts wrong, erring on the side of pessimism because we are such emotional creatures. Like me. I am not one to second guess Rosling; he is a bona fide scientist. The problem with his thesis is that it proves why we find ourselves in a mortal catch-22: the more the rest of the world catches up to us, the worse our overall situation becomes and the sooner we use up all our resources, pollute and poison ourselves, and kill other animals. See previous paragraph. This is not what I would call ‘progress’, but that is how it’s generally defined: more eonomic health, more business, more enterprise for everyone. We have here the Golden Calf of modern capitalism, the GDP, and we are all forced to dance around it. There is no Plan B though the technocrats, Elon and friends, are planning to live on Mars. I hope they enjoy it.

Usually, this sort of bleak analysis of our current paradoxical situation doesn’t get much play in the ‘mainstream media’, certainly not in the likes of The New Yorker. But I guess things are getting so dire that even they have to engage. And they did, with a long, well argued and wide-ranging article by Joshua Rothman asking the six billion dollar question: Are Things Getting Better or Worse? If you have an appetite for a long piece that might actually leave you somewhat confused, here it is:

Rothman has done his homework and he cites the relevant thinkers, pessmimists like the Black Swan author, Nikolas Taleb, who says we’re simply not equipped to imagine the unimaginable, the disasters he dubbed Black Swans, after the all too human tendency to discount things we haven’t seen. And optimists like the influential Steven Pinker with Enlightenment Now, which proves that, practically everwhere, things are on the upswing and that we will, somehow, manage both the using up of resources and solve Climate Change and its corollaries of extinction and poison. People like me are diagnosed with “progressophobia”. He blames it all on the media, who only report the bad news. Point taken, Pinker, but there’s something you left out, namely The Long Term. It is likely true that much is positive in THE SHORT TERM but at the cost of our long-term survival. It’s a biological fact.

The only argument in the entire article that actually sounds utterly convincing is one made by the biologists, who know that “it is the fate of every successful species to wipe itself out.” Successful species use up all their resources and then drown in their wastes. Does that sound familiar? It is also the most fascinating part of this long article because Rothman finally gets down to the issue that is pressing: time. He cites a book I haven’t read (yet), and here is the summary:

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World”, tells the stories of two researchers, William Vogt and Norman Borlaug, who occupied opposing sides of the twentieth-century debate about the human population. In Mann’s terms, Vogt was a “prophet”: he predicted that, unless global population growth could be slowed, worldwide famine would result. Borlaug was a “wizard,” who argued that innovations in agriculture would make it possible for farmers to feed everyone. In the event, Borlaug was right: the “Green Revolution,” which he spearheaded, dramatically increased crop yields and saved billions of lives. But the deeper debate between the two sides—“Cut back or produce more?”—persists, this time around climate change. And the long term looks dreadful indeed, even the medium term is not fabulous anymore. One of the reasons is an array of exploding clathrates in Siberia, northern Canada, even Sweden. Clathrates are frozen methane, thawing out nicely, set to upset our global applecart because methane is a gas with twenty times the CO2. Methane burns; all you need is a match. Methane emitting lakes can be lit on fire. The thawing permafrost also emits it in great quantities. A reliable guide to this underreported phenom is this guy, Robert Hunziker, whose articles in Counterpunch are a delight because of their irreverent tone:

The hope is that we will not fall into this death trap, set for us by Mother Nature. I think that we can, in fact, do this. But only if we stop averting our eyes, living in the present, consuming our way through life, while moaning about having so little power. I recommend visiting a site I discovered very recently, The young Brit who writes it basically agrees with my contention that facing the darkness we have created is the first step towards the light. It is a moral and spiritual issue, not simply an environmental one. Making careers out of arguing one side against another, he says, is getting us nowhere. We are stuck in endless arguments. 

There is a way out of this dilemma, but looking away will not help. So, I will continue to be ‘depressed’, I will mourn the losses we have already suffered, and I will do whatever little bit I can to move the conversation off dead centre.

Which is to write pieces like this. Happy  Depressed Angry Birthday to me.



4 thoughts on “The Birthday Gift

  1. No kidding. I found a site called Dark Optimism yesterday, a youngish Brit who offers a new way of dealing with our crisis. I’ll send you the link if you like.

  2. It was great to visit with you on your birthday and share some thoughts. Your mind is still sharp as a tack. Do not despair. There is much we cannot change about the world but we can change how we react to it all.

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