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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The stark choice facing humanity: creation or destruction?

Part 8. Two Paths, and a Choice

Six months after the Paris climate conference, little seemed to be happening. With the exception of Greenpeace and 350.org, most environmental groups were curiously quiet. They pressed ahead with fundraising, as always; they published their magazines with glossy photos; but in truth gave little sign that a critical moment in human history was upon us.

In contrast, the significance of Paris spurred considerable pushback from Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Mining. Most observable activity post-Paris originated from fossil fuel corporations pressing vigorously ahead to cash in as much of their reserves as they could before any restrictions might be applied.

Shareholder meetings of Exxon and Chevron in May of 2016 saw the lopsided defeat of resolutions presented by climate activist investors. Chevron CEO John Watson emphatically rejected a call to tax carbon emissions. “When people talk about a price on carbon, you’re talking about raising the price of energy—you’re talking about raising the price of everything,” he declared, which he insisted would hurt the world’s poor, hungry for affordable energy to improve their lives. There was little comment from environmentalists on the astonishing, sudden concern of Big Oil for the plight of the world’s poor.

Also in May, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, in “an unusually stark warning,” declared that planned coal-fired plants to generate electricity in southeast Asia would be “disaster for the planet.” China has plans to build 150 gigawatts (GW) of new plants by 2020; India, 125 GW; Vietnam 40 GW; and Indonesia 25 GW. The construction of these plants “would make it highly unlikely that we would be able to get to 2 degrees C,” said Bank senior climate official John Roome.

350.org had tabbed May as the month for world-wide demonstrations against fossil fuel extraction, its Break Free 2016 campaign. In dozens of countries, both developing and advanced, protesters blocked and often occupied sites for days on end. The protesters were impressively passionate and disciplined. Yet for all that, the actual numbers involved in each action were disappointing: more often in the dozens or hundreds than thousands. No event remotely approached the size of the fall 2014 New York City march on the United Nations. And certainly no extractionist activities were abandoned or even shut down for long.

At the end of the month, energy ministers from the world’s largest economies met at a Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco to discuss how to transition to renewable energy, with clean-technology entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley amply represented. The SF Chronicle noted the 4-day conference came “at a time of immense promise and uncertainty.” Yet no announcements of important developments emerged from the meetings. Though several international meetings were scheduled before the next UN Climate Conference in Morocco in November 2016, translating the Paris pledges and goals into reality was proving to be a daunting task.

The blooming of hope in 2014 and 2015, which had seemed to blossom in Paris, looked to have wilted in the ensuing months. A new approach was desperately needed, “a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis,” as Shellenberger had written in 2004. A vision that encompassed the “alternative worldview” of Klein’s indigenous peoples in 2014, as well as the “new way of thinking” that Pope Francis called us to in 2015.

These essays have noted that John Muir presented such a worldview. Careful reading of Muir’s journals, particularly, as well as actions in his life, reveal what we might call Earth Wisdom, a startlingly new vision of humans and the planet. Muir’s Earth Wisdom can be summarized in three pillars. One, the earth is the proper focus of humans, and confers all that we need for health and happiness. This pillar replaces the focus on heaven or an afterlife as the most important consideration for humans.

Two, humans are kin to all other life forms, rather than a superior race charged to exploit and have dominion over the planet. Here Muir replaces the old anthropocentrism with a new Gaiacentrism. We flourish to the extent that the earth and its creatures are respected and flourishing.

Three, reality on our planet is generated by the complementary interplay of two sets of qualities, what China’s Taoists termed the yin and the yang. This dualism is marked by the constant interplay of cooperation, acceptance, nurturing, and the feminine, on one hand, with competition, dominance, destruction, and the masculine, on the other. Both are valid, both necessary; reality is the balanced interplay between them.

This immanent worldview has been arrived at twice more in human history: the Taoists of ancient China, and what we may call the Darwinism of modern science’s body of knowledge. These two and Muir’s three-pillared Earth Wisdom provide us with exactly the “alternate worldview,” the “new way of thinking” called for by Klein, Pope Francis, and astute observers worldwide in this moment of crisis in human affairs. Can this worldview be more widely recognized? Can it spread and generate the groundswell of popular support that will permit—or compel—the world’s leaders to adopt it and the changes in energy systems and lifestyles that are needed to rescue humanity from the consequences of climate change?

Time will tell—and soon. A terrible arc now looms over the history of humans on this planet. The decisions we make in the next two decades will determine which of two paths we take, and how far down the impending path we travel.

The first path is the easy one, the likely one, consisting of “business as usual”. Every month we put off embracing a new worldview and making the radical changes it entails, will move us further along this road. There are six stages we can envision on this path. In the first, Challenge, the necessary measures to reduce carbon emissions upon James Hansen’s alarm in 1988 could have been relatively easily accomplished, and a sustainable human future ensured. We failed to do so in the three ensuing decades.

We are currently in the early years of the second stage, Crisis. In the several years ahead, steadily expanding occurrences of drought, early famines, increase in severe weather episodes, and migrations of climate refugees will further dislocate the current world order. These factors will continue their rise until they constitute a constellation of problems bringing about substantial damages to the world’s economy and social fabric, problems that will intensify by the year. Although world leaders promised to respond at the Paris U.N. conference in December of 2015, the existing fossil fuel and mining corporations and their well-paid political servants are stubbornly resisting, and insist on reaping their profits until mid-century, at least.

The dawn and blossoming of hope in 2015 is faltering. This resistance of the economic elite, unable to be overturned by political leaders long accustomed to funds channeled to them to sustain the existing order, has locked in continued rises in carbon emissions and ensured our resultant passage to the third stage: Desperate Struggle, which we will enter within two decades.

In this stage, ever-increasing heat and drought will render many countries uninhabitable, particularly in a wide equatorial band through Africa and southeast Asia. Production of grains will plummet worldwide as the floods and droughts intensify, especially in the now-salty great river deltas of Asia, and amid the searing heat of tropical regions. Famine will hit the increasing human population very hard, first in Africa and Asia, then in South America. Hundreds of millions will die in the famines, followed by further hundreds of millions in the ensuing epidemics as fragile third-world health systems are quickly overwhelmed.

Before the middle of our 21st century, great waves of humanity will surge north from the unbearable heat, famine, and disease of the tropics to the temperate countries. America, China, Russia, and Europe will be besieged by hundreds of millions of clamoring climate refugees.

These northern countries, already dealing with their own climate problems and unable to support huge additions to their populations, will resort to constructing fences with armed towers along their entire borders, through every hill and valley. Still the desperate migrants will come, rioting and forcing their way across the barriers.

Quickly the border towers will be manned by military personnel, machine guns placed every several hundred yards, in the same crossfire pattern deployed so devastatingly in June, 1944 on Omaha Beach. Desperate and fleeing for their lives from impossible conditions, the southern refugees will persist in attempts to surmount the barriers. Soon the borders will be marked by huge piles of rotting corpses, mounds of death that grow daily. Within months, grotesque heaps of dead bodies will stretch continuously along the entire extent of the borders, thousands of miles of “killing fields” on three continents.

Rats, crows, and vultures feeding on the border corpses will spread formerly tropical diseases into the now-hotter northern countries. Epidemics of a range of diseases will soon wrack the northern countries, spread widely by mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria. The high human populations and hence densities of mid-century fuel the epidemics.

These countries will in addition be dealing with their own droughts, food shortages, and widespread flooding of coastal regions due to ocean rise of several meters. Internal climate refugees will overtax their social fabric. Democracy disappears across the world as partisan-fueled paralysis utterly fails to address the burgeoning constellation of emergencies. Martial law will be declared by every country, and authoritative regimes assume power to cope with the dire conditions. The world order begins to unravel as countries arbitrarily employ force to win access to dwindling water and food sources.

While this third stage is already locked-in with near certainty by our continuing fossil-fuel emissions, the fourth stage of Catastrophe is only likely, not necessarily locked-in yet. Here chaos and disorder reign throughout the world in human affairs as climate change and its results intensify. Decades of drought wither forests and meadows, and great fires rage across continents, enveloping the planet in smoke for months on end, affecting even oceanic systems. Creatures and ecosystems which had flourished for a hundred million years—Sequoias and redwoods in California and China, coral reefs worldwide—disappear from the planet forever. The conflagrations swell the ranks of internal and external refugees and wipe out the last vestiges of social order. Nations disintegrate into separate regions ruled by brutal warlords. Warfare is the common state worldwide.

The blood-letting is particularly extreme in the former United States, where the millions of assault rifles and automatic handguns fuel widespread slaughter. Here the distinction between good and bad blurs, morality disappears, and survival is the only concern. Roving bands of heavily armed men scavenging food and supplies are the norm throughout the continent.

As the old “countries” disappear worldwide, border controls fail and climate refugees swarm freely into the habitable northern areas in the hundreds of millions. In the resulting universal social disorder, human society loses the last vestiges of sanitation systems, water supplies, and electricity generation. Populations plummet as fires, warfare, epidemics, famine, and extreme weather reduce humanity to a state of barbarism.

The occurrence of any of several ecologic “tipping points” in either stage three or stage four will make recovery—that is, stopping the slide into succeeding stages—impossible. We do not know enough about the planetary systems of climate and cycling to have any confidence that all tipping points have been identified, but among those we can foresee is the melting of the arctic permafrost, which will release massive amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane, an amount calculated to be equivalent to 205 gigatons of further carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Temperature would increase at least another half-degree C at this point.

Another tipping point would be the melting of the Greenland and polar ice sheets, leading to precipitous increases in ocean level and the complete reconfiguration of the old continents as vast inland seas open up.

“Game over,” in the chilling words of early climate scientist James Hansen.

In the early years of stage five, End of Human Civilization, the continuing warfare between warlords, along with unrelenting droughts, floods, famines, and epidemics, cause a further decrease in human populations. Humans exist now only in isolated bands in the remaining habitats that can support life: favored valleys and canyons, the few plains that have reliable water and are defensible from other bands.

The great time of killing in stage four, and the unraveling of societies, have depleted the ability to produce further metal-based weapons or ammunition. At mid-point of this fifth stage, warfare wanes. The widely-scattered human groups remaining are led not by warlords, but by handy, practical men and women skilled in the creation and maintenance of mechanical water pumps, simple irrigation systems, wheeled vehicles such as carts and bicycles, and cultivation of soil and crops in large-scale gardens. Written literature and music have disappeared, replaced by oral story-telling and simple instruments such as flutes and drums. Mere survival is uppermost, now.

As human populations plummeted to low levels in stage four, the spread of disease abated, due to the isolation of the remaining stage five bands, and the natural immunity of the survivors. But the pathogens are still present, and mutating, themselves. For each surviving group, it becomes statistically likely that, given enough time, a combination of the ever-continuing drought, famine, and random introduction of a pathogen into the band by some vector, will kill its last remaining members. The number of bands in the habitable locations dwindles from hundreds to dozens.

To a dozen.

One by one, the surviving human bands flicker out. The last human disappears from the planet. Perhaps her name is Eve.

The earth is quiet, now. Never again will human laughter, or singing, or killings occur. Stage six, Human Extinction, has arrived. The environmental movement begun two centuries earlier by John Muir has failed to save humanity from its excesses.

The second path. The six stages described above represent the arc of history upon which humans are currently traveling. There is another path, if humans can muster the will to take it. This second path is the unlikely path; the difficult one. Although we have passed stage one (Challenge), are currently in the first years of stage two (Crisis), and have locked-in our passage to an early stage three (Desperate Struggle) by our continuing carbon emissions, we may avoid the succeeding stages if this other path is chosen within the next two decades.

Here is what could happen. Somehow, due to the persistent efforts of scientists, environmentalists, educators, and a few religions in the third decade of the 21st century, more and more people throughout the world--mainly youths--begin to question the old worldviews and practices, and embrace the Earth Wisdom of Muir, the Taoism of China, the Darwinism of modern science, or immanentized religion, with their common immanent philosophy. Females have leading roles as these movements swell in the 2020s.

Investors made nervous by the early signs of climate change shift their capital into renewable energy, and products independent of the metals of extractive mining operations. As humanity enters into the early travails of the third stage of Desperate Struggle, the immanent movements gain strength, form alliances, and implacably demand changes in the economy through massive civil disobedience throughout the world. In a decade—in the mid 2020s—world governments have no choice but to accede, even in authoritative regimes, and take previously unimaginable actions.

Coal plants are closed, and planned ones canceled; coal, oil, and gas reserves remain in the ground. Large scale mining of metals and ores ceases. Renewable production of electricity soars, as does demand for metals as re-use and recycling become the norm. Production of food and goods becomes localised; long-range shipping of food and freight plummets. By the end of the second decade along this path—in the mid 2030s—carbon emissions are reduced to the level of a 1.75 degrees C world. Miraculously, humanity tip-toes past the major “tipping points” by virtue of prompt, firm action.

Sea levels rise by two meters, but no more. Though hundreds of miles of coastline are abandoned, and storm- and tidal-surges in a dozen great cities worldwide render large areas uninhabitable, the economic repercussions are merely daunting, not catastrophic. Locked-in results of carbon emissions up to 2030 render many areas of Africa and south Asia uninhabitable due to intense heat and lack of water, but the dramatic drop in emissions in the century’s third and fourth decades limits the temperature increase, and thus its effects in the equatorial countries.

Migrants number only 30 million spread worldwide, and the horrific “killing fields” at the northern countries’ borders disappear after only a decade. More migrants are absorbed by neighboring countries along the equatorial zones, assisted by now-generous aid from northern countries shaken by moral repugnance at the killing fields.

As a series of pathogens travel from the equators into the temperate regions to the north, vastly improved (and funded) health systems crank out vaccines and treatments quickly, reducing mortality to levels judged “tragic” but not “devastating.” Even formerly prosperous northern nations struggle with decreased food supplies due to the heat, drought, and storms. But they avoid massive death tolls, in large part because their populations have already declined steadily due to birth control measures in the third and fourth decades of the century.

The authoritative regimes which got humanity through the early years of stage three’s Desperate Struggle relax their controls as conditions slowly improve. Soon a semblance of democracy returns in places, particularly in the West, one markedly less partisan due to the shock of the third stage’s travails.

As the new century approaches, human civilization is fragile, but survives. Human populations are stable, though distributed mainly in the northern and southern temperate zones now. Renewable sources of energy and raw materials are well-established and economically viable, thanks to research and development fueled by the early-century shift of capital by canny investors.

Tensions remain, of course, centering on equitable distribution of fresh water and the continuing integration of migrants into temperate zone countries. Demands for more democracy are a constant from the populace in the West and in China, particularly. But human civilization, chastened by the challenges mid-century, remains determined to follow the lessons of Earth Wisdom, Taoism, Darwinism, and the immanent worldview.

Humanity abides on a slowly recovering earth, half of whose area is now set aside as natural preserves. Babies are born, grow strong in societies marked by love and respect for the earth acknowledged as their true home. The countryside is rich with a new abundance of trees, mammals, birds, and insects, now accepted as kin and fellow benefactors of the earth’s abundance. Females and males alike have important roles in the surviving societies, often but not always the same, but equally respected and valued. The yin qualities of cooperation, acceptance, nurturing, and the feminine are fully integrated into human society.

Humans understand that no species has escaped extinction in the four billion years of life on earth. But they accept the time they have, with gratitude. For as long as it may last. The environmental movement began by John Muir has merged with Taoism, Darwinism, and immanentized religion to form a planet-wide human society based on respect for the earth, a Gaiacentric acceptance of all other life as kin to humans, and recognition that yin qualities must contribute with yang ones in a balanced whole.

Life prospers on a flourishing planet.

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