Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Paris, the Pleistocene, and finding the grit to grapple with climate change

The U.N.F.C.C.C.'s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris concluded last week with an agreement among 195 countries that climate change is a problem and that it must be solved. Parties to the agreement agreed they might agree in a future meeting to commit sufficiently to the problem's solution to actually solve it, but they aren't committing themselves yet. The 195 nations agree that the solutions they've been discussing aren't adequate to the existential vastness of the problem, but that they'll try harder. In the future.

I believe the Paris agreement (of which the above tongue-in-cheek summary is only that) is about as good as anyone with their feet on the ground could have expected. After all, this was a negotiation that could only succeed by satisfying representatives of nearly two hundred sovereign nations.

Depending on who else you ask, the Paris agreement is universal and ambitious (Al Gore in The Guardian: may have signaled an end to the fossil fuel era); the beginning of the beginning (the NY Times editorial board: Now comes the hard part); a fraud (James Hansen in The Guardian: no action, just promises); or a vast left-wing conspiracy (blowhard and outlier Cal Thomas of Fox News: In my opinion, belief in "climate change" is on a par with childhood faith in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy).

During the COP21 conference in Paris, I stayed put here in California and read a slim volume of what you might call speculative non-fiction: In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. The book was written by Doug Peacock, the indomitable author of Grizzly Years and the late Edward Abbey's real-life model for George Washington Hayduke III of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

In this latest of his calls from the wild, Peacock considers evidence of the multiple routes that might have opened the unglaciated heart of North America to humans some 12-14,000 years ago, during a prior period of titanic climate shifts ... a period in which "35 genera of mostly-large animals suddenly disappear from the earth." Filling out the thin material evidence of human culture from this pre-historical period, the author and "renegade naturalist" calls on his own decades of experience in wilderness environments, and encounters with wild predators on both sides of the Bering Strait, to imagine human life during a time of massive shifts in climate, terrain, food resources, and bioscape.

Why this exercise, and why now? In Peacock's own words:
We sense big changes are coming but for now life is good. Yet the threat is real. The precise problem seems to be that modern humans have difficulty perceiving their own true long-term self-interests; we don't quite see the evolving threat to our survival as a civilization or a species. There's no Pleistocene lion lurking in the gulch. But beyond the false invulnerability of our clever technology and the insulation of our material comfort, here prowls the beast of our time.

[...] The central issue of my generation is the human perpetrated wound we have inflicted against the life-support systems of the earth, whose collective injuries are increasingly visible today as climate change. Should humans push through another population bottleneck, we will drag down much of the wild earth and almost all the large animals with us. And that's the rub: not that it's unfair, which it is, but whether people can thrive without the habitats in which our human intelligence evolved, that gave rise to that bend of mind we call consciousness?
Homo sapiens evolved in wilderness landscapes that are in part still with us; can we hope to endure when that homeland vanishes?
The argument laid out by In the Shadow of the Sabertooth... supposes that it's already too late, that humans have acted and will act too slowly and tentatively to throttle back the effects of the Anthropocene sufficiently to save human civilization as we know it; and considers how humankind might survive a radically unwelcome reconfiguration of our planet.
It has been my purpose in exploring the earliest colonization of the Americas -- a story constructed of interpreted scientific investigations and reconstructed tales of adventure -- to ask questions that appear relevant to the 21st century -- an effort to draw the Pleistocene past into the present day climate change at every appropriate twist in the trail.

I believe in the value of wilderness and it is that wildness which bridges these two worlds. The greatest wilderness ever glimpsed by humans was the uninhabited Americas at the time of first entry into the New World. We are all children of the Pleistocene: Will we dare face the hot future with the ballast of those pilgrims who charged out of the Ice Age?
Peacock projects a future that, should it come to pass, will validate James Hansen's furious disappointment with the recently-concluded talks in Paris. I am temperamentally inclined to foresee that dark future myself. But at the same time I would like to believe -- and I think there is still some ground for believing -- that we remain, today, on a cusp that might yet tip Earth toward a less-decimated future.

And I believe that while there's hope, there's obligation to act to realize it.

That's the theme at the core of my own recently-published novel, Consequence, which I am honored to report made Doug Peacock's reading list earlier this year. I was further honored to hear from the author of In the Shadow of the Sabertooth that, in his judgment, we are writing on the same page, as it were. Doug Peacock on Consequence, circa last month:
Here is a carefully crafted book about the necessity, and danger, of taking personal action in the 21st century. “History,” writes Chris Kalman, the protagonist of Consequence, “will be determined by those who act,” and that war today is for nothing less than Life on Earth—an ambitious undertaking. 
The book’s own cast live in an activist collective—a rarity these days except perhaps, as set, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steve Masover’s characters ooze humanity; their daily conversations are filled with Dostoyevskian struggles, often wrapped around the morality of civil disobedience and violence. Yet these portraits are finely drawn, never caricature. Consequence swims in an abundance of precise technical detail—much like Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. This thriller is not nearly as esoteric as it might sound: what keeps you turning pages is Masover’s decency toward his characters and their story. The communal life is neither precious nor romanticized. 
The villain of Consequence happens to be genetic engineering but it could have been any current social or environmental issue. The premise, absolutely believable today, is that life on the planet is threatened and that battle waged by this novel’s characters will make a difference. And why not? Our world can snap on a single violent moment folded into the approaching horrors of global warming. 
This is a human story shot in the ass with ideas. 
“If  we allow life on Earth to be destroyed by human negligence,” writes Kalman, “morally the human race will have failed.”
This month's climate agreement is a shot over the bow of the twenty-first century. If Paris was anything real -- anything more than a conclave of yammering, impotent diplomats -- it is the beginning of a monumentally difficult journey, dwarfed only by the draconian horror humankind will face should we fail to embark upon and complete it. As the Editorial Board of the NY Times put it:
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, described the agreement as a “historical turning point.” Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, called it a “monumental success for the planet and its people.” Whether it turns out to be either of those things depends largely on what the individual signatories are willing to put into it. This is an agreement built firmly on science, but also on the hope that the enthusiasm generated in Paris will translate into concrete measures across the globe that will, in fact, prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

Let's keep life on Earth from being destroyed by human negligence, shall we?



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Northern California mobilizes for climate action as Paris talks near
Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!


Thanks to John Englart (Takver) for his image Shoes in Place de la Republique - Climate of Peace #climat2paix, via Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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