Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Way and the Life

The oceans are dying.  They've absorbed most of the carbon they can probably take and are acidifying to the point where they won't support anything with a skeleton.  Wide swathes are covered in toxic plastic and underneath the rapidly decaying petroleum byproducts float gigantic schools of jellyfish sweeping the ocean of protein.  The days when we as a species could feed ourselves from the ocean are gone.  An ocean devoid of life will absorb even less carbon, warm even faster, and release the frozen methane its held safely for who knows how long. 

The forest are dying, as well.  Hopes that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide caused by our addiction to burning carbon for fuel would prove a boon to plant growth are turning sour.  It turns out the trees can't handle the heat and the dryness; they close up their breathing vessels to keep from overheating and starve to death.  Once the trees die, the largest terrestrial carbon sink available to the planet will disappear.  The dead wood will catch fire and add more carbon to the atmosphere, melting the permafrost that's so far kept its immense quantities of carbon safely locked a mere ten inches below the surface.  The lungs of the planet are the vast taiga of the northern hemisphere, currently managed by rapacious governments in Canada and Russia eager to turn everything into short-term political and economic advantage, and the Amazon basin, quickly being denuded of vegetation to support an equally myopic perspective.  Soon enough there will be no more wood to harvest.

And in the most powerful nation on the planet, the most successful empire ever, positive change is held hostage by people who think a return to a 14-year-old regulatory regime is tantamount to national socialism.  The agenda is defined by people who believe government-run health care is a crime because the private health care companies tell them its so; who believe global warming is a fraud perpetrated by self-interested scientists because the oil companies tell them it must be so; who believe living in a society where everyone can shoot anyone at any moment will keep kids safe, because the gun companies tell them it will be so.  The might of the mightiest society ever is thwarted by people who are motivated primarily not by self-interest or the common good, but on whether people like me get pissed off. 

So I sit here, Christmas evening of 2012, at the tail end of the Mayan calendar of Ahau, the Sun of Movement, which was started 3500-some-odd year ago when the scabby god of earthquakes - or more appropriately, random change - who no one even liked elected to jump into the fire to create the next calendar.  I wonder just what my children will need to be able to do to survive.  I wonder what we'll be doing in five years, given that the it'll take 50-100 years predictions of four years ago when it came to ocean acidification, ice-shelf collapse and forest die-off have already come to pass.  When 5 Ahau ended many of us, even us atheists, felt a certain awe at the arbitrary majesty of human belief, the cautious piety that accrues to any endeavor that purports to see thousands of years ahead, a kind of Pascal's-wager-with-a-side-bet-on-doubt, even if most of the achievement was no more than being able to do really good accounting.  The Aztecs, who were Romans to the Mayan Hellenes, thought 5 Ahau was the end, that there were no more Suns, but that was because they never really cared for accounting; they just enslaved the Mayans and picked up enough math to get by.  The Mayans saw the problem as a simple one of adjustment; there'd be a period of catastrophe and upheaval, for sure, but then someone would sacrifice themselves to the new Sun, we'd see daylight again, and the calendar would continue - that is, after all, what time does.  The Aztecs lost the skill for making calendars and the long-view that engenders and so took a pessimistic view of the future, and were as a result more profligate with their sacrifice.  They'd rip out anyone's heart if it increased the possibility of the sun coming up tomorrow.  

I wonder where we'll be in five years because the biological diversity I enjoyed as a child is gone.  Its been mined, fished, burned, killed off.  It doesn't exist anymore, and that's only in 43 years.  The biological diversity my children live in now will be gone even faster, in five years - and five is just the blink of an eye, but also completely arbitrary.  It could be three.  It could be a giant burp of frozen methane from the Arctic shelf this coming June turns us into Venus in a matter of weeks.  Because we are warming faster than at any time in measurable history, in hundreds of millions of years, and there seems to be some kind of uncertainty about whether we should do anything to stop it, because maybe, if its not us, if its just the earth doing this on its own, we won't need to continue consuming stupidly until such time as we just come to a catastrophic halt.  The prevailing theory appears to be that if global warming is just happening, then we may as well party through to the end.    

I keep hoping for a Y2K moment here, somewhere.  Surely someone at Los Alamos or Livermore or Sandia or wherever has some plan for geoengineering.  Maybe the skeptics really are right and this isn't as bad as the scientists say; maybe this is, like the threat of nuclear annihilation we all grew up with, something that will pass, something that is ultimately reversible.  In twenty years I'll be awake on Christmas evening, the warm afterglow of my healthy and happy family still reflecting off the walls we've worked so hard to erect around us, worried about something else entirely, like some superbug mutation of ebola, meningitis and flu. But I don't think there is one, that Y2K moment where we woke up the next day having socked in some extra water and food just in case, and breathed a sigh of relief and went about our days.  I distrust catastrophe, sudden collapse, tsunamis, asteroids, planet-wide storms that remake everything in days; the universe doesn't work that way.  The company you're in doesn't collapse in a day; the incompetent boss doesn't get fired and escorted out.  Just because you've hit bottom, as the old cliche goes, doesn't mean you can't stay there, dragged along by fate, for quite some time.  I've been there myself, held under for so long I thought my spiritual lungs would burst, and in some cases they did, indeed, burst, and it took me years to repair them.  No, the world doesn't end with a bang.  It crumbles.

And this, oddly, is what I take solace in.  I had to get to this point, through the blunt and brutal statement of facts above, to be honest, at 12:16AM on the morning of 26 December, 2012, because I have to say it.  Even the planet-killing asteroid does not destroy the microbes at the bottom of the well.  And those microbes are all you need.

And so there are individuals alive right now, living amongst us, that are suited better for a high-carbon-dioxide environment than their fellows.  Some of their progeny will be even better suited, by pure luck, than the current generation.  So trees will remain; the challenge may exceed anything since before the early Cretacious, but they will succeed not by prevailing, the way our species believes it succeeds, but by surviving.  By having children.  By living.  Something will discover a taste for jellyfish - and lionfish, for that matter - and the planet of weeds will diversify, speciate, thrive.  Maybe the lionfish will learn to eat the jellyfish; maybe the crows will learn to sing; maybe the cardoons will turn a lovely shade of red; maybe the humans will learn to survive without burning carbon, while learning to get by with much less oxygen. 

My fear for my children is, I guess, that they won't see a world that's already lost, as I noted above.  The dripping fecund boreal forests I prowled through as a pre-teen in those short sunny moments of summer are almost gone and will probably be little more than drying, decayed parks in a few short years.  The reefs I snorkeled for a few brief moments almost twenty years ago are already bleached and dying.  Even the pleasure of gliding quietly alongside a near-frozen river on skis on a crisp winter weekend will be a legend in a few years.  That world is gone.  Its been burned away so people can drive to work alone, throw things away, live conveniently, carry plastic bottles of water and look self-important.  It was not a fair trade, but the trade has been made.  My children will still see life, but it will be less lush, less colorful, less musical, and less accommodating.  They will not live lives as comfortable or likely as long as that of their grandparents, who survived a world war.  But its up to me and my life to help them survive and ensure their grandchildren live.  That essential Deweyan optimism, it appears, is all there is to impart.  We must enjoy ourselves, so that our children can learn to live, and we must teach them to survive, so they can enjoy themselves.  

The god who threw itself into the fire to create the new Sun on Friday was apparently the god of color and songbirds, of flowers and coral and clownfish, of the swoon of oxygenated happiness granted you from deep within the forest.  Or maybe the god of crows and cardoons; its hard to know, this early into the calendar, who's future is deferred and who's takes primacy.  The crows appear ascendant, but its the songbirds that end up winning the day.  With Ahau finished his term, perhaps we can hope for less random change.  That may not be good for us, as a species.  But then its not about the species, at the end of the day, is it: its individuals who survive, in their little groups.  The world may be ending, but unless we're scoured by sulfuric acid rainstorms in the runaway greenhouse of Venus, some of us will keep on living.   

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