Tuesday 20 November 2018

Making It Through.

When All Else Fails: What if it is in our species’ seemingly indefatigable irrationality that its best hope of surviving climate change is to be found? What if the means of our salvation turns out to be a work of a madman?

CHRISTINE ROSE’s poignant post of 17 November, “Feeling Like A Stranger In A Familiar Land” requires a response more substantial than fatalistic resignation. Tempting though it is to bury oneself in the small delights of everyday life for as long as that avenue of escape remains open, it must be rejected. Something as big as the end of the world as we know it surely merits Dylan Thomas’s unforgettable commandment:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light

The problem, of course, is science. Unlike the poet and the priest, the scientist who discerns only catastrophe in the data which is placed before him, must disclaim all right to hope. If the data points to the end of the world as we know it, then the only thing a scientist has a right to anticipate is the end of the world. Staring steadily into the dead eyes of the planet’s future is the only honourable scientific response.

For the poet and the priest, however, and all those possessing an artistic and/or religious turn of mind, there is something greater than catastrophe. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings”, called it “eucatastrophe”.

Ruth Noel, in her book “The Mythology of Middle Earth” explains:

Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s word for the anti-catastrophic ‘turn’ (strophe in Greek) that characterises fairy stories. The turning occurs when imminent evil is unexpectedly averted and great good succeeds. To Tolkien, tragedy was the purest form of drama, while eucatastrophe, the antithesis of tragedy, was the purest form of fairy story. In [Tolkien’s scholarly article] “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien gives the purpose and effect of eucatastrophe: “It does not deny the existence … of sorrow and failure … it denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

In Tolkien’s great trilogy the eucatastrophe comes in the very heart of Mt Doom, where the One Ring is finally destroyed. Interestingly, it is not the hero, Frodo, who makes this happen. At the end of his quest, like so many of the others who have come into possession of the Ring of Power, it betrays him. Were it not for the intervention of Gollum, the Dark Lord would have recovered his ring and darkness would have swallowed Middle Earth forever. It is Gollum’s mad obsession: the recovery of his “Precious”; that saves the day.

If we must put our faith in fairy stories, I hear you say, then our chances of surviving global warming are slim indeed. And yet, if we put our faith in science, then Christine Rose’s bitter-sweet resignation; her “ecological grief” at the inevitable demise of so many living things; becomes the only rational response to the irrationality of humanity’s wilful self-destruction.

But what if it is in our species’ seemingly indefatigable irrationality that its best hope of survival is to be found? What if, like Gollum’s obsessive pursuit of The Precious, the means of our salvation turns out to be a work of a madman?

Just think of the number of novelists whose plots involve the deliberate creation and release of a virus which wipes out 95 percent of the human species. Now imagine the insane billionaire who turns fiction into fact. That would be a eucatastrophe entirely lacking in Tolkien’s compassion, but it is hard to argue that, from the perspective of all the non-human species facing extinction, it would be a eucatastrophe founded in justice.

Scientists would interject here that even were such an event to occur, the warming already unleashed in the planet’s oceans and atmosphere remains irreversible. Life would still be up against it.

They are right, of course, but life on Earth has been up against it before – and so have we. For thousands of years this planet lay in the grip of an Ice Age that saw sheets of frozen water 1,000 feet high, weighing billions of tons, grinding all the way to the edges of what we now call the temperate zones. Getting through the Ice Age was no easy matter – but, somehow, our far-distant ancestors managed it. There is every reason to suppose that the five percent of the human species which survives the mad billionaire’s eucatastrophic global pandemic (roughly 400 million people) will learn how to survive in a world without ice-caps.

Life on Earth has been up against it before - and so have we.

I would like to think that whatever remnant of that 400 million makes it through “The Heat” will arrive on the other side of the Anthropocene with a vastly improved attitude to Planet Earth and its fragile biosphere. There is every reason to believe that these new humans will have no great love of science. Indeed, like Tolkien’s Hobbits, they will likely be profoundly suspicious of  “machines more complicated than a forge bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom”. They will, however, have a great deal of love for poets and priests. And, most especially, for the tellers of fairy-stories.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 November 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

" Life would still be up against it."
Life will be no such thing. Human life maybe, certain types of animal life certainly, but the earth will go on and life will still exist. Because to a point, life doesn't care about climate. Earth will achieve some sort of equilibrium with or without human beings, and evolution will continue.

Anonymous said...

I could not refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!

Nick J said...

GS is correct, life will continue, without humans, and in a few million years be as diverse as it was when we appeared.

GJE said...

What a refreshing breath of fresh air...The sanest rebuttal of the hysteria surrounding climate change I’ve come across...

Geoff Fischer said...

The left has long sought deliverance in "eucatastrophe".
The great economic depression which will bring capitalism to its end. The war which will destroy bourgeois states, and open the way to the revolutionary uprisings of workers and soldiers.
Now the contrived epidemic which will destroy four fifths of the world's population and so avert or ameliorate climate change.
As alluded to by one comment on this blog, the hope of eucatastrophe signifies a lack of "agency", a sense of personal impotence in the face of overwhelming events. People look even to Satan for salvation when they have lost faith in themselves, their governments and their God.
Yet agency is needed. That is, people need to change their behaviour, then have the courage to condemn the behaviour of others, and finally dictate proper behaviour in all.
That is a far cry from the ethos of neo-liberal democracy of course, and the simple truth is that to survive, humanity has to abandon many of the central tenets of liberalism.

Wayne Mapp said...

It is a very doom laden picture that you have of human potential. That 95% of people will be exterminated by climate change.

Frankly I can't imagine that happening. Humans are vastly more inventive and adaptable than you seem to accept.

The current 9 billion may reduce, which in fact already happening in much of Europe. By the mid 2100's the total might be more like 5 to 7 billion. Lets say climate change pushes temps up by 2 or 3 degrees. Deserts may expand in the tropics. Conversely the great food bowls of Europe, Russia and Canada will become more productive. So food won't be a problem, especially as gene technology expands. Minerals and energy (fusion) will be plentiful. Obviously some coastal cities will need protection or relocation, but that is hardly beyond the wit of humanity. Look at Holland for what can be done.

A much more likely future is the elimination of global poverty. With everyone achieving Chinese or southern European levels of wealth and income. Europe consumes far less per capita than the US. If the world does as well as Europe over the next 100 years, it will all work out fine.

For the apocalyptic future you prophesy, the world would have had to have been struck by a meteor of the size that wiped out the dinosaurs. And we probably now could take action against such a threat. But an event of that scale could certainly reduce the human population by 95%, but it would take something as severe as that. Climate change occurs over a sufficiently long period of time that adaption can and will be achieved, even if the the temperature goes up by more than 2 degrees in this century.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

I'm getting a little worried about you Dr Mapp.

Your response to my post reveals both a serious deficiency in basic English comprehension and a truly alarming lack of understanding of the present state of play vis-a-vis Climate Change.

The latest IPCC Report (the most cautious) makes it clear that a 2C+ rise in global temperature is now practically unavoidable. A rise of that magnitude is almost certain to set off a chain reaction of climate altering consequences (like the thawing of the Eurasian tundra) that will see the average global temperature rise rapidly towards 4C-5C. For the human-species that would constitute an extinction-level event.

The rest of your comment is a truly astonishing mixture of Polyanna's "Glad Game" and the "Technology-Will-Save-Us" trope.

Your words are not those of a person who understands what is happening. They do, however, provide a terrifying insight into the thinking of a senior member of the conservative establishment.

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that you think your words are comforting and reassuring.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nick J said...

Chris I'm pleased you offered a rebuttal to Wayne Mapp. Unfortunately he is not alone across the entire political spectrum. He is in denial, and even leans on good old human ingenuity, now rebranded as techno narcissism. That in short is mistaking technology for energy.

We have a real dilemma, oil and coal will run short, we have burnt the easy to get 50 percent. Now imagine todays transport and agricultural systems without oil. Do people really think we could then feed 9 billion people? Now add climate change, financial collapse, environmental destruction, I'm afraid humanity is running toward the cliff eyes tightly shut.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Humans are vastly more inventive and adaptable than you seem to accept."
Yes, from the man who said Iraq and Afghanistan are stable. Human beings are also great procrastinators Wayne. Let's hope we don't procrastinate until it's too late.

Tom Hunter said...

...and the "Technology-Will-Save-Us" trope.

Given how much technology has saved us in the past 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, I'd say that comment is the one that shows a scary lack of understanding of science and technology combined with economics.

Instead of Polyanna you've got Malthus's disease, and surely the repeated failure of that analysis over 200 years would have provided enough "understanding" that these apocalyptic messages are just more of the same old, same old.

I've heard little else in my lifetime - at least from the Left. We're all doomed has been the constant refrain, with only the reasons changing; pollution, overpopulation, oil and metals running out, nuclear war, nuclear winter, and now.... AGW.

But it's understandable. You're a product of the late 1960's, when technology was damned across the board by "camp-out-on-the-land" (HT Joni Mitchell) hippies who were adamant that since technology had caused all these problems, it was crazy to think technology could fix them. That thinking became even more widespread in the 1970's. Everybody heard Paul Erlich, The Club of Rome, and others like them with their messages of doom.

Few had heard of Norman Borlaug or Julian Simon. And those who did often treated them with exactly the same dismissive hand-waving, as Polyanna's who "didn't get it" and would be proved wrong by horrifying events in the future.

Here - watch these instead and cheer yourself up:
Hans Rosen - 20min
<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo>Hans Rosen - 4 min</a href>

pat said...

Mr Mapp's grasp of essentials has been shown to be lacking for sometime...you should be unsurprised Chris...you are however correct concerning the establishment...we are in trouble and the only comfort lies in meaningful action.
I suspect there is little comfort to be found.

Simon said...

Climate change will harm us because it is an excellent fit for our psychological vulnerabilities. Its slow moving, largely unobservable, happens over lifespans rather than moments, there is no clear or directly observable cause and consequence relationship, and it is immensely complex. We have evolved to respond to intense stimuli/threats that have a clearly observable cause and effect relationship. For this reason, I believe that we will fail to deal with climate change and it will change human society immeasurably.

Geoff Fischer said...

Climate change is serious. It is having and will have many adverse effects, along with some benefits. The consensus of informed opinion is that the adverse effects will greatly outweigh the beneficial ones, and on that score Wayne Mapp appears to be out of step with scientific opinion.
However it is true that in the event many doomsday scenarios prove to be groundless, and it is possible that we will wake up in 20 years time to find that climate change was not quite the disaster we were anticipating.
So the "Jeremiah"s and the "Pollyanna"s both have a point.
What is a reasonable course of action given this uncertainty over outcomes?
To my mind it is quite simple. A significant change in personal and social behaviour is the only prudent response. Less travel in motorized waka. Reduced consumption (and waste) of manufactured goods, particularly those with a high fossil fuel content. More planting of long-lived tree species, particularly those which produce naturally durable timbers. Greater use of public transport, bicycles and Shanks' Pony.
Such changes would bring many social benefits in addition to helping to avert major adverse changes in the climate. Yet I don't see this happening in New Zealand. I see the exact opposite. Reduced usage of public transport, and reduced services. The middle classes obsessed with overseas travel. Commuting by automobile reaching ridiculous proportions. A seemingly insatiable desire for manufactured goods of all kinds. Radiata pine grown and cut as a short rotation mono-cultural crop.
In Wayne Mapp I see a touching faith in the powers of science and technology. "Fusion" for instance. I spent fifteen years of my life handling and working with highly radioactive materials, and during those years I gained an understanding of just how dangerous these materials can be in the hands of even highly trained, but still fallible, human beings. Nuclear fission power plants are a worrying prospect for anyone who knows how the technology, social decision making processes, and seismic phenomena can combine as ingredients in the recipe for disaster, and unless Wayne knows something that I don't, there is no existing technology which could be used to produce a technically viable fusion reactor for the purposes of power generation.
I can't say to Wayne "You are wrong", but I can say that I share his concerns, and in this, as in most other areas of politics, I have no confidence in the quality of "leadership" offered by the colonial regime in New Zealand.

Wayne Mapp said...

The IPCC has not said that the climate will warm by 4 to 5 degrees over the next eighty years. The projection is 2 degrees (of which half has already occurred). They do say there is now no prospect of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and that this is likely to be reached within the next 20 years.

The IPPC does not suggest a 2 degree change is a violent tipping point beyond which there is no hope.

In your article you do suggest that 400 million people will get through, presumably enough to maintain some sort of civilisation (a bit like the monks of the Middle Ages). I know that you can find commentary from some scientists that predict that humans could be extinct within a hundred years. But they are real outliers. Nothing in the IPPC reports, even their worst case scenarios, give credence to such predictions..

Yes, I probably do represent a NZ conservative approach on this issue. Obviously NZ conservatives are not deniers, as are the US Republicans. But we are reasonably optimistic that adaption will see us through, including a lot less CO2 production over time.

But it seems to me that far too many on the left are all too easily caving into a doomsday scenario, on the basis that at least some scientists have predicted that. And that there is no faith in any technological fixes, in part because they have to come from business. Doesn't Tesla and Musk (and people like him) give you some hope?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp

Musk! Seriously?

Really, Wayne, Musk is the archetype of those billionaire entrepreneurs who peddle technological fixes to people like yourself - people who desperately need to believe their flim-flam.

Do you seriously expect us to put our faith in a man who sends cars into space and dreams of escaping the planet altogether.

Fine gentleman though I'm sure you are, Wayne, I doubt if Eion has a pod on his spaceship set aside just for you.

Alas, you (or, more likely, your children and grandchildren) will just have to swelter alongside me and mine!

Wayne Mapp said...

Musk and electric cars, yes: Musk and colonising Mars, no.

Musk has certainly energised space exploration with his reusable spacecraft. But as for colonising Mars, well that just seems fanciful to me. We don't even colonise the Antarctic, where there is air, water and food in abundance. Basically easy to get to, just get on a ship.

While I am a fan of a manned Mars mission (just about all Conservatives believe in technological feats) the idea that we would colonise Mars seems absurd, at least not with current or reasonably forseeable technology. The best we will do in the next 100 years is outposts like Antarctic bases.

It seems to me that his BFR spaceship is primarily about flying around the earth. Essentially it is the new Concorde, but it will be able to do Sydney London in 1 hour, or London to New York is 30 minutes. Probably enough demand for 100 such ships. Which will also make space holidays viable for the super rich, or at least the seriously wealthy. Say $200,000 for a couple of days in orbit. There would be a lot of takers. Book your ticket for 2030!

Though I expect we will both be too old by 2030, but I guess it depends on ones actual health at that stage.

greywarbler said...

Climate change. me worry! You must be MAD. SEP. I'm enjoying singing the old song about the pub with no beer, while I drink my cold beer. Good times!

Nick J said...

Geoff, nice to see considered comment especially on nuclear issues. I didn't add waste materials to my list of woes but they do rather illustrate Wayne's mindset. I'd interpret that as a wilful blindness to the cost of todays actions for tomorrow's people as planet.

What mindset can say let's generate this nuclear power today to supply and bill todays customers, yet ignore tomorrows costs? Who is going to look after spent fuel rods for thousands of years? Was that ever factored into the costs? Doesn't that show some misplaced faith in the longevity of political structures to keep nuclear waste safely? Jeez Wayne.

sumsuch said...


Just 10 years more of putting comfort before reality -- bad faith living (the real motto of the last 70 years).

It's been/is magnificent. What a civilisation! Yet we can all now see it was built on infinite use of finite resources. Chris, reflect on this very soon to be gone Sumerian splendour. It was just our mental outlook, for better and worse.

Why you've been sent down to the Greymouth Star and ODT, spraching Zarathustra's thrust.

Individualism has killed a revolution against the self-interested rich who've ruled us since '80 or so. Creating their own rules for their pursuit of money. Good idea.

The cliff.