It’s the End of the World as We Prefer It, and I Feel … Stupid

By Daniel Sarewitz
My predictions for the next 20 years or so:

Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, and droughts will afflict more people than ever, at greater costs than ever, in poor nations and rich alike.

Epidemics of infectious diseases will threaten large populations and could even spread rapidly across large swaths of the planet.

Crops will fail and people will starve.

Wild fires, biodiversity loss, forest die-offs, and other signs of global ecosystem stress will continue to rise.

Civil strife will flare up in trouble spots around the world, some predictable, others unexpected, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in a state of misery and despair, prompting waves of migration, outstripping the financial resources necessary to respond, and severely testing our diplomatic and aid capabilities.

Availability of high-quality water will be stretched to the limits in many places around the world.

New extremes of temperature and other weather phenomena will be recorded in more and more places.

That’s right: Millions will die; still more will be displaced; nations and economies will teeter at the edge of disaster as populist demagogues rise, regional stabilities are tested, and environmental despoliation expands.

Judging by the attention it’s getting on the various scientist and environmental listservs that find their way into my inbox, the recent New York Times Magazine profile of the writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth has hit a highly resonant chord. Having accepted that (as the REM song goes, and the article is titled) “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” Kingsnorth is retreating to “rural Ireland” to wait out the coming climate-change-induced collapse of civilization, teach his children the skills necessary to survive without a supermarket, and enjoy good wine. It sounds lovely, actually—I wish I had the courage to do something like that.

Of course, even if the climate change apocalypse that Kingsnorth accepts as inevitable magically failed to materialize, every one of my dire predictions would still be likely to come true. Climate change, added on top of all the other causes of these problems, will often make things worse. But for the most part there will be no way to tell which ones are worse than they would have been anyway, or how much worse they have become. So it’s not that apocalyptic fears about climate change are utterly fantastic—climate change may well exacerbate a range of serious and potentially even disastrous problems—it’s that the monomaniacal, apocalyptic version of climate change gives us a picture of the world that is so incomplete that it’s much worse than simply wrong. Worse because, just like religious and political orthodoxy, it cannot be falsified. On the contrary, everything that goes wrong simply reinforces the conviction that there is just one explanation for all our problems—climate change—and that there is only one thing we can do to keep the world from collapsing—stop burning fossil fuels. And thus, worse because the climate-change-as-apocalypse orthodoxy thereby radically narrows the range of viewpoints we are willing to tolerate and the range of options we are willing to consider for dealing with complex challenges to our well-being like natural disasters and infectious disease and poverty and civil strife.

It’s actually hard not to sympathize with Kingsnorth. He’s sad about how things are changing; he likes nature the way it is now, not the way it was before humans settled in Ireland, or not the way it will be after another 100 years of human’s muddling through from one crisis to the next, desperately clinging to technology as the eternal antidote to our follies. The real problem is not the few Kingsnorth’s who actually have the mettle to drop out; it’s the hysterics that they leave behind who insist, often in the name of science, that all the suffering to come will have only one true cause, and that redemption can be achieved only by following one true path. No matter that long and sad human experience teaches us where such absolute orthodoxies lead. Indeed, with climate change being blamed for almost everything these days, the one phenomenon that seems to have escaped the notice of scientists, environmentalists and the media alike is that, perhaps above all, climate change is making us stupid.