Once you realize that the climate could really collapse within your lifetime, you can’t help but see everything through that lens. You constantly visualize the disappearance of the ice cap and how the jet stream, without its age-old hub of white, will flail about the Northern Hemisphere, and you think of Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?”
Our civilization is a planetwide Petri dish filled to the edges with organisms that depend on oil, coal, and gas. We take our human-created world entirely for granted, and have so deeply internalized it that we regard it as natural, even as we protest that, no, we’re not stupid, of course we understand it’s artificial. All I can say is, we sure don’t act like we do.
Earth’s population has reached such numbers that it’s not even about prosperity anymore. Without massive amounts of energy, and global trade, these numbers cannot be sustained, at least not without dramatic changes. So many people now live in this Petri dish, we stack them vertically and ship energy and food in from thousands of miles away.
I’m always astonished when perfectly intelligent people say that, because the carbon density per capita of cities is lower, cities are inherently greener than suburbs. That all makes sense—as long as our fossil-fueled system works. But when the system fails, it makes no sense at all. Highrise apartments cannot be run on solar panels. You can’t grow wheat for all the inhabitants on the roof.
A post-climate-collapse world won’t be one of hardship, like the Great Depression. It will be one of devastation, like Germany after it lost World War 2. But there will be no Marshall Plan coming to the rescue from an intact corner of the world, because there will be no intact corner. The global economic system will cease to function for the fundamental reason that food production will drop precipitously. Rain patterns won’t be what they are now, nor dependable.
Once agriculture collapses, there will be no surplus wheat or corn or soybeans to trade. The lack of revenue from surplus food sales will cascade to other sectors of the economy. Economic activity will be increasingly diverted to disaster management and recovery, not growth, as the weather gets more extreme, until even that is seen as futile. With more and more money diverted to survival, the investment environment will be so deflationary, it will make the Great Depression look trivial and transitory.
There will be no adapting the present world of surplus to that future world of scarcity.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine this will be otherwise. The manifestations of a destabilizing climate are becoming ever more obvious. This week, we’re in for another big dip in the jet stream, amped up by a super-typhoon spinning all the way to the Arctic and disturbing the polar vortex. That’ll bring record cold east of the Rockies as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, while the West and Alaska will have record heat. Yet the electorate just gave a majority to the party that is openly hostile to the very idea of climate change.
I hold out hope that we’ll come to our collective senses, and institute the fundamental changes needed to avert a total catastrophe: a carbon tax-and-dividend structure and a WW2-style effort to get the economy off fossil fuels.
But meanwhile, all everyday activity seems ironic, rendered ridiculous by this impending future—all my obsessing over retirement funds, or vacation plans, or writing stories and novels, or work, not to mention leisures and luxuries. That was the motor of A Change in the Weather: climate change surrounds our world from the outside, and engulfs it, rendering all that came before a vanity.