“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ever since I recently learned that Arctic sea ice is expected to disappear in summer in a mere four years my inner alarm bells have been ringing. It wasn’t supposed to happen so soon!
I had hoped we could change course and avoid the disappearance of ice caps and glaciers along with the inundation of islands and coastal cities.
One recent evening, standing in Whole Foods, the nice cashier asked how I was doing, and I shared with her something of the ache and grief and confusion I was experiencing. All of this was before I started reading Bill McKibben’s book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
I was a couple of years behind, focusing on other things — things “green,” but not paying close attention to the astonishing rapidity with which our planet’s climate has already shifted off its familiar course. Perhaps I had one foot in denial.
But, with the news of the summer sea ice, I was suddenly in free fall, both feet heading for Eaarth, the name McKibben has given to our already radically altered world.
Polar bears on ice rafts
Anyway, there I am in Whole Foods, talking with the cashier about Arctic sea ice in summer. And she said something about how sad it will be not to have polar bears outside of zoos. Between us we shared an image of polar bears standing on little, melting, raft-like fragments of ice.
And that’s when I said that the polar bears are the least of my worries. “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I love polar bears. But this meltdown means much worse havoc than that.”
I’m not a climatologist, but I’ve read enough about what’s happening to our climate system to realize most Americans probably have very little sense of what risks we’re facing, and what losses are already mounting. And I know just enough biology and ecology to realize that polar bears are but one of many thousands of species at risk. And there is also the global food supply, the risk of global famine. And what will we do with the climate refugees?
It is not inconceivable that civilization, or even our own species, is at risk. Certainly there is the danger of wars and political chaos. Have we not yet learned how profoundly interconnected and how fragile everything is?
I was horrified by what I’m calling the Climate Emergency even when I thought I’d not see any of the worst parts of it. It horrified me that our present mode of culture and civilization would (or could) wreak havoc on future generations. All my life I’ve steeped and stewed in the eco-ethos. Even thinking in terms of the impact of our lives on “the seventh generation” seemed too narrow and selfish. What about the eighth, the ninth!?
The most painful and difficult part of the inner journey I’ve been on in recent weeks, since learning about the Arctic ice, has been the stunned gradual acceptance of the fact that it is possible that we’ve already set in motion a series of self-reinforcing “positive feedback loops” which scientists call “runaway” climate change.
That’s when Earth systems have crossed a tipping point, beyond which it becomes difficult to imagine even the possibility of a new Eaarth, a changed, less hospitable world.
I began to entertain science-fiction nightmares of the sort I have called the “Hospice Earth Scenario,” but which perhaps should be called Eaaarth, with three A’s.
This is my worst nightmare, a world in which the only torches to be passed, or gifts to be given, are the comfort we can offer one another as our own species and countless thousands of others perish forever.
As much as my own inevitable, eventual death is painful to accept, the Earth Hospice Scenario is a hundred fold worse to imagine.
It is the possibility of giving to others, of passing the generational torch which “bends toward justice,” which forms the warp and woof of my soul. I was born into a cultural milieu which celebrated and nurtured great hopes and dreams.
Fortunately, for many of us, the voices of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King still echo in our minds with a call for justice for future generations. E.F. Schumacher, Rachel Carson, John Muir and Aldo Leopold also inspire us to believe that we might move our cultural trajectory from its eco-cidal course and even heal our most basic of relationships, that with the biosphere.
Hearing these voices, we know ourselves to be carriers of this torch, holders of the essential dream. Economic, social, environmental and ecological justice become one in our hearts, like the strands woven into a rope. It is one rope.
These intertwined, interwoven fibers are The Gift which provides grounding and meaning in our lives, which make our personal sufferings tolerable by embedding them in a fabric of our fundamental togetherness, compassion and, yes, generosity. Personal losses and death are bearable on Earth because Earth endures and the torch is passed.
I’m going to assume that there is the possibility of avoiding the worst case scenario, of going on giving — and thus living. Really living. But such a victory cannot be won easily and the stakes could not be higher.
Into the lifeboat
Suppose we were all togethe r on a large ship, one big ship. This is not a raft of ice. We’re going to have to consider some hard choices. The ship is taking on water. It is too heavy. Things must be thrown overboard. Quickly.
Our physical culture, pretty much all of it, is rooted in fossil fuels.
Suppose we were all together in a large house. The foundations are rotten, the posts and beams must be replaced. The roof and floor joists are strained to breaking. The roof leaks. Is that an earthquake?
We simply cannot replace the energy we use now with harmless renewables. Our physical culture and its economy will use a great deal less energy in the future than we use today because of this. If we are lucky. If we bend toward justice.
Suppose we were all together on a difficult journey.
Never before has the world needed our Gift as it does now.
– J. River Martin, Transition Voice