Coming Soon to Us All: The Choice Worse Than Sophie’s

Sophie had to choose which child would live and which would die. Now multiply that problem by a couple orders of magnitude. (Photo by Bill Strain/Flickr)

Sophie had to choose which child would live and which would die. Now multiply that problem by a couple orders of magnitude. (Photo by Bill Strain/Flickr)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, desperate citizens of New Orleans seeking water, food and shelter began streaming by the thousands out of the city on foot over the US Route 90 bridge across the Mississippi River and into to the city of Gretna, Louisiana. The city had no electricity, no water, no medical services and little in the way of a functioning government. It had been this way for three days when the refugees began streaming in, and unless conditions improved almost immediately, the people of Gretna were looking at severe privation. So they closed the city. Put a line of armed police across the Interstate Bridge and turned the refugees back. Sorry. Can’t help you.

The story has haunted me for nearly ten years. Not just because it is one of the gnarliest ethical problems I have ever come across. But also because in the aftermath of the crash of the Industrial Age — perhaps well before the crash, during the current preliminary stresses — every one of us is going to face the kind of decision Gretna had to make. We will be asked to give help to distressed neighbors when giving that help will endanger our own survival. How will we answer? Continue reading

What’s Next — Evolution or Extinction?

evolution

(Poster by sorah42/funnie.st)

Our friends at the Doomstead Diner (they frequently repost Daily Impact essays) have caused a bit of an uproar among doomers — their term for people who believe the crash of industrial society is imminent — by conducting a poll on whether and when all humanity will be extinguished by the collapse. The Human Extinction Survey immediately revealed strong differences and strong feelings among the doomers surveyed. Just a few years ago it was controversial in the extreme to raise the prospect of collapse; now the idea is moving to the mainstream but wait, extinction? Yikes. Continue reading

TIME: What You Don’t Need to Know (About Refugees)

A typically overloaded boat carries Libyan refugees toward Europe. (Photo by notenoughgood.com)

A typically overloaded boat carries Libyan refugees toward Europe. (Photo by notenoughgood.com)

The TIME website headline said: “What You Need to Know About the E.U.’s Refugee Crisis.” It was, of course, a follow-on to the deaths Sunday of nearly a thousand desperate refugees whose boat capsized off the coast of Libya, on its way to Italy. It was one of a series of accidents that killed 3,500 last year and 1,500 so far this year, a fatality rate that testifies to the size of the human tsunami that is crashing into the south coast of Europe. All we have are guestimates of the size, but one of them places the current flow at 10,000 per week. Continue reading

Scientists to Earth: Prepare to Abandon Planet

Earth First! Now we’ll trash the other planets. There are other planets, right? (Photo by Gideon Wright/Flickr)

Earth First! Now we’ll trash the other planets. There are other planets, right? (Photo by Gideon Wright/Flickr)

Two major scientific studies out this week agree that it may well be time to include other planets in your future relocation plans. Because we have just about finished trashing this one. One study says that of nine “planetary boundaries,” which is to say boundaries between inhabitable and uninhabitable, human activity has already wrecked four. The other finds an implacable rise in the number of mass dyings of animals, of such magnitude that they “can reshape the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of life on Earth.” And, need we specify, not in a good way. Let’s see what these studies say, and then consider what we should make of what they say. Continue reading

The Worst News Story of 2015

And the (early) award for the worst news story -- not the worst story, the worst news --  goes to......

And the (early) award for the worst news story — not the worst story, the worst news — of 2015 goes to……

What? Too soon? Maybe not.

This story had precursors in 2014, just a few hints about what it could become. In the spring, a courageous BBC journalist smuggled out pictures and reports of a three-year-old uprising where no uprising can be permitted. Shortly afterward the host country sentenced to death two leaders of the uprising (presumably by the country’s favored method of public beheading followed by crucifixion). Whereupon the uprising managed a murderous bombing attack. In the Middle East they have a name for this: Tuesday.

These events did not take on the gravitas of portents because they took place in the Middle East, but because they took place in Saudi Arabia. There they posed a threat not merely to another brutal Arab dictatorship, but to the entire industrial world, which cannot function without Saudi oil. Continue reading

Global Warming Problem Solved

Yes we can keep our environment cool and pristine. The medicine, however, is a little strong. (Photo by Mohri United Nations University)

Yes we can keep our environment cool and pristine. The medicine, however, is a little strong. (Photo by Mohri United Nations University)

The paper was published in 2009, and those who have not ignored it since, have ridiculed it. (Sort of like Darwin’s theories, or plate tectonics, or Hubbert’s view of peaking oil.) Odd, because in a way it confirmed the fervent hope of millions that technology, which has sickened the world with its pollution — never forget, please, that climate change is a pollution problem — would restore our health with a magic pill we could take, and wake up to find the problem gone. The paper, by Tim Garrett of the University of Utah, applied the laws of physics to the cumulative behavior of human civilization, and thus discovered the magic pill. Unfortunately, it was cyanide.

But let’s focus on the good news. Continue reading

Miami Beach, October 9: Apocalypse Foretold [UPDATE: Problem Solved]

High-tide flooding caused by rising seas is impacting Miami and cities as far north as Boston with ever increasing frequency and severity. (Photo by Harold Wanless, University of Miami)

High-tide flooding caused by rising seas is impacting Miami and cities as far north as Boston with ever increasing frequency and severity. (Photo by Harold Wanless, University of Miami)

The projected sea-level rise of the next quarter-century or so because of climate change will occur, albeit briefly, in Miami Beach next Thursday. On that day, the alignment of the sun, earth and moon will produce a King Tide — the highest high tide of the year, a full foot above normal, or about half the sea level rise Miami is expected to experience by 2060. Construction crews are racing to fit plugs in the city’s stormwater drains that dump into the sea and, suddenly, provide a conduit for rising seawater directly to the streets, and to complete installation of four enormous pumps with which to fight the incoming tide. (By pumping the water where? Um, back into the rising sea. Isn’t that a little like bailing one end of a boat into the other?) Thus we get a preview not just of sea level rise, but of the hapless human response to it. Continue reading

A Gazillionaire Looks to the Future: Sees Pitchforks

Rick Hanauer surveys his realm. On a clear day, you can see disaster.

Rick Hanauer surveys his realm. On a clear day, you can see disaster.

One of the Masters of the Universe — he bankrolled the startup of Amazon.com, for example — has peered through the bubble of wealth that surrounds him and has glimpsed a terrifying future. Now, the opinions of the rich and powerful have no enhanced value because of their status and deserve no special attention; to the contrary, they are highly suspect given their destructive record. But given the almost universal tendency to defer to people who accumulate money, it’s worth quoting them on the rare occasions when, like a stopped clock, they are in fact correct.

So when Seattle entrepreneur (from the French, meaning “between jobs”) Nick Hanauer publishes an open letter in Politico to his fellow .01-percenters, warning them that unless they change their ways they will come to a bad end, well, it’s worth a listen. Continue reading

Indian Summer: Apocalypse Rehearsed

Australian heatwave causes wildfiresThis is a shape of things to come: intolerable heat persisting for unprecedented lengths of time; failure of the electric grid when it’s needed most; hundreds of deaths from the searing heat; unreasoning violence spreading across the county like fire. India had it all last week, and the relief brought by the (late) onset of monsoon rains may be scant and temporary. This is the specter of climate change made real, made explicit, in the present tense. And still the world acts as if it’s the other guy’s end of the boat that’s burning, no worries here. Continue reading

IPCC: Wolf! Wolf! No, Really, Wolf!

The last house on Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay, possibly one of the first casualties of climate change induced storms and rising seas. Think they had any warning? (Photo by baldeaglebluff/Flickr)

The last house on Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay, possibly one of the first casualties of climate change induced storms and rising seas. Think they had any warning? (Photo by baldeaglebluff/Flickr)

According to the world’s largest assemblage of climate scientists, the view forward is bleak. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we should expect:

  • millions of people to be displaced by rising seas and more frequent raging storms;
  • more droughts, and more intense heat waves, in more places;
  • extreme shortages of food, fuel, and medicine around the world.

That’s what the IPCC said in its first report, published in 1990. In reports issued every seven years since, including the one out today, it has said the same things, with increasing urgency and certainty. Continue reading