Gentle Decline 2/16: Gradualism & Grimness
Applying Newton's First Law in ways it was never intended, and talking about the unlikelihood of halting a system already in motion.
Hello. I got a question a few months ago that I’ve been thinking about since. It went, “I know you’re a pretty optimistic guy otherwise. Why do you seem to think it’s impossible to turn climate change around now?” This issue addresses that idea. It’s kind of grim, so if you already know my thinking on this, you can probably skip it. I can’t promise the next issue will be any less grim, but I’ll try to include some practical stuff, and not pure doom-mongering.
[Gentle Decline is an occasional newsletter about climate crisis, and - more to the point - how to cope with it. You can support the newsletter via Patreon, Ko-fi, or by buying some of the seriously classy merchandise. The spotlighted product for this issue is again the Gentle Decline enamel mug, which is hard-wearing and solidly thematic for your neighbourhood revolution meetings.]
First, I’ve said before that as a historian, I’m a gradualist. I don’t believe that sudden change exists; change happens slowly, bit by bit, unevenly. One of the implications of this is that change usually begins far sooner than we think, and ends far later than we think. And sometimes it didn’t happen when we think it did at all.
Let me talk through an example from my other area of knowledge. The tomato is an essential part of European cooking now. It’s hard to imagine Italian food, in particular, without it. And we can pin down pretty precisely when it arrived, right? Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, brought back the tomato, and it’s been pizzas and Bolognese ever since.
Except… this is not the case. Sure, there were no tomatoes in Europe before 1492 (although I’ve seen a few discussions centering around things-that-might-have-been-tomatoes in older recipes, and in pre-1492 accounts from East Asia; nobody takes these terribly seriously). But Europeans did not take quickly to tomatoes. They look like nightshade, a poisonous plant, and while nightshade berries are black, they don’t look unlike cherry tomatoes. They’re part of the same plant family. So the Europeans basically went “those look poisonous, no thanks”, and in any case, novelty was not as valued in the late 1400s as it is now. So the very first mention of a tomato in an Italian recipe is in 1692, fully 200 years later; almost seven generations. And they were still seen as exotic and in need of some explanation in England as late as 1820. So what we actually have is a very, very gradual process of arrival, stretching over hundreds of years and multiple generations until we arrive at ubiquity.
The counterpart to gradualism - but really, an inherent part of it - is inertia. In physics, inertia is Newton’s first law, “the natural tendency of an object to remain at rest or in motion at a constant velocity along a straight line”; in other words, things that start moving keep moving, and things that are staying still keep doing that. Similarly (and not entirely metaphorically) once some kind of change or event is “in motion”, it stays that way until something acts on it. And the something that acts on it has to be big enough to make a difference. Physics has a limited application to things that happen in history, and you can get into thorny philosophical ground concerning predetermination, free will, and quantum theory if you try. But let me step around that area and just say: things that are happening have a tendency to keep happening, and things that are not happening need a considerable investment of effort to start happening.
So once the tomato got going, and nothing acted against it, it was pretty much inevitable that it would become a major foodstuff. Not everywhere, not all the time, but noticeably all the same.
So what we have at the moment in climate change is a combination of several things that are in motion, and have been for some time. There’s the use of fossil fuels, primarily. That starts with the use of coal at some nebulous point in history, and just keeps going. This is in the realm of human events and history, but even with all of science, and a lot of public opinion against it, it just… keeps on happening. If I need to get something from a shop in Dublin, my options are to travel in by car or bus (both using fossil fuels), or have it delivered (on a van using fossil fuels). I do, in theory, have the option of walking or cycling in, getting the thing and bringing it home the same way, but there were still fossil fuels involved in getting the object from wherever it was made to the shop. Also, it would take me an entire working day to cycle in and back out (and at least a full day, as in dawn to dusk, to walk), and then I would complain about it for weeks afterwards, so it’s not a great use of time or energy. So unless I forego the thing entirely, fossil fuel is just there, inherent in our systems of living.
As one individual, I can’t change that. Even if I could afford to have a solar-charging super-zippy vehicle to get in and out of the city on, there would be fossil fuels used in its production, and again to supply the shop. And when it comes to changing this on a systemic level, there are people who don’t think it’s a serious problem, and people who are actually opposed to changing it, because they are making money from the fossil fuel usage. And that latter group of people, because they have money, can afford to push money at governments to slow up change, or at “researchers” to gum up the works, or at clever concepts like “personal climate footprint”, which can distract the public for years.
It is extremely difficult to disconnect from the fossil-fuel using systems. It may actually be impossible. You can have a carbon-neutral house, grow all your own food locally, irrigate from local water systems, grow your own fibre plants and keep sheep to make clothes, buy what external foods you need from like-minded people, and so on, but you couldn’t have any communications devices (even the simplest phone is a very long way from neutral), use medicines or medical treatments, or engage in any business with anyone else who’s not similarly disconnected. So essentially: individuals cannot reduce their climate impact to zero. Even if they did, each individual in the world is a tiny, tiny proportion of the whole. Millions of us doing so would still make no measurable difference.
In other words, what we have here at the moment is a system in motion. It will remain in motion until some external force acts on it. The only truly external force available is running out of the physical fuels, and that’s some time away still. We can work up a sort of external force with laws and economic effects - banning the extraction and use of some fossil fuels (with actual jail time as a consequence), taxing the remainder fiercely, and so on. But we have known this, as a species, for more than 40 years, and we have done very, very little toward it. That is not going to change quickly, and I am cynical enough about humans to think that most of us alive today are not going to see a change in it. There have been swathes of places like the US and Australia on fire, there are catastrophic floods, there are slower-moving more-damaging hurricanes, and the response of our culture at a broad level is to shrug and keep doing what we were doing.
The third IPCC report says that overshooting an average temperature change of 1.5C is now essentially inevitable, even if we were able to throw the brakes on all emitting processes right now. It sets out what needs to be done to halt that before it gets to 2C, and to reverse it. Much as I would love for those recommendations to be followed, I know that they will not. We’re going to go past 2C, and honestly, I think we’re going to hit 3C.
At that point in time, enough of the people who have directly profitted from fossil fuel use for their whole lives will have, literally, died off for those remaining to begin to back off. Most of the people now in their teens and twenties - modulo a few who have been carefully non-educated in these areas by conservative parents, etc. - know what needs doing, and are willing to get on with it. These are the people who will be in control of the remnants of fossil fuel extraction and use in thirty years’ time. Many of the people now in their 30s and 40s have a similar understanding, and that will provide some of the groundwork. This is a matter of education and understanding, not age per se, but that education and understanding is only really happening in the youngest generations now.
I do believe that our civilisation will adjust, but gradually. Some of that change is already happening, as with any change. It is not going to be fast enough to make a difference in the short term, and it is probably not going to be fast enough to make a difference in the medium term. It is on that basis that I believe the responsible set of actions is to prepare for inevitable, slow, but catastrophic change.
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