Thu Sep 7th, 2017 at 05:19:10 PM EST
Tropical Depressions Sam Kriss, Ellie Mae O'Hagan The Baffler
On a wretched December afternoon in 2015, as raindrops pattered a planetary threnody on grayed-out streets, five thousand activists gathered around Paris's Arc de Triomphe, hoping to force world leaders to do something, anything, that would save the future. Ellie was there. But what she remembers most from that afternoon during the UN's Climate Change Conference wasn't what happened in the open, in front of cameras and under the sky. As they took the Metro together, activists commiserated, briefly, before the moment of struggle and the need to be brave, over just how hopeless it could sometimes feel. People talked about bafflement, rage, despair; the sense of having discovered a huge government conspiracy to wipe out the human race--but one that everybody knows about and nobody seems willing to stop.
Twenty meters beneath the Paris streets, the Metro became a cocoon, tight and terrified, in which a brief moment of honest release was possible. Eventually someone expressed the psychic toll in words that have stuck with Ellie since. It was a chance remark: "I don't know how to be human any more."
Climate change means, quite plausibly, the end of everything we now understand to constitute our humanity. If action isn't taken soon, the Amazon rainforest will eventually burn down, the seas will fester into sludge that submerges the world's great cities, the Antarctic Ice Sheet will fragment and wash away, acres of abundant green land will be taken over by arid desert. A 4-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would, within a century, produce a world as different from the one we have now as ours is from that of the Ice Age. And any humans who survive this human-made chaos would be as remote from our current consciousness as we are from that of the first shamanists ten thousand years ago, who themselves survived on the edges of a remote and cold planet. Something about the magnitude of all this is shattering: most people try not to think about it too much because it's unthinkable, in the same way that death is always unthinkable for the living. For the people who have to think about it--climate scientists, activists, and advocates--that looming catastrophe evokes a similar horror: the potential extinction of humanity in the future puts humanity into question now.
Putting humanity into question is a good and necessary thing at this juncture. It is already very late to do so. Our horizons of concern are too limited by our own expected lifetimes. That could be our ultimate collective act of hubris.