Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A fruitful land into a salt waste - climate change and apocalypsis

He changes rivers into a wilderness
And springs of water into a thirsty ground;

A fruitful land into a salt waste,
Because of the wickedness of those who dwell in it.

-Psalm 107:33-34

A friend of mine, a geologist who I've known since he was an undergraduate in the 1990s, recently said, "The three scariest words in the English language are 'Pine Island Glacier'." A Southern preacher once made note: "When the Bible says 'you,' that translates into 'y'all'.

In 2015, a 225-mile island of ice broke free from West Antarctica. The boundary shelf of West Antarctica includes a mass called the Pine Island Glacier; and that is where the ice sheared off. The particulars of this breakaway ice may be arcane for most readers, but the up and the down of it is, earth scientists are now quite sure that the West Antarctic ice is melting from below, but more alarming, they are now confident that the question of whether West Antarctica will melt is not a matter of if, but when, and the timetable for when has been moved up.

Conservatively, this means that my grandchildren in 30 years will be able to walk along the shore of Myrtle Beach - well, it won't be a beach any more - around Highway 31. Family Kingdom Amusement Park and Broadway at the Beach will be fish habitat, depending on which species survive further ocean acidification and the massive injections of fresh water from melting ice around the world.

Half of the fresh water in the world is locked into ice in Antarctica. West Antarctica alone can raise sea levels ten feet . . . bye-bye Miami, bye-bye New York City, bye-bye New Orleans. This does not take into account sea-level rise caused by other melts which are already in progress and accelerating in the Northern hemisphere. Greenland alone now loses 20 billion tons a year, and that rate increases each year.
Two percent of earth's 7 billion humans live within one meter of the coast. Six percent lives within five meters. Ten percent lives within ten meters.

Waters cool, changing currents, which changes weather. Desalination and cooler temperatures kill coral and plankton, disrupting whole food chains. Coastal waters become Petri dishes for algae blooms that decay and de-oxygenate water, killing aquatic life.

Inundation is not the only concern, though inundation also means whole islands will disappear. Whole habitats will disappear. Estuaries will reach back into mainlands, salinating soils. Drinking water will be contaminated. Homes will be abandoned, fortunes lost. Those who are driven away will move inland creating new stressors on infrastructure there. Farms will be ruined. Species will die out. Storms will damage more and further in. Communication and transportation lines will be destroyed and rerouted. Fisheries will collapse. And these are only the effects of sea level rise. 

As Dahr Jamail says, "Everything in the planet's climate system is linked, and when one part of it changes, all the other parts will respond." We have only glimpsed the changes ahead in the form of superstorms or the wildfires that are consuming Appalachia as this is written.

These inevitable scenarios, bad as they are, however, are not the worst. The most terrifying scenario of all is something called runaway warming.

Runaway warming is when a 'tipping point' is reached wherein warming quits being the effect of a cause (greenhouse gases introduced by human activity) and becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Warming begets warming.

Locked into the world's permafrosts are unknown quantities of carbon (estimates hover around 1.4 trillion tons) that can be converted into methane, a gas that is 84 times as powerful a greenhouse vector as carbon dioxide per molecule over a period of twenty years. When the permafrost melts, as it is now melting, this carbon-methane will be released. Though some methane is routinely released even from frozen mass in the arctic, no one currently knows how much greater the releases of methane will be as permafrost melts. Here is what we do know, however. Carbonaceous material - dead plants and other organic matter - that are thawed will rot. Microbial activity with oxygen will convert that organic material into atmospheric carbon. Microbial activity underground, though, without oxygen (anaerobic), produces the methane. That methane forms bubbles that then migrate to the surface. Because we cannot be sure how much or how fast this process will take, we simply cannot know if or when such a tipping point might arrive. Climate scientists have consistently said this is unlikely; but in recent years, more and more climate scientists have walked back their own certainties about this. One researcher published a 2015 article in Scientific American that estimated we could reach a "point of no return" as early as 2042. This and other research suggest that we have four years to lower our greenhouse gas emissions by a full five percent worldwide if we are to arrest this runaway scenario. Melting accelerates warming which accelerates melting ... ... ... runaway.

Oh yeah, and the ice that is melting reflects heat from the sun back into space, so there's  that, too.

Paradoxically, generalized warming could lead to unseasonably cold weather in some places, even as I walked outside today in Michigan on the last day of November in a cotton t-shirt. What we do know to nearly an absolute certainty is that some of our grandchildren will live to, conservatively, see the planet eight degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it currently is. That may not sound like much, but it is, in combination with the ramifications of sea level rise and ocean acidification, downright apocalyptic
Crop failures, migrating diseases, deadly heat waves, killer storms, extreme drought, uncontrollable wildfires, lowered air quality, losses of potable water, and population migrations, will have not only their direct effects, but will inevitably result in economic catastrophes compounded by political destabilization - the latter almost certainly characterized by a drift toward increasing authoritarianism and ever more draconian population control measures, which will likely in turn lead to civil conflict, even civil wars. Few people today recognize, for example, the key role that water played in the Syrian Civil War or continues to play in the brutal Israeli occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians.

This makes me wonder sometimes, the magnitude of it, and the inertia of that magnitude. Mass times velocity equals momentum. When I engage in political discourse or do my little projects to rehabilitate a scrap of soil, I wonder if I am like The Fishes, that group of armed revolutionaries in the film adaptation of P. D. James' novel, Children of Men. They continued the armed struggle for the rights of the persecuted refugees, and yet human beings had become unaccountably sterile and had produced no babies for more than eighteen years. Hope had become, as Sartre so pithily put it, "a blank check written against eternity."

I wonder if we aren't rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In another film allusion, from Thin Red Line, our narrator asks, in the face of the mindless cruelty of war, "This great evil, where's it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this?"

What am I to do? What are we to do? Where do we begin? What is evil? How do we know its face? Is it just a rich clown running a nation, or thuggish cop, or a drunken husband beating the shit out of his wife?

What seed? What root?

I have to divert, now, away from the hard diagnostics of science, back into an unsure anthropology and a story around which the figure of the anti-Christ can be rescued from horror-films and jackleg preachers. Because, as a Christian among sorrowful and sinful Christians like myself, I wrote a book a couple of years ago, a kind of four-millennia autobiography, in which I traced the genealogy of modernity, of industrialism, of capitalism itself, and of my own formation as a man (a male) and a soldier, directly back to the Constantinian compromise of the early church.

Our secular era, this epoch of modernity reaching into the now of crackpot capitalism, with its mad addictions and its nuclear weapons and ceaseless mimetic violence, is not - as suggested by the aforementioned chiliastic white nationalist preacher - an era against Christianity, but - as Ivan Illich so provocativley pointed out - the perversely inevitable triumph of evil from within the church. The anti-Christ, the seed, the root from which this evil grew, quickened in the belly of the church.
Illich's anti-Christ is not a foul-mouthed ogre invading the bodies of innocent girls or a monstrous despot astride a cosmic throne in the Kingdom of Corpses. The anti-Christ wears a suit, pursues a degree in management or law, studies ledgers and scatterplots, administers charity, designs futures, manages risks.

Illich said of modernity, "I believe this to be the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be quite close to the end of the world."

A new freedom was inaugurated with the Incarnation, the erasure of boundaries by grace. It is contained within history, revealed through history, but the gift of the Incarnation Illich summarizes in the story of the beaten Judean, passed over by his pious fellow Judeans, and taken in by the foreigner, the apostate, a Samaritan. It is this freedom, this gift, this fallout of grace, the embodied other freely chosen apart from the historically given family, ethnos, tribe, law. In this, God is revealed to us in a way that completely transcends human practices, human norms. It is small-c catholicity, in which God's love, "perfect" love, invites us to participate in it. Jesus embodies this in his promiscuous friendships, the revelation of the depth of which only becomes apparent on the cross.

The anti-Christ is the attempt to enforce this freedom. The attempt to make rules for a gift that transcends rules. In this, says Illich, we see that the anti-Christ only becomes possible once the Christ has been revealed. Illich:

There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.  So, along with this new ability to give freely of oneself has appeared the possibility of exercising an entirely new kind of power, the power of those who organize Christianity and use this vocation to claim their superiority as social institutions.  This power is claimed first by the Church and later by the many secular institutions stamped from its mold.  Wherever I look for the roots of modernity, I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize, and manage Christian vocation.

As David Cayley writes:

This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s hypothesis. A love which is pure gift – unmerited, unconstrained, inconceivable - becomes an entirely new kind of law and a new kind of power. And the process is progressive. It begins when the Church becomes the welfare department of the crumbling Roman Empire. It continues in the high Middle Ages when the “criminalization of sin” turns the Church into a law-governed prototype of the modern state.

The anti-Christ is an imposter of Christ. As Cayley notes, "love becomes law." In our era, that imposter has a name: Progress. It's telos is not that embodied human being beaten on the side of the road, but something called The Future. Capitalism is certainly implicated, and its roots in Western Christianity are well-known; but then again the post-Hegelian anti-capitalists - themselves progressives (oh yes, we had different ways to worship the same idol) - and they too have been implicated in the worst of our revelations, especially pertaining to this Christic imposter, Progress. Capitalism, to be sure, has been far more successful in advancing the cause of Progress, and so is far more deeply implicated in what Illich described as "the mysterious darkness that envelops our world, the demonic night paradoxically resulting from the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory."

Think now on the sins of the church. The wars, the witch trials, the forced conversions, the prisons, the kidnappings, the promulgations of civil laws, the anti-Semitic pogroms, the bigotry, the self-righteousness, the thefts, the cover-ups . . . and I speak as a fellow wretch. I ask you, what do we see before us? What has been revealed?

Apokalupsis is not the Greek for catastrophe, but for revelation. History is unfolding, and with each passing day revealing itself.

Now we stand before our own revealed future, the seas literally rising around us, the earth literally burning beneath our feet, the creatures literally falling into the abyss of mass death, the "city of chaos" described by Isaiah, wherein "every house is shut up so that none may enter," and still we look first to the Institution, the System, the Revolution, any depersonalized imitation savior, for an escape.
And still we have not turned to one another, enfleshed, present, suffering, and reached for the gift freely offered: love.

Lord, help me because I am not faithful. Christ, have mercy.

But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

-2 Peter 3:7

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap is this a brilliant essay.
    I'm going back to read it ten times.