A new phase has started in how we think and write about climate change.  Extinction Lit: considering its inevitability, and what that means.   

Here’s a current example from the venerable New Yorker, by novelist Jonathan Franzen:


If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope. …

Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met. …

… a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.

And then there’s the matter of hope. If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. …

Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for. …


Much more here.


  1. I’m torn by pieces like this. If it helps convey the sense of the scale of the pending catastrophe it could help with the movement to solve this particular threat. Not because it will change anybody’s mind, but because it challenges those who are young enough to ignore such fatalism because their very survival depends on it.

    Never underestimate the power of stubborn, greedy old farts dying off to accelerate the changes necessary for a habitable world. I suspect the vast majority of the shift in the broader understanding of the climate problem is thirty years of death and birth and has little do do with anybody changing their mind. That will continue to accelerate the momentum to solve the problem. As long as we look back at what little we’ve accomplished in a society chained down by the gullible absorption of fossil propaganda and the stubborn denial of the best science then there is, indeed, no hope. It is way too late.

    But if we can imagine that there are now tens of thousands of scientists and entrepreneurs working on solutions we can also imagine that the results of all their efforts are not yet clearly visible. We can also see a society that is increasingly cognizant of the severity of the problem and that it will accelerate as more reckless old fools die off. Governments will be forced to come around. If we see the changes already occurring in the way younger society fundamentally differs from their parents in many beneficial ways then there is still hope. Those who were born into a world of the climate threat are just beginning to be of the age to make a difference.

    We have thirty years to have locked down the solutions, which is both frighteningly soon and hopefully distant. The nearly insignificant solutions we’ve implemented so far are destined for exponential adoption. Exponential change is the power that made all of yesterday’s social struggles seem like a history dominated ignorant assholes. The future will not look kindly on those who’ve resisted this important change. There are solutions we can’t yet imagine. Single determined individuals or small teams have quickly changed the course of history. How many of those are at work right now on a threat that they fully understand could spell the end of civilization? It is as silly to rely on them as to count them out.

    Maybe I’m being naive but I think the current wave of destructive populist parties gaining power is the last desperate appeal to the predominantly older generation to hold on to values that no longer make any sense. They win by brute force strategy and simplistic stories appealing to a dying breed of old fogies – not by appealing to the inevitable renewal by young people who’s survival depends on change. It’s a losing strategy.

  2. One consequence of fatalism about issues like climate change is that it can lead to as much or more inaction as that practiced by the most cynical political party. Once power is attained, the motive of self-preservation acts in concert with the fear of donor and voter retribution, so delay, deferment and breaking promises become standard policy. This sickness is pandemic.

    This is not dissimilar to religious fatalism. I grew up in a conservative Christian home. It could not be denied that my mother had tremendous faith, right up to the end. Bless her. But her faith also countered any tendency toward independent thought. She and her friends interpreted global warming as a sign that the end times are here … and thank God for that! Paradise is nigh! And therein there was no reason to act or think too hard about it because global warming is happily part of God’s Plan. Thankfully, none of this rubbed off on me

    The deep, uncomplicated conservatism in these beliefs is troublesome. Climate change is too big and complex to spend much time on considering that ‘God’s Plan’ is just a little too pat, too convenient and simplistic. It is far easier to wait for the inevitable, like millions are waiting (and waiting …) for the Second Coming as they have for generations, centuries and a couple of Millennia so far. To rationalize that the universe operates by the laws of physics and nothing more is blasphemous.

    Franzen’s piece seems to strike a similarly fatalistic chord. We are facing extinction, so let’s give up any attempt to cool the Earth and develop ways to adapt to the warming as best as possible? It is a fundamentally lazy strategy. The latest science says we have 12 years to turn emissions sharply back to no net gain, and 30 years of transition to zero carbon. But civilization also has a century or more of unprecedented adaptation to accomplish for the next several generations. Giving up and doing nothing is no longer an option.

    Pre-eminent climate scientist Dr. James Hansen did the math and found that 450 parts per million atmospheric CO2 was the ceiling we must not breach without a transition plan to actively lower emissions to 350 ppm where he calculated stability rests. We are approaching 410 ppm today. This and much more was elucidated n his aptly named book, ‘Storms of My Grandchildren.’

    Vancouver must plan now for sea level, urban temperatures that will regularly exceed 30 degrees far longer in summer, and forest fie smoke. The fatalist will prefer sipping a depressing amount of wine on the deck while watching the world go by.

    Ken Greenberg’s book ‘Walking Home’ discusses city planning and urban design in part to adapt to the effects of climate change and fighting it through lower urban emissions, primarily with mixed use zoning, better building codes and expanded transit, pedestrian and bicycle netowks. He has a lifetime of experience in the US, Europe and Canada and is still practicing in Toronto.

    Ben Barber’s ‘Cool Cities’ discusses how cities are the world’s best hope to fight and adapt to climate warming through more sovereignty and better planning and design.

    Books like these can lead to a better public conversation, help build the knowledge and ultimately develop the transition plan we need. This the antithesis of fatalism.

  3. the city as it is currently constituted is the cause of climate change_ we do not consider abandonment of the city in order to save ourselves from ecological collapse_ we prefer to tinker with ideas of little consequence_ until such time as we must flee to the relative security and prosperity of the countryside.

    1. 4B people moving back to the countryside would be an unprecedented environmental disaster.

      Cities are incubators for progressive ideas which are sorely needed in this crisis. Urban dwellers emit a small fraction of GHGs of suburban or small town residents. The answers to this crisis lie in cities. But access to nature is also paramount. Tighten up that suburban sprawl to make sure timely access to wilder areas is convenient.

  4. “4B people moving back to the countryside would be an unprecedented environmental disaster”

    I tend to think as Jolson does. It is a useful exercise to consider the overall quality of life for everything on the planet if humans confined themselves to a total population under 4 billion living more simply, with fewer plastic knick-knacks and plan trips and greater reliance on our own abilities.

    I think it is definitely do-able and probably the only long-term outcome that would have any real sustainability.

    We barrack for quality over quantity is so many things. We might start with people and some discussion of how to humanely de-populate the planet somewhat over the next few generations. One suspects it will come voluntarily or through other means likely to be less pleasant.

    1. Obviously reducing the global population is a good long-term outcome if it is achieved by non-violent means. Urban living and educating women both have that affect. Rural people tend to have more kids.

      But you may have misunderstood in any case. If everybody moved back to the country as Jolson suggests it would be 7.7B people scattered across the countryside not 4B.

      4B is about what live in cities today. Spreading them back out across the countryside where they might gravitate toward larger families as they stake out sprawling land claims, creating conflict with those who are already there, being pushed further into wildlife habit would be the worst possible thing even if they all just sat around growing organic crops and cobbling their own shoes.

      When people talk about reducing the population they never seem to volunteer. And when they talk about leaving the city most never do – and if they do it isn’t purely by choice.

  5. When you consider the millions in population and billions in GDP of the Lower Mainland, Victoria, Halifax and many other cities on our three coasts, it strikes me as beyond absurd that the federal government would not even plan, let alone act, to protect its own citizens from slow but insidious sea level rise. Then you have the very rapid glacial melt occurring in the Rockies that was estimated in a hydrological study a decade ago (Schindler et al) to diminish the flows in Prairie rivers by ~50% by mid-century. At least four major cities with three million people obtain their primary water supplies from glacier-sourced rivers like the Bow and North Saskatchewan.

    Canadian citizens are increasing enmeshed in a series of long-term troubles regarding the planetary-scale environmental crisis. Yet here are the feds taking four years to enact a simple carbon tax (the very earliest and most minimal of all actions one can take to constrain emissions), but a matter of days to buy a flawed pipeline project.

    Is there not a legal precedence in place dating back to the Magna Carta that outlines the responsibilities between the people and the sovereign power that governs them? Is there not a social contract between citizens who live in cities (that’s 80% of Canadians) who pay taxes and build economic wealth for the nation and a government that is supposed to not just protect them but to assure the livelihood of its own people who underpin the government? Is this relationship not symbiotic? Where does the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms stand on the responsibilities of the sovereign powers when the people face imminent harm?

    Our six largest cities generate half of the wealth of the nation. For every dollar taken out of the Lower Mainland in taxes by senior governments, eight cents are returned.

    It may initially be deemed unCanadian, but there might just be a legal case for cities to come together to sue the federal government over its irresponsible intransigence and disgraceful inaction to protect citizens from the increasingly harmful effects of an artificially warming world. The provinces would witness this action form the first row, and therein be forewarned.

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