“It is, I promise, worse than you think.” An article that begins this way assumes a lot. It assumes I think. It assumes I think about it. But it is surprising how a person can avoid thinking about a lot of things when they think for a living. Or maybe that is not surprising?
My girlfriend reads the article and says, “Things are so terrible” and “I couldn’t even read this. It’s terrible.” How can I not think about this? I offer to read it. But I have a bad attitude about it.
The article has a simple thesis: the world is warming up. Fine, fine: We know this! But the first sentence is clear that we do not know what we think we know. It is worse than you think. You think that the world is warming and that the Arctic is melting and you think that this means goodbye to Brighton Beach and Bethany Beach and Tybee Island and Ipanema. But really that is not the worry. Rising waters are bad, and because of coastal shifts Nebraska and Mato Grosso will get a bit more crowded, but again: that is not the worst.
The worst is that as we burn fossil fuels and make the world warmer we do something else. We bake the Arctic permafrost. And as we bake the Arctic permafrost we accelerate Arctic soil decomposition. And as the soil decomposes it farts. And this is not a chill Sunday-afternoon-during-the-game kind of gas. No, this is bad, like I-need-to-go-to-the-hospital-now situation. The soil is getting warmer much faster than it should and as it does organic matter in it decays and carbon in the form of methane and carbon dioxide comes out and seeps into our atmosphere and makes it get even hotter even faster. Seeps is actually too calm a word. Saturates is the word. What is happening is that like 1.8 trillion tons of carbon are going to be released into the atmosphere and this is going to make it so hot, so fucking hot that we are going to get hot, not sexy put-an-ice-cube-on-my-clavicle hot but like I-am-going-to-be-cooked-to-death hot.
The end of the tenth paragraph of this forty-five-paragraph article says that. It says the human body could be “cooked to death from the inside out.” Soon.
Because we have made the entire Arctic ice cap effectively fart out its organic matter we are going to die. Not everyone will be actually cooked. Some will die because there are no seeds and no arable land and so they will starve while other people will die because they eat reindeer infected by anthrax released from that melting permafrost. Some people will die because of wildfire smoke inhalation and some people will die because when their flights get grounded they will feel like murdering the person waiting in the airport with them and they will, actually, murder them because “for every half-degree of warming societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict.” Some people will die because of seizures and comas brought on by the drop of the pH in human blood and some people will die because of new microbes in anoxic water that we cannot predict but are pretty sure will make life in our oceans eventually basically impossible. Some people will die slowly and other people will die fast but the point is we will all die from this and the number one reason we will die is because we did not realize how bad it was going to be.
Or we realized it, today, but even then: we’re already too late. It is so much worse than we think, and we’re just hollering at some codger in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or we’re eating Snickers bars or we’re paying off student loan debt or we’re marching with Tiki torches or we’re waiting for Rihanna’s new album or we’re working three jobs or we’re muttering about how much we hate everyone or we’re enjoying the new Zadie Smith novel or we’re shitting on the new Jonathan Safran Foer novel or we’re commuting 2.5 hours every day to our life-sucking job or we’re writing a letter of recommendation or we’re buying more t-shirts or we’re fidget spinning or we’re Snapchatting or we’re crushing on the delivery guy or we’re muttering irritably at our lover or we’re doing whatever we do and we are doing it while remaining totally stupid about the way we or our children or our children’s children are going to die.
After the article gets read by a lot of people a lot of people have things to say. One person says that the article is the Silent Spring of our time. Another person says he is not fond of this “doomist framing.” Another person says fear does not motivate. Another person says fear is an essential evolutionary tactic for survival. Another person says we should substitute beans for beef. Another person says we should have fewer children. Another person says we should reduce, reuse, and recycle. Another person says this is neoliberal crap. Another person says we need more collective action. Another person says we need to stop electing crazy people to public office. Another person says he hopes “that no one comes away from the article despairing that all hope is lost.” Another person—this time, the author—says he is really happy with the result. “I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. We should be alarmed.” Another person says we are so predictable in our reactions to popular think pieces.
A meme, pulled from a 2013 web comic, shows a googly-eyed dog in a tiny hat sitting at a table with a cup of coffee surrounded by flames. You are supposed to understand that this dog is not worried about those flames. He is chill. In case you cannot read his vibe from the first panel of the cartoon, the second panel underlines the point. “THIS IS FINE,” his speech balloon reads. When asked why he thought the meme was so popular, its author, cartoonist KC Green, replied:
Because it’s a feeling we all have, apparently. It’s a feeling we all get of, just like, “Things are burning down around me, but you got to have smile sometimes.” It’s a basic human [feeling], “Well, what are you going to do?”
I cannot decide if being a scholar makes me more like the alarmist or more like the millennial passing around the meme. Am I trying to freak people out, or am I trying to make people smile? I think if I freak them out my teaching evaluations will be bad. I think if I make them smile reviews of my book will be bad. I think if I admit I read memes I will never be invited to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I think if I keep thinking about my career metrics and I do not do something I will be a part of the problem. I think I should bike more. I think I should read more about the Anthropocene. I think I should write an article against calling millennials “apathetic.” Maybe I should try to get everyone in my department to bike to work. Maybe I should get my institution to divest from fossil fuels. Maybe I should quit my job and become an eco-activist. Maybe I should quit my job and become a meme developer. Maybe I should quit my job and travel north to the permafrost. Maybe I should not think all hope is lost. Maybe I should just realize things are terrible.