Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 07, 2013


That is the famous poem by Shelley, of course. I thought of it when I read this essay by Bill McKibben, which has been reposted just about everywhere in a coordinated cyber-bomb. So if you haven't come across it yet, go check it out.

Now you're back. Let me tell you why neither Barack Obama or anybody else in power is doing anything meaningful about the existential threat facing our civilization. I have a writer friend who got an assignment from Harper's to write about climate change as a kind of eschatology. He kept asking me what it was like to live in the End Times and he got a little bit miffed when I wouldn't buy into the concept. It's not the end times. Civilizations come and go. The world goes on. So far, as a matter of fact, so has Homo sapiens. The collapse of classical Greece, the Roman Empire, feudal Europe and the Kingdom of Ouagadougou haven't even slowed us down.

Industrial civilization is built on fossil fuel, just as Mesopotamia was built on its irrigation system and the Holy Roman Empire on the Catholic religion and steel swords, spears and armor. If some scientist had come along and told them those bases for their civilizations were doomed, and they just had to try something else, what do you think would have happened? I don't know about Mesopotamia, but in Europe, you got burned at the stake.

To say that we have to give up fossil fuel is to say that our civilization must go the way of Ozymandias. It's just not clear to me that it can happen until it all comes crashing down. We are Homo petroleus. Eventually, we won't be any more. The times will be very trying, filled with catastrophe and pain. Then we'll be something else.

1 comment:

robin andrea said...

It will be interesting to see what that "something else" is in the future. How uninhabitable will we make the planet before climate change is taken seriously?