After 27 rounds of annual talks that amount to just a bunch of corporate hot air, we're hopefully that much closer to the tipping point when people give up on relying on the capitalists to save us.
Even the bushy-tailed liberal pundits increasingly are having to admit what is abundantly obvious, that the leaders of the world have abjectly failed to cut back on the deadly pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere which are now leading us to a future of ever-worsening climate catastrophe. And even if leaders of countries like the US actually start following through with what have so far been a long series of completely empty promises, it's way too late to prevent the feedback loops that are already happening.
The glaciers will continue to disappear, the ice shelfs will continue to break apart and melt, the oceans will rise, the loss of the permafrost will let all the methane stored down there out, this is all going to happen, unless miracles are real and there really is going to be a Second Coming, or visitors drop in from another galaxy with magic wands who can do some terraforming and turn our planet back into the Garden of Eden. Otherwise, after the catastrophes the Earth has in store during the rest of the 21st century, we have the 22nd to look forward to -- or whoever's left alive by then does. The 22nd century is when we won't be talking about how much the global temperatures or the oceans have risen, but by what time the third planet starts looking like the second one.
I personally know a number of climate scientists. They're all universally horrified by what they are seeing, now, and even more by what the future has in store, which looks a lot like the greatest environmental calamity the Earth has faced since the meteor that hit the Earth and led to the fifth mass extinction event here, 65 million years ago. We are now past the tipping point in terms of prevention. Regardless of whether we all stop burning fossil fuels right away, right now, we can only at this point make the disaster less terrible. It's no longer preventable -- the cycles of mass extinction, burning of the forests, melting of the polar ice, mass methane release, rising oceans, desertification of much of the world's surface, etc., is all well underway.
Hopefully I'm just telling you things you already know so far, we're on the same page as far as climate science goes, and you're wondering when I might get to my thesis. Here it is.
As the climate scientists say, the systems around the planet that determine how the climate changes, when major dramatic developments occur in different parts of the world, are complex, and often impossible to predict accurately. For example, at some point the Gulf Stream will move dramatically to the west and not return to its current position. When this happens, it will affect Europe's climate in a huge way. But exactly when this move will take place, whether it's next year or several decades from now, is much harder to be sure about. In other words, they can tell we're close to a tipping point, when a tip is imminent, but exactly when the actual tip occurs is very hard to say.
Individual people, communities, and entire societies also have tipping points of all sorts. When some aspect (or many aspects) of life becomes unbearable for people, they eventually react. This can take so many different forms. In the popular imagination, or at least big parts of it, when a people or a significant population within a given society reach this tipping point and start reacting to their circumstances as a group, this is a terrifying thing. Images from Lord of the Flies or the Walking Dead or a zillion other dystopic, imagined worlds are evoked.
Of course there's no question that anything people have done to each other in the Walking Dead pales in comparison with what people in the real world have done to each other. Things can get very dark indeed, and we have plenty of cases of organized genocide to attest to this fact, from every continent aside from Antarctica, at some point or other.
But the human story is also one of social movements and uprisings that have achieved magnificent things. I'm not attempting to suggest that we can avoid so many of the horrors that lay in store for our planet, our species, and so many other species we share this thin blue atmosphere with. Although, who knows what possibilities there might be. But what I would just put out there, in the hope that it might, amid the darkness, have at least a slightly therapeutic effect, is that when a people, a community, a society reaches a tipping point, where the status quo is no longer bearable or sensible for huge numbers of people, what can happen, what often has happened regularly throughout world history, are social movements and rebellions that take so many forms.
And what I would say about mass movements forming and taking hold of the hearts and minds of large groups of people is, first of all, it's about as hard to predict when they're going to really take off as it is to predict the tipping point for when the Gulf Stream might migrate to the west, but the pressures leading in the direction of this happening are clear, in both cases. Either way, whether it can be predicted accurately or not, once a forward-looking social movement gets off the ground and the various forms of social movement infrastructure start taking shape, if you're ever lucky enough to participate in such a movement, despite all the many pitfalls and dangers involved, it will likely be the most memorably positive experiences with human solidarity and community that you will ever have.
Whether "most men live lives of quiet desperation" as Thoreau postulated, poll after poll in modern times indicate that a very large percentage of society is chronically lonely, anxious, and depressed. While there may or may not be a panacea for this condition, my own personal experience, and that of many others, is that being part of a social movement is the best cure there is for anyone who feels isolated or pessimistic, or even just bored.
It's not just because social movements tend to be threatening to and opposed by the powers-that-be in ways that can result in death, injury, imprisonment, different forms of blacklisting, etc., for some or many of those participating in it, which naturally makes them exciting and generally not so boring. The main thing, it seems to me, is that when you have huge numbers of people collectively acting for the common good, and generally putting the interests of the movement first, what happens is magical.
At times like these, where in so much of the world it seems like nationalism, xenophobia, drilling, and digging are the order of the day, it's easy to forget -- or never to know in the first place -- how transformative social movements can be, for individual participants and for societies.
Historically, it is overwhelmingly the case that when good things happen in the world, a social movement was mostly responsible for it. We in the US live in an age of tent cities, mass incarceration, and environmental devastation, to be sure. But so much of the prosperity that does exist here and in so many other countries in what we used to call the industrialized world exists because of the mass movements that ultimately came to be known as the labor movement.
The existence of multi-party democracy in Europe was a direct consequence of the uprisings of the 1840's, that were born of social movements. A social movement built the first industrial windmill. Social movements have, on many occasions, taken over cities and regions of different countries, and run things better, despite all those trying to prevent their success, from Shays' Rebellion to the Rent Strike Wars to the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas, and innumerable other examples.
If you examine a historical social movement or live through one, you'll see that movements have a life to them that gives rise to every form of creative expression. The best books, music, plays, and ideas for how the world could be transformed for the better come out of social movements.
I don't know what the tipping point might be when a really big swath of society here in the US or many other places come to see that there is no hope for the future if we rely on the capitalists who created this disaster to get us out of it -- when people collectively realize that we can and must find another way forward. In order for such an idea to take root, people have to have a general sense of the possibility of changing things -- a sense of optimism in the possibility that a social movement might conceivably do that. But when that does happen again -- and if history is any judge, it will -- I can guarantee that a whole lot of people will find meaning in life and experience the best that humanity has to offer, whether we succeed in navigating our way towards a sustainable future, or go down fighting.
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