Today’s featured image: Rocky Mountain sunrise from the steps of the Capitol. This has been my phone wallpaper since I snapped it on a Saturday morning run shortly after I moved to Denver. I try to keep my wallpaper of something local to enforce the feeling of presence and recognizing the beauty where I am instead of wishing I were somewhere else. It has worked better in other locales.
It’s now been over a year since the current American president took office, and it’s still weird. I don’t think it will ever be not weird, even after he’s gone. Honestly, I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. The day he was elected, I knew that I would need to return to the US, but I’ve spent every day since then trying to convince myself that I was happy about it.
I have yet to be successful, and the closer I got to my return, the more anxious I became. Some of you may remember a rather distressing post from July in which I learned what nihilism actually feels like. For me, philosophies and religions had always been theoretical constructs, mental toys to be mulled over, but never indescribable mental realities. Unfortunately, the nihilistic feeling has continued to haunt me.
I’ve continued to maintain what have been the core aspects of my life and character, but those things come almost entirely out of habit. My fitness routines, work ethic, and other pursuits continue to hobble along because of momentum build over years of reinforcing practice. That momentum is, however, noticeably bleeding off.
I accepted this life of corporate servitude in exchange for a bit of stability that would allow me to pursue personal goals that will take longer than the average of a few months that I’ve been in each new place over the past three and a half years. Yet my fear of static constantly undermines each new endeavor. Perhaps the most successful experiment so far was exploiting my newly found unlimited access to a weight room when I successfully broke 200lbs for the first time in my life (and no, it wasn’t all fat). That took me about a month.
In the ensuing two weeks, I lost all of it, returning to the weight I was when I graduated high school and have been almost invariably since then (and no, that weight change wasn’t fat either, sadly). A week of experimenting with intermittent fasting (or time-restricted eating, if you want to be pedantic about it) left me feeling fantastic and back on track, but a creeping self-loathing brought it to a crashing halt with a weekend full of cheap pizza and doughnuts.
Logically, this doesn’t make any sense. As soon as things start going in the right direction, I’m proud of what I’m doing, and I physically feel good, I decide it’s time to pick up some bad habits. It’s absolutely insane.
Well, it is if you (as I often did) accept the premise that living a healthy and productive lifestyle is a good thing. On its face, this seems perfectly obvious. Why would anyone pursue anything else? Even if you suck at living a healthy and productive life (which almost all of us do), you know what you could do to change. It’s the changing that’s the hard part.
But what if even the easy part (knowing you should change) also comes into question?
And that’s where I am: unconvinced of the reason to enforce the discipline that had defined my life for so long.
It is reinforced, in part, by my disastrously cynical outlook on the future. One of our first assignments during my wind power master’s program was to make an argument for or against the proposition: society will do what is necessary to keep the average global temperature within two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
I argued in the negative bsed on three points:
- We have already used up much of the estimated carbon budget
- Momentum of established political and social institutions retard the transition away from fossil fuels
- Current technology is still unable to transition just the energy sector, much less the transportation, residential, and agricultural sectors, which make up the overwhelming majority of the emissions problem
In sum, our recent frenzy of renewable energy development and well-intentioned political movements are too little, too late.
This fatalism of a world of changing weather patterns and rising tides combined with a cynical view of mankind’s primitive, tribalistic, and violent tendencies have brought me to the following outlook for our species:
In the next couple decades, climatic changes are going to exacerbate political instabilities to a breaking point. Mass migrations, fervent uprisings, and military retaliation will draw the major powers into global conflict. Even in the unlikely event that a rogue actor does not set off a nuclear holocaust, either the conventional weaponry deployed will have left most modern civilizations in ruins and/or the global government that emerges from the destruction will bring us to a 1984-esque society.
With this future to look forward to, why should I prepare for it? What use will all our wind turbines be when climate change leads to the downfall of modern society anyway? For whom ought I work when my expectations of humanity are so abysmal? And when I’ve come to terms with my own mortality and the futility of controlling the world around me, why should I even work for myself?
That’s what I sat down to answer.
The assumptions that lead to this conclusion are based on a couple logical leaps that are actually quite unreasonable.
The main premise – that global action on climate change will be too slow to prevent 2-degree temperature rise – is likely still true. A handful of unlikely events would need to coincide for the world to meet its objective under the Paris agreement. First of all, deployment of renewable energy would need to increase rapidly. Even at the fastest rate the US has ever seen, it would take several decades to transition the energy sector almost completely away from fossil fuels. With the coming phase-out of renewable energy subsidies, it is unlikely we will sustain the rate of development that we saw at the end of 2016. Even if we did increase renewable development, it would need to coincide with a few more factors to get the world to a low-carbon economy before our budget is out. Developing nations like China and India would need to transition even faster, and for countries much more focused on getting power to their tens of millions of poor, this also seems unlikely. Even in the event that we solve the electricity problem, we are still starting with less than one percent penetration of low-emission light-duty vehicles (consumer cars and trucks) and basically zero low-emissions presence in heavy duty vehicles (think trucks and construction machinery), shipping, heavy rail, and aviation. Except for some particularly efficient designs in Europe, most residences are heated by burning some sort of fuel, animal agriculture (which is feeding a growing hunger for meat in the developing world) is actually increasing its emissions, and there are plenty of manufacturing isn’t making much of a shift to electric power. Unless we see a revolutionary breakthrough in battery and hydrogen technology, the trend is in the wrong direction.
Right. I’m off to a good start on the whole positive outlook thing.
The leap comes from the connection of global warming to the downfall of modern society. Fortunately, history does not support the claim that mass migration, resource wars, and civil unrest lead to destruction. Indeed, it is quite the opposite.
Let us look at past instances of these threats and their outcomes. Between 1880 and 1930, some 27 million immigrants flooded onto the shores of a (not-quite-unified) United States that was still rebuilding after a brutally bloody civil war. In many of these years, more than a million immigrants came here, similar numbers we see today, but these immigrants were being assimilated into a population about a quarter that of the current US. While there are certainly differences between the migrations of then and now, there are more similarities. People pushed out of their homelands due to war, famine and persecution have been moving for centuries, and the deluge in the US did anything but cause social collapse. Of course, there were tensions, gang violence was rampant, and there was a distinct period of transition, but it is impossible to argue that the United States did not, in the end, benefit. During this time, it fought a “splendid little war” that launched it onto the world stage, laying the foundation for what would become the most powerful nation in all of human history.
That process, of course, came through its violent twentieth century. The US emerged from World War I into the now infamous “Roaring Twenties”. By the sacrifice of the more than 100,000 men who fought and died in the fields of Europe, American society prospered. Indeed, it prospered a bit too much. When the financial system came crashing down in 1929, it was reasonable to believe that it might never recover. Indeed, the Great Depression gave ample justification for a rapid increase of government intervention into the American economy. Whatever you feel about this expansion of the federal government, you can’t deny that people at the time were demanding a different system. However, nothing solves a depression like a good world war. Europe was still in the process of recovery as well when the bullets started flying again. After the continent was yet again ravaged by war (and the US was somewhat reluctantly dragged in again), the world entered what may be the most intense period of global prosperity in human history. Western Europe rebuilt itself into idyllic social democracies, former colonies gained their independence and started to learn how to govern themselves (albeit painfully), and the United States entered a period of such strong economic growth that the best thing to do was procreate to make sure your kids could experience the endless prosperity. Even though international tensions were flaring up into prolonged overseas conflict, things at home were so steady, people began fighting for their rights so fiercely that civil rights progressed more rapidly toward equality than at any point since Reconstruction. Even though Eastern Europe and Asia emerged into tyrannical Communist regimes, it was only a matter of time until they too began to make the transition to liberal democratic societies.
What was the effect of this global catastrophe we call World War II? Decades of prosperity and innovation, drastic declines in violent death, rapid liberalization of states around the world, and the near eradication of extreme poverty.
It appears that history does not justify my fear of mass migration, war, or civil unrest leading to societal collapse or global tyranny. However, history also does not paint a particularly rosy forecast. Though society will likely persist, it has done so through millions upon millions of violent deaths, barbaric atrocities, and endless injustices. We may not have utopia to look forward to, but it could be worse. Far worse.
And though I’ve still not convinced myself to like my country of residence, the argument I originally made still carries the day. Keeping the worst repercussions at bay will require the full participation of the United States, and our furious building of renewable energy requires all hands on deck.
This doesn’t solve all my personal problems, but it at least reinforces the necessity of doing all I can at work, and being at my best during business hours requires that I take care of myself otherwise.
I’ll dig more into what exactly that means later. Thanks for enduring my ramblings.