The Walrus recently published an article entitled: “The Age of Breathing Underwater.” Written by Chris Turner, it relates to a number of previous discussions here, such as the recent one about being unimpressed with humanity, when it comes to behaving sensibly about climate change.
It begins with a lengthy discussion about some of the life in coral reefs: one of the ecosystems most profoundly and immediately threatened by climate change. Indeed, even with some pretty aggressive mitigation, most will probably perish during the lifetimes of those reading this, as the result of both rising temperatures and increasing ocean acidity. The article quotes scientist J. E. N. Veron saying that by 2050 “the only corals left alive will be those in refuges on deep outer slopes of reefs. The rest will be unrecognisable — a bacterial slime, devoid of life.”
The article also discusses environmental activism, science fiction, the prospect of geoengineering, the concept of ‘resilience’ in a threatened world, and what it means to be alive in the Anthropocene – the era in human history characterized by the impacts of human beings on physical and biological systems. It makes the strong point that we can somewhat reduce the eventual impact of climate change by working to diminish other stresses; reefs threatened by warm and acidic water don’t need dynamite fishing and oil drilling to help drive them to extinction. The same is surely true of terrestrial ecosystems. Resilience is also something that can be built into human systems – the ability to stretch and change without breaking. From my perspective, that is one huge limitation of the ‘survivalist’ approach to surviving climate change. Your little armed colony might be able to sustain itself under present conditions, but it isn’t necessarily very flexible, when it comes to adapting to whatever the future will bring.
The ‘underwater’ metaphor is an interesting one. The author points out that the human capacity to remain underwater for extended periods depends fundamentally on the whole enterprise of modern industry. The author points out that we’re not really trying to save reefs anymore: we’re trying to save the ability of human beings to do things like SCUBA dive. That ability can only be maintained if we maintain an industrial society, while transforming its energy basis. The article’s conclusion addresses this, but is somewhat underwhelming. While renewable forms of energy are surely a huge part of the solution, putting solar panels on top of buildings won’t be anywhere near adequate. We need comprehensive plans of the sort David MacKay has cooked up. Making the transition from surviving underwater using a set amount of compressed air (akin to fossil fuels) in a tank to living in a self-sustaining colony (akin to renewables) requires appreciation of scale and logistics. A few houseplants are not going to do it.
In any event, the whole article is worth reading and responding to. My thanks to my friend Ann, for pointing it out to me.