Letter from the Editor: Save the World

Christopher Bernard

Christopher Bernard: Save the World

I have never owned a car. I travel by plane, on average, once or twice a year. My electric and gas bill is less than $30 a month. I now work, as a freelancer, usually at home. As a dweller of big cities, I've been able to walk or take public transportation to and from work for most of my working life.

Several years ago I took a “carbon footprint test” and discovered that my “footprint” was a little less than one-third that of the average American. This surprised me – even shocked me. If only more people lived like me, I thought, we might not be in this mess. It made me feel terribly smug – for a short time.

In May, climatologists predicted that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet was certain to break off and melt, raising the oceans by as much as 4 meters (roughly 13 to 14 feet). Not long after that, another set of climatologists predicted that the Greenland ice sheets are undergoing comparable degradation and are also likely to melt, raising the oceans by another 6 to 10 meters (8 to 35 feet). A report in 2013 calculated that the aggregated ice melt caused by current heating trends could raise sea levels, all told, by 69 feet. A video called “Last Hours” warns that if we raise the average air temperature by 6 degrees C (which is looking increasingly plausible), we may unleash methane gases that have been locked under the tundra and sea beds for many millions of years. This would almost double the temperature rise to 10 degrees C. This (according to these climatologists) has not been seen since the Permian extinction, the first of the so-called “great extinctions,” when 95 percent of the species then alive were wiped out: life nearly ended on the only planet where we know life exists.

Now, science has been wrong, in both its theories and its predictions, in the past, and all predictions are speculative. But the recent track record of climatological predictions has been, if anything, overly optimistic: the results of global warming are happening faster and with more damaging results than even the worst predictions of a decade ago.

My life has hardly been ascetic. I have a healthy respect for pleasure and the supreme delights of loafing (my creative work, such as it is, is an almost embarrassingly large garden, much of it hidden from the public, that has flowered from all that loafing) – but, not being wealthy, and having to work full time to pay my apparently-ever-expanding heap of bills, I have neither the time nor the money nor the energy to exhaust myself in what was once called, rather sweetly, debauchery and is today just considered a middle-class lifestyle with benefits. If my “footprint” is small, it was an accident: the unintended consequence of devoting my life to poorly paying intellectual pursuits and literary ambitions, and cultivating, somewhat self-defeatingly, I admit, a deep suspicion of “worldliness.” So, now I have little money – but also I have little guilt.

Earlier this year, I read Elizabeth Kolbert's haunting book The Sixth Extinction, about the “holocaust of species” the human race and modern civilization are causing, and it occurred to me that, if a lowly editor and nearly nameless writer like me can live a low-carbon “lifestyle” by accident, what how much easier it would be for more of us to do something similar by design? As a result of thinking about this, I wrote, and am now republishing, a story-essay, a sort of thought experiment, published originally in the spring of 2014 in Synchronized Chaos Magazine, called “Zero Carbon and the Great Extinction.”

We know now that we cannot depend on our paralyzed and corrupt political system to help us in the crisis that is, or will be soon, upon us. If Congress is so gripped by denial that it seems not even willing to listen to the warnings of “big business” (as happened recently), we can hope from little from them anytime soon. We cannot depend on the marketplace – there is no immediate, and hardly a feasible long-term, profit in keeping glaciers from melting and the planet's air relatively cool. We cannot depend (a fortiori) on the corporations – they are perfectly willing to kill all of us slowly if it will increase their bottom line over the next few quarters. They have learned from the tobacco companies that they can kill most of their customers eventually and still make a profit today.

We also know that entire societies can lose their minds – witness Nazi Germany, the China of the Great Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Rwanda, the Congo. We are in danger of ending up in a similar state – some believe we are already there. Are we?

So – let's prove them wrong and do something about it. If I can live on so little “carbon,” anybody can. It's up to us. If we can destroy it, we can save it. Maybe Johnny José Brennan can help show how.

—Christopher Bernard

Video link: “Last Hours


Image: Thwaites Glacier in western Antarctica (NASA)