Climate change & 'the afterlife'

There’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker’s recent remembrance of the late author. Schell, who in his book The Fate of the Earth “brought home the sheer reality of what it would mean to explode our atomic arsenals, summoning up not the mainly visceral, personal fear of the duck-and-cover drill but the far deeper horror of a world permanently sterilized and impoverished,” had late in his life come to apply his thinking about nuclear war to climate change. “Both crises,” the article quotes him as saying, “reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in… . I can easily imagine that in six months the whole earth will be blazing with anger at what’s going on. I can imagine that, but I can’t imagine how it will happen.” 

About a week has passed since the release of the latest and correspondingly more dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—things are only getting worse and “no one on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact”—which means about one less week for the world to muster the anger Schell was hopeful about. The media has generally performed well, at least according to Media Matters, which approvingly notes the amount of coverage the report has received from cable outlets like Al Jazeera and MSNBC and even broadcast networks like NBC. CNN largely ignored the report, however, devoting less than two minutes to it, in contrast to the twenty-plus minutes elsewhere; Fox, in giving it more time, also provided “coverage that largely denied the danger of climate change.” (An aside: Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, was arguably at one time a relative environmentalist, using his position as media consultant to the Nixon administration to encourage the president to promise a Kennedy-esque mission to eliminate water and air pollution in America by 1980.) Related articles and analyses continue to appear, including this BBC item on Exxon’s breezy lack of concern over the impact of new climate data on its profits—although even it “does not dispute that global warming is happening.” 

Would that the rest of the world could be so nonchalant.

Elizabeth Kolbert, who has a typically blunt and uncomforting take in the New Yorker, has long been writing on climate change inaction. In response to last fall’s release by President Obama of the executive order “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” which coincided with a leaked version of the IPCC report, she had this to say

Promoting “preparedness” is doubtless a good idea. … However, one of the dangers of this enterprise is that it tends to presuppose, in a Boy Scout-ish sort of way, that “preparedness” is possible.

As we merrily roll along, radically altering the planet, we are, as the leaked I.P.C.C. report makes clear, increasingly in danger of committing ourselves to outcomes that will simply overwhelm societies’ ability to adapt.  … Thus, any genuine “preparedness” strategy must include averting those eventualities for which preparation is impossible. … As Obama himself put it in a speech…: “Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”

How many times that construction has been used as a call to action is impossible to count; as rhetoric it’s become pretty pallid. But as a metaphor it won’t lose resonance because of the deep-seated need for us to believe there will be other human beings to follow us, who will be born long after our own deaths. That’s something Sam Scheffler gets at in his book Death and the Afterlife, which Thomas Nagel reviewed earlier this year. The afterlife, in Scheffler’s conception, is really the “collective afterlife” – the notion of “the survival and continued renewal of humanity after our personal death.” Nagel:

Scheffler believes that … the prospective absence of future persons would itself have major negative consequences for the living. And this reveals that the afterlife, the survival of humanity far into the future, has great importance for our lives in the present. As he summarizes his conclusion: "In certain concrete functional and motivational respects, the fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people whom we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities. Or to put it more positively, the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love.” 

The IPCC report, composed according to Kolbert in “a language that might be called High Committee,” doesn’t talk about survival in such cosmic or philosophical terms, but it’s hard to read its excerpts without feeling something like the apocalyptic anxiety that attended life in the cold war (fossil-fuel giants and those with apocalyptic yearnings excepted). It was Jonathan Schell’s belief that, the usual suspects notwithstanding, people aren’t in denial—only that “they lack faith in the system to change anything.” The “how it will happen” thus remains to be imagined. Can something be discovered through the way we think about the people yet to come into existence, as Scheffler presents it, to inspire such imagination?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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