Sunday, 29 April 2018

Just Time for Another Bath

S.D. once told me that he’d gone to an event – I forget where, possibly a diocesan conference I was lucky enough to miss, or something else – at which an environmental scientist presented a set of images showing the loss of ice cover in Greenland and talked about climate change. ‘The words which kept going through my mind were “too late”,’ confessed S.D. ‘There’s nothing we can do about this.’ My mind has often gone back to that story. A couple of days ago Lady Arlen shared on LiberFaciorum this article about strangely-prescient social commentator Mayer Hillman and his opinion that the globe is now long past the point of no return as far as human-generated climatic warming is concerned, adding to other recent news stories that nobody has wanted to discuss very much, such as the decline in soil fertility and the apparently cataclysmic loss of flying insects.

There are various apocalyptic scenarios I don’t worry too much about. The eruption of a supervolcano should be forecastable well ahead, and while the arrival of a big meteorite might catch the earth by surprise more, there should still be time to do something about it. And the earth is immensely resilient: soil deterioration and the decline of insects could be reversed, if we human beings chose to act (insects breed awfully fast). A generation ago people talked in dire terms about the damage to the Ozone Layer, and that is being repaired; back when I was small, the threat was of a new Ice Age (an old Dr Who story, The Ice Warriors, had that background, and I breathlessly read the book). The effects of a few centuries of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, though, are of a different order: they have acted slowly, are still acting, and would carry on acting even if we were to stop adding to them tomorrow, which we won’t.

If the whole of the polar ice were to disappear, the estimates are that global sea levels would rise by about 80 metres. The Chapel of St Catherine at Abbotsbury would probably survive, but only just, the new sea waters lapping at its door at a high tide. The losses are unlikely to be that severe, but they will happen, and as most of the world’s population currently lives at a fairly low level, even a modest sea rise of a couple of tens of metres, coupled with accompanying climatic changes, will render large parts of the earth impossible to live in. Huge numbers of people will be set moving, the international trade system will be shattered, and nations will dissolve. Our ability to feed ourselves will be put under strain. The worse it gets, the more this will tip towards social collapse and mass starvation. It won’t happen quickly, in human if not in geological terms: it will take a few generations. We know remarkably little about the last time this kind of thing took place, during the fall of the Roman Empire; most of what we understand about that event comes from urbanites like St Augustine or Sidonius Appolinaris, in whose context some Romanitas survived, but for most citizens of the Empire a way of life fell apart very gradually over a century and more. The facilities of civilisation, schools, libraries, the postal system, and public institutions, became progressively unsustainable, the economy faltered, and the cities themselves were abandoned. Ultimately all left were ruins and weedy roads. The coming great disruption will be worse as it will affect the entire globe, and will probably take us down further (think of how we rely on electricity and the internet). I think the baby I baptised this morning will see the beginning of the acute phase of it in his lifetime; but I wonder whether the state of the UK’s roads, hospitals, schools and streets, and our inability, apparently, to support the goods we want to socially, are already the first dim harbingers of what is to come.

What can a church do? We probably need to encourage the stockpiling of knowledge in a form people will be able to access in a century or so after the internet stops working, and that means books. I wonder if the government shouldn’t start a programme to transfer key texts onto parchment? We know that survives, after all. There isn’t going to be any point shutting yourself in a basement with a gun and a load of tins: you’d be better off learning how to grow food as it’s those abilities which will be in demand; perhaps we should facilitate that. We should also encourage love, for one another and for the earth. Not to surrender to hatred and fear, and not to lose our nerve in the face of disaster, will maximise the chances that at least some human beings, and something of humanity, will make it through to the next phase in our history.

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