Let me say here and now that I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to look. Unlike most “red pill” scenarios where people are trying to explain away a loss of privilege rather than looking within, for the science-minded person, taking a good hard look at the end of the world is overwhelmingly supported by facts. Once you really wrap your head around the scale of the problems facing our continued existence as a species, it’s hard to view the world through any other lens.
It’s always going to be hyperbole to say that the world is going to end, until the day it isn’t. We know it can happen because it’s happened five times before; we don’t have to speculate that climate change can kill off 90 percent of life on earth. That happened 252 million years ago, which in geological time is practically yesterday to us.
It’s also not entirely accurate to say that the world ends in a day – at least not heretofore. The extinction event that killed the dinosaurs took between 12,000 and 108,000 years to kill off 90 percent of terrestrial life. Mass extinctions are terrifying enough, but what makes this, the sixth mass extinction event, so scary is that it’s happening far faster than before, with estimates of 75% of life disappearing in the next century or two. By comparison, that is about as close as you can get to instant annihilation on the Earth scale.
Worse, we are completely in our own way when it comes to doing anything to mitigate the effects. Financial, social, and economic systems verge on collapse. When crisis does happen, which is increasingly often, our leaders respond with incompetence, corruption, and thoughts and prayers. While optimists suggest that we might be able to “turn things around” in the coming decades, this largely ignores the evidence of what we’ve already done – what our species did a century before awareness of greenhouse gasses – and the damage that has yet to unfold on what is, to us, a time scale longer than human life. The CO2 is already in the air. The toothpaste is out of the tube. We have already bought the ticket, and we’re going to take the ride.
The worst part of all is that it simply isn’t hyperbole. You can count the extinct species. You can touch the bleached coral. You can count the parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere (400 if you’re counting, which scientists are), and you can see who’s invested in denialism, obstruction, and delaying meaningful progress in order to maximize profits: the extractive industries, agribusiness, and white nationalists.
The biggest mistakes we could make right now are:
- Underestimating the severity and urgency of the threats arrayed against our species.
- Giving too much credit to any person or agency to bail us out.
- Assuming that there simply isn’t anything we can do to help ourselves.
It’s true that we probably can’t fix the Big Problems. They’re going to unfold however they’re going to at this point, and lacking the timeline and resources necessary to pull the emergency brake on global capitalism, the best we can do is focus on the problems around us and do what we can to mitigate what damage we can.
We can accomplish this through the principles of Enlightenment (educating, advocating for literacy, and scientific awareness), Preparation (ensuring that we are ready to face challenges to our survival and thus better able to support others), and Protection (being conscientious stewards of our ecology, and defending ourselves and each other from predation and injustice).
We can live better. We can form collectives for our mutual prosperity and protection. We can carry knowledge, values, and social progress to the other side of catastrophe. We can refuse to serve, refuse to participate in our own destruction. We can find ways to opt out, together, and together build better systems.
We can be humans.