“I Thought We Had More Time”
Years ago, I got caught in a severe thunderstorm out on the plains. Black clouds had snuck up behind me.
I ran home under lightning.
My time on the plains dyed a deep respect for nature into me. A tornado siren could interrupt your afternoon plans. Negative temperatures could freeze the water in your toilet or burst a water line. Strong winds could rip part of your roof off and fly it down the street.
A snow drift could bury your car.
You had to pay attention. If you didn’t, you would literally get blown away. You would freeze to death.
I’m proud to say that for most of my adult life, I walked everywhere. I walked to work. I walked to the laundromat. I walked to the grocery store. Twice a week, I walked to the coffee shop for a $2 espresso. It didn’t matter if it was 95 degrees or 5 degrees.
There were days when I could just stand in the middle of nowhere, watching the lightning strobe through snow in December. Those were the days I understood how small I was.
I rented a house that was built in the late 1800s.
It was a little house on the prairie.
I thought I was going to live like that forever, a simple life teaching poor college students and immigrants how to read, publishing articles in journals that a few hundred people at best would ever care about, and running half-marathons in the cold.
That’s all I ever wanted.
Now I’m watching the world unravel. Today I watched a math professor and climate scientist named Eliot Jacobson talk to CNN about global temperature records and arctic sea ice. He sums it up in the simplest terms. Climate scientists are shocked at what’s happening. None of their models predicted any of this. A mass extinction usually takes millions of years. As he said, “We’re going to do it in a hundred.”
For Jacobson, the collapse of global industrial civilization has become a certainty. A recent column in The Guardian says the same. We’re already breaking through the 1.5C limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Scientists are telling us to brace for 2C or even 3C of warming. All of the books I’ve read have make it very clear: That kind of warming will turn the planet into something humans have never seen. Large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable for us.
Read Nomad Century, by Gaia Vince. Read Hothouse earth, by Bill McGuire. These people aren’t fearmongers.
They know their science.
Greenland is melting 100 times faster than expected. That alone will put coastal cities under water.
Even the gloomiest climate scientists are left speechless by the disasters unfolding this summer. Climate activists who’ve been urging for an emergency declaration are saying:
The scenarios scientists were predicting for 2050 are happening now, and they don’t know how much worse it’s going to get. They’re starting to admit, they can’t predict anything anymore.
In Italy, entire cities are losing electricity because power cables are melting under the extreme temperatures. In Greece, tourists are running down the streets from out of control wildfires. They’re standing on the beaches, dumbfounded as smoke billows overhead.
In Texas, people are panic-buying rice.
In North Carolina, a tornado destroyed a major medicine production facility that makes a quarter of our drugs, including everything from insulin to anesthesia for surgeries. We were already facing severe shortages of hundreds of drugs before that.
In April, my hometown was hit by a catastrophic tornado. There were so many injuries, police cars were ferrying people to hospitals. I became the doom that other people scrolled.
The world spent the last few years shaming climate activists for being too alarmist. They accused us of fearmongering and hypocrisy. They laughed and told us we were acting like people were dying in the streets. Now people are dying in the streets.
They’re passing out, and their bodies are cooking on the asphalt. They’re called contact burns. The only thing separating millions from heat death is an overworked power grid.
I’m seeing society more clearly now.
The other day, a climate activist tweeted about a brief conversation he had with a woman who was still planning a trip to Greece. He tried to warn her about the wildfires. She got angry.
She said, “Nobody’s going to take my vacation.”
She doesn’t get it.
Maybe if she’d lived on the plains like I did, she would. She would grasp how small and insignificant her desire for a vacation looks compared to the enormity of a natural disaster. She would learn that nature isn’t nobody. It’s everything all at once.
You have no say against nature.
Nature does what it wants. It doesn’t care about anyone’s vacation. It doesn’t care about anyone’s expectation for quarterly profits. It doesn’t care about anyone’s political ambitions or career goals.
If it wants to burn, it burns.
There’s only one thing you can do when nature burns, and voicing your demands for a vacation isn’t one of them.
You’d better just get out of its way.
You’d better hide.
And yet, I think I understand now why a woman would get angry and voice her demand for a vacation, even in the face of wildfires that force the evacuation of an entire island and heatwaves that melt power lines. Our society hasn’t taught her any respect for the planet. She has learned that we can force our own will on it. She thinks she can still talk to the manager, even when there is no manager.
Her impotent rage is no match.
This woman needs her vacation so badly because she thinks it’s going to fix something in her that’s broken. Somehow it’s going to heal all the pain and damage she’s suffered at the hands of a system that she knows, deep down, doesn’t care about her. She’s already bought the ticket. She’s already booked the hotel. The travel industry has taken her money. It’s not going to give her a refund for taking precautions.
It’s not going to understand.
She feels as powerless against the economic system as she is against nature. On some level, she understands that.
It’s the same with a lot of people.
I watch people panic-buy rice in Houston, and it becomes clear. This is how a large portion of society reacts when they finally feel the fear that I’ve spent years unpacking and processing.
We’ve seen it a few times now.
People should act rationally when they understand a threat, but they don’t. They rush out and fill their trunks with gasoline. They stampede each other for toilet paper. This time, it’s rice.
I watch people drink borax on TikTok. On some level, these influencers get it too. Things aren’t going well. If things were going well, you wouldn’t feel like you needed to drink cleaning products.
You would just see a doctor.
We should be coming together to get through all of this. There should be strong leadership, but there isn’t.
Nobody wants to talk about reality. They want to talk about Barbenheimer. They want to pretend we’ve still got time. If you face the truth of what’s happening, then suddenly the vast majority of what we’re forced to do makes no sense anymore.
It’s hard to plan for a future when not even the climate scientists know what’s going to happen next.
Best not to think about it, right?
When you understand the full scope and gravity of what’s happening, most jobs don’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense to plan a vacation when half the world is burning. It doesn’t make sense to save up money to send your kid to college in ten years.
The only thing that makes sense now is to devote all of our resources to managing these crises.
It’s easier to ignore it all.
It’s easier to keep working and going to movies while you wait for the wildfire, the flood, or the heatwave that kills you. It’s easier to delay the realization of your climate death as long as possible. And yet, ignoring the black clouds around us is just as futile as demanding a vacation from an island that’s burning or a city that’s melting.
Maybe that’s why people get so angry now when we talk about climate change. They know, but they want to spend however long they’ve got left chasing and consuming whatever pleasure they can. Part of them knows their time is growing short, and they don’t want to spend it angry or depressed, or even trying to stop it.
They want to pray, then party.
They want to do what America has taught us so well. They want to suppress their emotions. They want to force themselves to smile. If you say or do anything that interrupts that, their smile will melt just as fast as those power cables in Sicily or Texas.
As we speak, millions of westerners are watching the fires in Greece. They’re not thinking about their carbon footprint or the government’s climate plans. They’re thinking if they were ever going to see the Acropolis, they’d better book their trip now.
That’s their idea of taking climate change seriously.
If there’s anyone left to read history books in a hundred years, this summer will go down as the year that changed everything. This was the year we realized everything was going to happen much faster than we thought, with much more ferocity. This will go down as the year we realized we’re not in the business of stopping or even mitigating climate change anymore. Now we’re trying to survive it. Things are going to get more and more unpredictable going forward.
My family is going to keep living small and simple. It’s the best way to save what’s left, and it’s the best way to survive what’s already happening. We’re going to enjoy the time we have, and we can do that without rushing to see some ancient ruins before it’s too late. I think it’s ironic that everyone wants to see the rubble of old civilizations while the current one crumbles. There’s a strange kind of poetry to it.
There’s an attitude that sits somewhere between the total denial and the total panic we’re seeing. It’s not giving up.
It’s a kind of stoic acceptance.
I’ve never been the kind of person who needed to fly halfway around the world to see old buildings or push my way through a crowded beach. I’ve always been the kind of person who loves a good thunderstorm. Today I’m thinking about that afternoon the black clouds snuck up behind me. That’s how I’m feeling right now — awestruck.
We thought we had more time.
We were wrong.