The Difficulties of Thinking Climate Catastrophe

One thing I think people don’t understand about the existing and worsening climate catastrophe is that it is not going to appear as a dramatic apocalypse, at least not for a long time. Temperatures will rise, natural disasters will increase in intensity and frequency, but there will not be a singular turning point where skies darken the world over and everything plunged into inescapable turmoil, from which earth will never return.

In fact, a lot of the time, from our human vantage point, climate catastrophe will appear as completely mundane and unremarkable. You can still walk through the woods or the desert or the tundra and interact with your fellow organisms in a meaningful way. Experience of climate catastrophe will never be direct, and will often be subtle, as we experience weather, not climate, in our day-to-day lives.

Climate catastrophe will not be a dramatic apocalypse, but rather a gradual increase in tension, punctuated only relatively rarely by dramatic events, through with increasing frequency as time goes along.

An experience of climate catastrophe is a hot week in the summer, an unusual amount of snow in the winter, or realizing you don’t see as many mosquitoes splattering on your windshield compared to when you were younger. But all of these things, in and of themselves, disconnected from a larger, abstract analysis of climate, are rather normal. Even natural disasters are themselves, well, natural.

The spacial and temporal scales of the climate catastrophe are entirely different than those of human life, which is exactly what makes climate change denial so intuitive for many. But, climate fanaticism, grounded in false imaginings of both the present and future, is likewise a slippery slope that can lead to pathological, misanthropic thinking.

For example, thinking that human reproduction writ large is now morally unjustifiable on account of the suffering future generations will experience as a result of the climate catastrophe. This is a radical position and just as much of a disregard of the sanctity of life as is the ideology of environmental disregard which has lead us to this climate crisis. Of course, weighing the environmental impacts of having children and deciding as a personal choice not to reproduce as a result is an entirely reasonable position.

But these totalizing moral proclamations stemming from various imaginings of the experience of climate catastrophe are unwarranted. Instead of any kind of fanatical, closed-off visions of climate (whether reactionary denial or anti-human environmentalism), we need to broaden our perspective to imagine new possibilities for what life in climate catastrophe can look like.

What visions can include both the abstract of climate science, and the up close, personal encounter with nature and the organisms which constitute it? What visions can hold the tension of the existential threat of climate change, while also acknowledging the fact that day to day human experience, even of an ecological flavor, can be often serene or harmonious?

For more thoughts along these lines, see any of Tim Morton’s books or lectures on climate.

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Jared Morningstar

Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview