Philosophy in Calgary II: The Coming Terrors, Research Time, 31/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . That’s one hell of a title today, isn’t it? But that’s basically what we face when we take catastrophic climate change most seriously. That was how I spent my morning yesterday, in a three-hour panel about several different aspects of contemporary Canadian environmental philosophy.

I’ll continue this conversation in my panel tomorrow about Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, because the book includes an analysis of what humanity’s enormous industry means for how we think about human nature.

It was a morning of horrifying predictions of the inevitable, fantastically ambitious predictions of the most catastrophic disasters of climate change. Essentially, the problem is that the Antarctic ice sheets are so enormous that their collapse will cause a sea level rise of 15 metres. It would sink almost every coastal city in the world.

How it works is that as the ocean warms, warmer water tends to get saltier and so heavier. Sinking, it swirls underneath the long plains of ice coastline of Antarctica. That continent has so much ice on it that it’s actually dense enough to be heavier than the water.

So these massive mountains of ice sink to the ocean floor and have slowly worn down the earth underneath into trenches. The warmer water circulating along the bottom slowly melts the ice mountains at their foundations on the ocean floor. The bottom levels of these ice mountains will eventually collapse like a Jenga tower.

All that ice will slam into the sea, shatter, and melt.

The thing is, this is already happening, and at least one or two of those ice sheets will collapse, flooding huge swaths of coastal cities around the world – Tokyo, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, New York, most of Holland, Hong Kong, my hometown of St John’s, Montreal, and many others. 

So we’ll have to deal with a worldwide movement of sea level refugees.

One of the solutions that my friend Frank presented in that seminar was geoengineering. Massive, planet-wide projects to create carbon dioxide sinks or cool the atmosphere. They sound like something you’d read in an Iain Banks book, but they’re actually within our power. 

I could see Elon Musk and Bill Gates funding these kinds of massive projects, even if wealthy and powerful states wouldn’t. 

There are problems with this, of course, like the matter of consent and the possibility of further destruction. A wealthy businessman may fund a planetary engineering project, but its legitimacy would require the consent of everyone it would affect – literally everyone on Earth. We just don’t have the global governance institutions for that.

And it’s quite ironic that, after having developed the enormous industry that’s grievously harmed out planet’s ecosystems as an accidental by-product, we’d build even more enormous industrial projects to fix our mistakes. If our power is a problem, then you can easily be skeptical that the solution is more power. 

Other presentations in that morning’s panel discussed how different wild animals interact with humans as we encroach on their territories and habitats, and even come to share them. There are ethical implications that require changing a lot of the ways we typically relate to wild animals, overcoming our popular fear of animals and communicating with them instead.

We also discussed how hybridization – species mixture happening frequently throughout the wild as animal populations face shrinking habitats and blended territories – messes with our traditional concepts of what a species is. This new knowledge also makes many of our laws about endangered animal protection obsolete.

Animals – including humans, when we’ve gotten the chance – hybridize to survive when their populations are under pressure from ecological change. We have to accept that this is a fact. So defining species by traits and genomes don’t really work, even though a lot of our laws about species protection rely on those methods. 

It also reminds us of a truth that sounded like an empty Hollywood platitude when I first heard Jeff Goldblum say it as a kid. “Life finds a way.” It’s why – even in the face of almost certain disaster from the side-effects of enormous industry – I’m actually hopeful about the future of humanity.

Don’t get me wrong here. I absolutely think we’re headed for an era of massive planetary disaster and that billions of humans are probably going to die. Human civilization will face massive problems and a lot of our infrastructure will collapse. Maybe at the end of the day, there’ll be about a billion of us left, living in totally different places than we do now.

But I think humanity will keep its cultural continuity through all these disasters. Especially if we educate more people and involve them in our economies and our global communication networks. And we’ll rebuild. I hope, better.

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