Goodbye to All That

The cultural causes—and fallout—of climate change

In 1984, recent university graduate Stephen Henighan went hiking in Alaska with a friend, an emerging wildlife biologist. As they experienced the state’s austere beauty together, the biologist predicted that by 2050 or so, it would probably all be over. “We would be choking on fumes, murdering each other for the last scraps of food and mouthfuls of fresh water. Why? ‘Too many goddamn people.’”

Three decades later, Henighan has written A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change, in which he tries to come to grips with his friend’s dire prediction, not in terms of the science but in terms of the cultural impact climate change is having on our lives and our thinking as members of the human species.

These two excerpts appear courtesy of Linda Leith Publishing.


No Other World

In 2011 the United States launched its last space shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS). After thirty years and 135 launches, the shuttle was discarded as expensive, unreliable, and unable to recoup on the hundreds of billions of dollars that had been invested in its development and maintenance. The closure of the ISS was announced for 2020. The Russians continued to send cosmonauts into orbit close to the earth, the Chinese, having launched the first taikonauts, announced vague ambitions to visit the moon by the 2030s, yet it was obvious that intergalactic travel had slipped down the list of planetary priorities.

To anyone raised during the Cold War, when expanding the realm of human activity to other planets, and eventually other solar systems, seemed to be only a matter of time, this news had a certain poignancy. How many of us gathered around black-and-white television sets as Neil Armstrong’s shadowy boot descended from a ladder onto the lunar surface! We followed Star Trek and gobbled down science fiction novels. Just as it never occurred to me, until I was perched on a high bluff in the Alaskan wilderness, that human civilization was in peril, I never doubted that I would live to see the day of free and easy transportation to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Yet, like most people, I failed to realize that my conception of the future was a product of the ideology and circumstances of my past. The frenzied race to get to the Moon by the end of the 1960s, announced by US President John F. Kennedy, was propelled by Cold War obsessions: the need to recover from the loss of face caused by the Sputnik launch and establish control of the heavens in order to confirm the superiority of our side’s system here on Earth.

It is astonishing that, with the relatively primitive technology of the 1960s, men were able to land on the Moon. In fact, to the average Blackberry-wielding yuppie of the 2010s, the claim that the rudimentary computers of 1969 were able to chart a spaceship’s route to the Moon is downright suspicious. And if it was possible to go to the Moon in 1969, why did President Richard Nixon abolish the lunar program in 1973? Surely with time the trip should have become easier? Witnessing the multiple failures that have attended NASA’s attempts to use the technology of the early twenty-first century to supply and maintain the ISS, which circles in the relative proximity of the Earth’s orbit, has stoked many people’s secret belief that the Cubans are right to teach schoolchildren the lunar landing was faked for propaganda purposes in the Arizona desert. Whether or not this is the case, the idea of space as a boundless “final frontier,” as Star Trek proclaimed, has withered. To offset the ensuing pessimism, the U.S. government followed up the final shuttle launch with the announcement of a century-long feasibility study on intergalactic travel. Given that the select group of scientists chosen for the “One-Hundred-Year Starship Study” is not due to deliver their report until approximately 2115, it is clear that not only will we not be building cities on Mars any time soon, it is possible that humans will never go there. Unmanned craft have visited all of the planets, yet whether humans would survive the return journey of more than a year’s duration to the red planet, with its attendant exposure to solar flares and other perils of the intergalactic highway, is a very large question. Even the Moon seems increasingly irrelevant to our dilemmas here on Earth. As our planet’s orbit becomes clogged with satellites conducting cellphone signals, predicting the weather or spying on the competition, it grows increasingly evident that this hub of activity is the outer rim of our world.

We have no planet but this one. For much of the last fifty years we have been able to delude ourselves on this point. But with the elimination of an active space program, underscored by the final shuttle launch in 2011, this evasion ceased to be viable.

As we face the prospect of “too many goddamn people,” with its calamitous side-effect—which my friend and I did not discuss in detail in 1984—of severe climate change, the resources we can muster to solve the problem are limited to those present here on Earth. Since I first began to worry about climate change a few years ago, I’ve been astonished by the number of people who have shrugged off my concerns by casually saying, “There’s no problem, we’ll just move on to Mars,” or “Don’t worry, if the US Midwest turns into a desert, we can always build greenhouses on the Moon and produce more food than we’ll ever need.” Fifty years of television science fiction, the lightweight sidekick of Cold War propaganda, has left us deeply misinformed about our place in the universe. We will never be interstellar cowboys. Like survivors of a shipwreck, humanity clings to a small, fertile blue-green reef in the middle of a limitless, hostile ocean. If we become too numerous to live on the bounty of this reef, there is nowhere else to go. We will die gasping for breath.

The end of the US space program, and the comparative lack of urgency with which the Russians and Chinese approach their space endeavours, is a salutary event: a reminder, precisely when we needed it most, that human life is inseparable from the life of this planet. A renewed commitment to Earth, a sensitivity to the interconnections between our ability to breathe and nourish ourselves, and those of the plants and animals, is indispensable to us. There is no escape, no other place of refuge. We live here or we die here. At the moment, the odds are that a large number of human communities, probably a majority of them, will die. Our death will be caused by the fact that more and more human beings aspire to live—and now have the means to live—the lives enjoyed by most of the people who will have the opportunity to read this book: eating fruit in the dead of winter, flying to other cities for business or to other continents for pleasure, turning on the air conditioning when it gets too hot, owning a private car and using it even for errands in the town or city where we live. This life posed only a limited threat to the home we all inhabit as long as it was restricted to the privileged, and not excessively heavily populated, regions of Western Europe and North America. As this life—or “lifestyle,” as it is now called—has spread throughout the world, particularly to very heavily populated nations in Asia, it has become a liability. And, since it has spread hand-in-hand with an ideology of mass consumption, profit maximization, and individual liberty, to the verge of libertarian social irresponsibility, it has become impossible to curb.

We are victims of our global triumph. There is no natural habitat on Earth where we do not dominate. A species like any other, we measure our success by our proliferation, our ability to flood the world with genetic extensions of ourselves until there are “too many goddamn people.” Yet we are a species like no other. Where other species consume according to instinct, eating sprouts or insects or fish or other mammals, we consume omnivorously and extravagantly. We gobble down not only plants and animals, but trees, rocks and petroleum. We simply must sample caviar or prawn eggs or Pacific salmon or ostrich or sushi from the ocean floor, regardless of the consequences. Over even brief periods of time, we have grown bigger and fatter and needier. North American airline regulations, written in the 1970s, assumed an average airline passenger weight of 170 pounds (77 kilograms); by 2010, the regulations were out of date because the average airline passenger weighed 215 pounds (98 kilograms).

To fuel our pleasures and stuff our expanding guts with New Zealand lamb, South African apples, Chilean wine, and thousands of burgers made from beef raised in clear-cuts in the former Amazonian rainforest, to give our love a rose that was picked yesterday in Kenya or Ecuador, we burn carbon, deplete the ozone layer, and heat up the planet. We are the most savage of all animals because, unlike other predators, we do not eat individual members of other species, but rather drive the entire species to extinction. We are aware of how our species is doing on other continents: we know that Africa, a dismal place for most of its inhabitants as recently as the mid-1990s, is now showing promise. Millions of Africans remain trapped in desolate poverty, or are even vulnerable to periodic bouts of starvation; yet the number of Africans who can live like us, and consume like us, increases every year. By speeding up the loss of species and raising the temperature of the planet, this victory for humankind brings our own species one step closer to self-destruction.

Human activity has accelerated extinction. It is a normal part of the evolutionary process for superannuated species to go extinct. Prior to human interference, about one species out of every hundred thousand went extinct each year. This rate has increased by a factor of at least one hundred and perhaps as much as one thousand (not all species have been documented, and scientists tend to be cautious about declaring species extinct); species are now going extinct before successor species have been able to develop. The last time species were disappearing as quickly as they are today was sixty-five million years ago, during the extinction of the dinosaurs. Ironically, our primate cousins, who look and often act in ways that have an eerie resemblance to our own physiognomies and behaviour, are among those most endangered by the fall-out from our gluttony. African economic growth—as we conceive “growth”—reduces the chances of survival for Kirk’s red colobus monkey or the mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda, just as, in earlier eras, economic growth put an end to Great Britain’s wolf populations and North Americans mowed down the buffalo and clubbed the passenger pigeon.

In fact, our history of spreading extinction goes much farther back; it is almost our defining characteristic to snuff out other species. The appearance of humans during the Pleistocene epoch (the time between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago) coincides with the great Quaternary Extinctions, a rolling succession of species annihilations that started about fifty thousand years ago and in many cases coincided with the arrival of humans. As people walked out of Africa, where we originated, and invaded the rest of the planet, many of the world’s populations of larger mammals were hunted to their last survivor. In North America, the crescendo of this march of death occurred between ten and thirteen thousand years ago. Of the one hundred and three species of large mammals that became extinct during this time, seventy-nine were found in the Americas, the most recent territory conquered by humans. In Africa, where large mammals had been coexisting with humans for far longer (and, some paleontologists think, had evolved to survive in human-dominated environments, much as the raccoon has done in urban areas in recent decades) only two large mammal species became extinct during these centuries.

The holocaust wreaked by the new human inhabitants of the Americas is one of the central events of pre-history. Prior to the Quaternary Extinction, the plains, forests and mountains of what is today Canada harboured mammoths, mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, pronghorns, stag moose, Yukon wild asses, northern llamas, native American horses, short-faced bears, and dozens of other creatures that fell before the thoughtless hunters’ clubs, spears, and arrows. Today we praise the aboriginal peoples of the Americas for having learned to live in harmony with nature. This wisdom was attained at a price. By the time Europeans began to settle in the Americas in the early sixteenth century, indigenous people had enshrined animals as sacred. The hunt was a religious ritual, conducted with respect and restraint to ensure that species would survive to provide sustenance in coming years. At some point thousands of years ago, the indigenous peoples absorbed the knowledge that by depleting the environment that sustained them, they would also destroy themselves. But this awareness was not there at the beginning of aboriginal American civilization, just as it is lacking in the ways in which we comport and govern ourselves today.

Like the aboriginal people of the Late Pleistocene, we are on the brink of demolishing our own longhouse. Yet, even as species vanish before the encroachment of highways, oil fields, clear-cuts, housing developments, poachers, the drying-up of wetlands, and the blighting of coral reefs, others migrate in response to the threat of climate change. Just as in Central Canada, the raccoon has adapted to the human environment by changing from an animal of the forests to a creature of the city streets—masked neighbours who hang improbably from lamp-posts in downtown Toronto and feed off the city’s garbage as they once fed off the residues of the woods—so tropical life-forms that were not part of the Canadian landscape in the past are venturing farther north as the planet warms. The mountain pine beetle, the Japanese ladybug, and the African killer bee, previously contained by our long, cold winters, contribute to the alteration of our environment. As our world grows hotter, the range of some insects and animals expands, while others, like polar bears, struggle to survive. The extinction of species proceeds along multiple axes, sometimes as the direct result of human intervention, and in other cases as collateral damage of the larger process of global warming. Many species’ best hope for survival lies in the possibility that the species that caused our planet to begin getting hotter, the species that destroys the habitats of others, will have its numbers drastically reduced.

And that is almost certainly about to happen.


The Loss of the North

For Canadians, at least, part of the difficulty in accepting the reality of global warming is that we always imagined we would die of cold. Winter was our monster, the equivalent in our mythology to the dragons of the ancient British Isles or the minotaurs of classical Greece. In school we read Sinclair Ross’s short story “The Lamp at Noon,” and other accounts of the lethal fates that awaited those who got caught outside their cabin in a blizzard. Snow and wind, as in Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, were the malevolent forces that kept lovers apart. We listened to radio recitations of Robert Service poems about Dan McGrew deciding to button up his shirt at sixty degrees below zero. We anthropomorphized winter until it became almost visible, nearly possessed of facial features. In her analysis of E.J. Pratt’s poem The Titanic, Margaret Atwood summarizes Pratt’s description of the iceberg that sinks the ocean liner by concluding that, “Pratt renders it as semi-alive, a sort of Night of the Living Dead zombie, complete with a face, a claw, a lair, and an ‘impulse.’”

… Winter was our monster, but the north, where winter went on even longer than it did in New Brunswick or Ontario or Saskatchewan, has always felt remote to Canadians who lived in the ten provinces rather than the three territories. Relatively few of us have visited Whitehorse or Yellowknife, much less Iqaluit, Resolute Bay, or Ellesmere Island. In 1967, when the pianist Glenn Gould prepared a CBC radio documentary entitled, “The Idea of North,” he broadcast all of the voices against a backdrop soundtrack of the so-called Muskeg Express making its two-day journey over the rails from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba. The relentless chugging of the train along the track, accompanying each interview, conveyed a sense of infinite, almost unimaginable distance. As Gould astutely observed, the north belonged to the imagination of Canadians, not, in most cases, to their lived experience. As we watch skinny polar bears churning for a foothold on dissolving ice floes on television, the spectacle feels impossibly remote; yet it does strike a chord within us. The polar bear is far away and he is ours. He is almost one of us, yet not quite sufficiently one of us for us to be willing to reduce our consumption in the hope that the bear will be able to tread on more solid ice floes in the future. Even if the polar bear becomes extinct, at some level he will still be there in our minds, as an emblem of Canadianness and northernness; since he was never part of our lived reality, the wound we feel from his loss will be a distant ache. The polar bear may live on in our culture as a mythological beast. Yet what will have been destroyed is the idea that Gould was able to take for granted and which he explored in his program: the belief that the north was almost infinite; that it was the place that epitomized Canadian solitude.

We now understand that, like the rest of the planet, the north has finite resources that are fast being depleted; that if one tramples lichen, it may take five hundred years to grow back. The fact of being bordered by the north has cushioned Canadians’ perceptions of the world; where other countries had difficult neighbours, we had nothingness stretching to infinity. Sheer space insulated us, making us feel exempt from the crafty diplomatic manipulations enforced on peoples in more cramped geographic locations. Global warming has already evaporated this Canadian presumption of morally superior separation. Since public figures, foregoing the traditional Canadian A mari usque ad mare that adorns our coat of arms, began to speak of a Canada “from sea to sea to sea”—a phrase popularized in the early 1990s by the Yukon politician Audrey McLaughlin—the north has become merely one more region of Canada. The melting of the polar ice has incorporated the Arctic Ocean into our daily travails. As politicians warn of the incursions of Spanish or Japanese factory fishing ships on our Atlantic coast and the unannou‑nced arrival of shiploads of undocumented immigrants from China or Sri Lanka on our Pacific coast, so our north is now a frontier with the world, where the opening of the northwest passage to shipping embroils us in disputes about territorial limits and Arctic sovereignty with the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the South Koreans, and even the peace-loving Danes. The climate of the north is heating up in all ways imaginable. Glenn Gould concluded “The Idea of North” with the prediction that in the future the north would look like everywhere else in Canada; that it would “look like suburbia.” What is certain is that climate change has already integrated the north into daily life more than we ever expected. We have been stripped of a zone of purity and mystery that was one of the keys to the Canadian self-image of living at a one-step remove from the hurly-burly of planetary life. Just as we have been deprived of the knowledge that robust polar bears prowl the firm ice of our Arctic, so we are losing the defining traits of long, hard winters, the reassuring routines of consistent bird migration patterns, and the possibility of using cross-country skis for five months of the year.

This is only the beginning. There is no public will to implement a solution, and in any event it may be too late; even the most drastic measures will produce limited results in the very long term. But even if we did have the collective will to do something to save our natural world, of which we ourselves are a part, what actions could we or should we take?