Adapt or burn


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

LOS ANGELES — Every climate event these days, it seems, breaks a historic pattern: the warmest temperatures on record; the fastest shrinking glaciers and ice caps; the most intense storms and unprecedented flooding; ever more ravaging wildfires. I write this from Southern California, enveloped this week by smoke and flames, fanned by epic winds. Sooner or later, all these fragmentary incidents add up to a new narrative, which itself breaks from the past.

In his recent book, “The Climate Swerve,” social scientist Robert Jay Lifton argues that the realization of a huge shift underway has now dawned on civilization as a whole. Lifton borrows the term “swerve” from the ancient poet Lucretius’ meditation on physics to confer the departure from a previous trajectory. “I consider the climate swerve a movement toward the recognition of climate danger and what I call species awareness ― awareness of ourselves as a single species in deep trouble,” Lifton says. “The swerve is toward that recognition, that consciousness.”

Nearly 30 years ago, California Governor Jerry Brown and I visited with era-of-limits philosopher Ivan Illich at his rustic retreat near Cuernavaca, Mexico. In those early days of ecology, Illich was among the first to grasp that industrial modernization, which sought to deliver society from necessity through the conquest of nature, might instead end up provoking doom.

“Our common sense has begun searching for a language to speak about the shadow our future throws,” Illich intoned in his clipped Austrian-Croatian accent. “The warming atmosphere is making it intolerable to think of industrial growth as progress; now it appears to us as aggression against the human condition. Perhaps for the first time, we can now imagine that, as Samuel Beckett once put it, ‘This earth could be uninhabited.’”

Illich’s radical views seem less far-fetched as the future gets closer.

The fact that all other nations but the United States are committed to implementing the Paris climate accord aimed at decarbonizing the planet is at least an incipient move toward the species consciousness of which Lifton speaks. Acting on that new awareness, however, is a race with the interconnected cascade of consequences that are accelerating climate change. Alarmed scientists warn “we are now on a collision course with tipping points in the Earth system” that are irreversible.

What stands between a changed mind and changing ways is the systemic inertia of the past. U.S. President Donald Trump may be the political face of that inertia, but it also resides in the ingrained habits of consumer societies that have industrialized their desires. Mitigating ourselves is the hardest task of all.

This week The WorldPost looks at the ongoing consequences of climate change in some of the more remote zones across the planet and how some local communities are acting on their global awareness.

In a video report from Inner Mongolia, China, Lu Liu shows how the spread of desertification due to overgrazing, industrialization and drought has severely degraded the region’s prairies and disrupted the herding culture that has existed there for millennia.

In the Congo Basin,

Melanie Gouby

joined British and Congolese scientists investigating how the largest tropical peatland on the planet — larger than the size of England — acts as a gigantic sink absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. She also documents the advancing deforestation taking place in Congo that reduces the natural capacity to absorb carbon. As usual, the culprit is corruption and the invasion of outsider commercial avarice.

“In recent years,” she writes, “studies have shown that forests are better protected by indigenous people whose ownership of their ancestral land has been recognized. Those rights have been successfully legislated in some Latin American countries, for example, but African indigenous communities have been mostly ignored by their governments.”

But the fight is on. “It is important for us to protect the intact forest, not a degraded forest,” Gouby quotes a local indigenous leader as saying. “We do not want companies to come exploit here; they will exploit us too. They’ll give us a little something [while they] earn a lot selling our trees. We keep our forest for our children and yours.”

In a way, some of the least modern places on the planet are most readily able to cope with climate change. As anthropologist

Jorge Recharte

reports from the Peruvian mountains, indigenous communities are models of how to adapt to climate change. He explains how mountain villagers have devised a “back-to-the-future” solution, based on the practices of pre-Inca civilization, to counter the melting glaciers, whose waters once sustained them.

“The water management systems developed in ancient Peru involved a set of technologies designed to slow or retain water in high alpine territories,” Recharte writes. “The purpose was to keep water available for use as long as possible in the dry season. These ancient systems included dams and reservoirs of different sizes, irrigation canals and large silt traps that kept soil from being eroded in years of intense rain. They also encouraged wetlands to develop.”

Many mountain communities affected by disappearing glaciers can learn from this experience, he maintains. “We should pay close attention; mountains near the equator are our canary in the coal mine. They are the Earth’s thermometer — an early indicator of a planetary fever.”

America’s Russia Obsession Helps Putin

Writing from St. Petersburg, Ivan Kurilla argues that the present American obsession with Trump’s alleged Russian collusion is a godsend for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The American media and political class have inflated Putin’s significance well beyond his actual capacity,” writes Kurilla. “In the view of Russian liberals, America’s continuing obsession for a second year in a row only bolsters his otherwise fading popularity at home.”

As a historian, Kurilla views the present obsession as only the latest chapter in a long story. The Russian theme rears its head in American society only amid domestic crises,” he says. “Russia is portrayed either as a menacing source of trouble on the home front or as some inferior power that deserves lectures from superior Americans. Both have been central to maintaining American trust in its historical mission as the world leader of democracy. Americans, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once critically put it, like to think of themselves as ‘the tutors of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.’”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post. 

ADVISORY COUNCIL: Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei Kudrin, Pascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon Musk, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel Roubini, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter Schwartz, Amartya Sen, Jeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry Summers, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Zheng Bijian, Marek Belka, Tony Blair, Jacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar Issing, Mario Monti, Robert Mundell, Peter Sutherland, Guy Verhofstadt, James Cameron