The End of the Long Vacation

The idea for this post – which may be the first of a series – popped into mind recently as I walked to a morning meeting at a nearby tea/coffee shop, Selah’s Tea.  In my day pack was Dianne Dumanoski’s book The End of the Long Summer : Why We Must Remake Civilization to Live on a Volatile Earth, my top recommendation for the best book on abrupt climate change and what to do about it.  It contains a synthesis of most of the core ideas that motivate and inform my current main focus, the Climate Adaptability Project.

Her chapter 4 offers an explanation of abrupt, large-scale, chaotic, extreme climate change that is very similar to – though less complete than – my introductory seminar, Climate 101 (recently renamed from Gaia 101 … I’ll explain that another day).  Clearly she understands what we face.

The title – “the end of the long summer” – is a metaphor for the abnormally long, stable interglacial period of the last 11,500 years during which civilization has emerged, that we have come to believe is Earth’s normal climate.  But as she correctly explains, it is not, and our wake up call has begun.

I’m rereading it because I will soon teach a reading seminar about it in Waterville beginning May 23.  I’ve taught it before, but this is the first time in Maine (but it will not be the last; more are on the horizon).   Participants must have at least seen my intro lecture about Climate 101; most – but not all – will be grads of the full seminar.

Earlier in the morning, I had read her final chapter, 9, “Honest Hope”.   Here are a few choice quotes from that chapter, just to give you a taste of her thesis.  Bold emphasis is mine.

In times of danger, bitter truths serve us better than sweet lies.

“The decades ahead promise unimaginable losses.  Much of the world as we know  it … will likely vanish in the lifetime of a child born today.  These are not the dark prophesies of environmental apocalypse invoked to scare us into changing our ways, but simply inescapable consequences of the change already set in motion.  Shutting off all greenhouse gases today will not stop the warming any more than shutting off the engine can stop a runaway train hurtling down a mountain (though it might switch us onto a less precipitous and calamitous track).  The century ahead promises to be a wild trip.  Of all the hurdles that lie ahead, the most formidable may simply be to recognize that the world has changed fundamentally and that we must prepare to meet a future that may bear little resemblance to what we have come to expect.”

The only certain thing about this coming century is its immense uncertainty. The great temptation of our time will be the impulse to flee from this uncertainty.  Given the black-and-white propensity of Western minds, it will take conscious effort to resist taking refuge either in despair – in the conviction that ‘it’s too late’ – or in the alternative, to bask in groundless, sunny optimism that ‘we’ll figure out something, because science always does.’  I have heard a great deal said about the importance of hope as the human prospect has grown darker, but hope will sustain us only if it is clear-eyed.  In reflecting about cultural traps that have made past societies incapable of meeting the challenge of changing  circumstances, the anthropologist Paul Bohannan asks, ‘Have they at least figured out some of the things they should not do? Or are they running on blind hope?  That kind of hope kills.’  I don’t think we have figured it out.   I fear blind hope as much as despair.

Those should give you a sense that she’s not messing around; this is a serious topic.

In the last few paragraphs of that chapter, she raises the issue of survival, mentioning her own survival through life threatening illnesses and a story about a friend who survived the siege of Sarajevo.  In the margins of the last two pages, I wrote the words “Deep Survival”, referring to Lawrence Gonzales’s fine book of that title, from which I quote abundantly in my essay that weaves together the ideas of both authors.

But on the way to my meeting, I was thinking more  about Mr. Gonzales’s second book, which I like even better than his first – Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things.   Whereas Deep Survival explores how people get out of life-threatening situations, Everyday Survival explores how they got into them in the first place, and thus tries to teach us about how to avoid them.

Now, in reality, Everyday Survival is also about how our entire species has gotten itself into a dangerous “life-threatening” – or  extinction-threatening – situation, explained from a system sciences perspective mixed with relevant ideas from cognitive sciences.   The second half is a fine, interesting – almost camouflaged – lay-reader introduction to a branch of system sciences called NET, or non-equilibrium thermodynamics.  (Trust me: it’s far easier to understand than pronounce, mostly intuitive since it’s the way we know the world works from our own experiences, and far cooler than the information about thermodynamics that you find in most college physics and chemistry curricula.  I include the basic principles of NET in my intro seminars, but also teach an advanced course about it.)

In the first few pages of Everyday Survival, Gonzales asserts that most people in western civilized cultures exist in “a vacation state of mind”, the one that we fall into when we’re on vacation at a resort, or in a protected family campground, or in the backyard with friends around the BBQ: this is vacation; relax; everything is good; don’t worry, be happy; nothing bad will happen.

Of course, that’s the state of mind in which life-threatening shit usually happens because people are not paying attention and suddenly find themselves in grave danger.  As a long time backpacker/mountaineer, some of my favorite examples are stories I’ve read of people who carry food into the tent at the campground.  Their reasoning: they do it at home for a midnight snack, why not here on vacation?  Because bears also like midnight snacks, and said campers may wind up being part of the snack.

Gonzales claims correctly that our entire species – well, at least those of us living “the good life” in western developed nations – is in a vacation state of mind and not paying sufficient attention to a gathering global storm called abrupt climate change, the scale of which hasn’t happened in about 50 million years, and thus we are in danger.  (Even though he doesn’t address climate change in any detail, he acknowledges its existence and danger; in fact, it’s his stated context for the book.)

Here is a quote that follows a story about tourists getting “lost” in a small sand dune area of coastal North Carolina, close enough to a highway to hear traffic, but having to be rescued by a ranger.

“In part, our predicament is that we evolved to be well adapted to an environment that doesn’t exist anymore, at least in technical cultures.  We seem to live permanently in what Ranger Cox calls ‘a vacation state of mind,’ where all the old rules are suspended.  In fact, most of us never knew those rules to begin with.  We gradually evolved a culture that allowed us, as people, to drop our guard.  With the illusion that we have dominion over the earth [see Dumanoski’s chapter 8], we conclude that we have nothing to fear.”

So, as I walked to the coffee shop where I sat among others sipping beverages in a vacation state of mind, a synthesis emerged that linked Gonzales’s ideas on survival with Dumanoski’s concept of ‘the end of the long summer’: as a species, we are at the end of a long vacation.  And the journey back from vacation land will be neither smooth nor easy.

More to come….   But first, I’m going to Selah’s for coffee, and to buy a french press.  Hey, surfing this adventure demands caffeine, and I may as well do it right.

{PS: I purchased a single-cup Bodum Chambord press and some locally-roasted coffee from a company in Portland (ME) in a course grind recommended for french presses.  I think I’m going to like it.}

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