Issue 1.2. “The Gritty Anthropocene,” by Neil Bhatiya

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on April 18, 2016

For a soci­ety that is sup­pos­ed­ly at the pin­na­cle of its pow­ers, we res­i­dents of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry are very keen to think up ways of imag­in­ing our own cat­a­clysmic destruc­tion.

Despite—or per­haps per­verse­ly because of—our rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty and mate­r­i­al abun­dance, our cre­ative ener­gies are often direct­ed to the myr­i­ad ways our soci­ety could unrav­el. These reflec­tions have shown up con­sis­tent­ly in our cul­tur­al works, espe­cial­ly in our fic­tion (books but espe­cial­ly, in terms of view­er­ship, tele­vi­sion and film). While we have entered the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry con­fi­dent that the future holds untapped poten­tial for advances in the human con­di­tion, it is clear that we have not ceased to look for the cloudy lin­ing which will dri­ve all of that progress over the precipice.

How thin are the strands that bind civ­i­liza­tion togeth­er? Are our human­i­tar­i­an inclinations—the kind­ness a neigh­bor shows to another—deeply held, or will we cast them off as soon as the insti­tu­tions of gov­ern­ment and law and order recede around us? What would you do to sur­vive, if sur­vival was as up close and per­son­al as need­ing to fill the emp­ty stom­achs of you and your chil­dren?

What would you do to sur­vive, if sur­vival was as up close and per­son­al as need­ing to fill the emp­ty stom­achs of you and your chil­dren?”

The pop cul­ture land­scape of the last sev­en­ty years is lush with exam­ples of how pre­car­i­ous “civ­i­liza­tion” actu­al­ly is. For our par­ents, it was the Bomb, whose world-end­ing capa­bil­i­ty could be seen in the seri­ous Fail-Safe or the off-the-wall Dr. Strangelove. Lat­er it would be the hubris of mankind in think­ing it could con­trol or manip­u­late nature. Stephen King’s The Stand imag­ines a super-flu escap­ing from a gov­ern­ment research lab­o­ra­to­ry, spread­ing glob­al­ly, and wip­ing out vir­tu­al­ly the entire­ty of humanity—and that’s just the first half. As scary as “Cap­tain Tripps” was as a viral armaged­don (wip­ing out over 90% of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion), it has noth­ing on Ran­dall Flagg, the walk­ing tri­umph of dark­ness over anar­chy. 28 Days Lat­er renewed the theme, updat­ing a very well-worn zom­bie trope and putting its core group of sur­vivors in a haven where their res­cuers are not exact­ly what they seem.

Enter into that crowd­ed lega­cy the rise of “cli-fi”—climate fic­tion. It is a genre that tries to imag­ine a world of run­away glob­al tem­per­a­tures and the myr­i­ad eco­log­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic impacts that fol­low. These are the Tales from the “Anthro­pocene” (lit­er­al­ly, new man), the pur­port­ed geo­log­i­cal era in which the impact of human beings on their nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment is, for the first time, much more destruc­tive than the impact of nature on human­i­ty (at least until tem­per­a­ture rise real­ly gets going). The defin­i­tive non­fic­tion take to date remains Eliz­a­beth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinc­tion, with its case stud­ies of how we have come to under­stand our abil­i­ty to destroy entire species.

Fic­tion­al takes are start­ing to pro­lif­er­ate as the real-world con­se­quences of cli­mate change become more salient. Pao­lo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife imag­ines a future Unit­ed States frac­tured by water scarci­ty, where the flows of the dis­placed from the Amer­i­can south leave Texas a shell of depri­va­tion and Cal­i­for­nia and Neva­da fight hybrid con­flicts over the remain­ing water in the West. Though Christo­pher Nolan’s Inter­stel­lar does not ascribe its glob­al food chain col­lapse to cli­mate change, the way the future of mankind is imper­iled looks near to the mark of what the worst-case sce­nar­ios pro­po­nents of cli­mate change sug­gest.

To judge by Jacque­lyn Bengfort’s “A Sto­ry Told Over Din­ner,” our reac­tions to that even­tu­al­i­ty are not for the faint of heart. Beng­fort presents, on a much more accel­er­at­ed timescale, what hap­pens to our present day idyll when crops die and peo­ple stop being polite about look­ing after their kin. The for­mu­la of this dis­as­ter flash­back is not unfa­mil­iar, but it is com­pelling. A grand­moth­er, blessed with the preter­nat­ur­al sense of fore­bod­ing that seems to be the genet­ic defense mech­a­nism of peo­ple with more expe­ri­ence in the world, arrives at the home of her son’s fam­i­ly and enters full-on prep­per mode.

At first dis­missed as a kook, her dooms­day sen­si­bil­i­ty is even­tu­al­ly reward­ed when, after a peri­od of gov­ern­ment obfus­ca­tion, the true dis­as­ter (“the Desert”) arrives and the embrace of civ­i­liza­tion shrinks down to the size of the fam­i­ly home. With­out giv­ing too much of the plot away, the nar­ra­tors of the sto­ry — chil­dren at the time of the events — gain a first­hand expe­ri­ence with death, depri­va­tion, and the trans­for­ma­tion of their aver­age sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood into a place patrolled by chil­dren resem­bling “clans of fer­al mon­keys.”

What lessons should we draw from such a sto­ry? Though a worst-case sce­nario, does this hold some ground truths for what our future looks like? Though at first glance it seems a lit­tle far-fetched, it is just such a future that wor­ries future sce­nario plan­ners in the defense and intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States. Promi­nent think tanks are devot­ing resources to the secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change impacts, includ­ing water and food scarci­ty.

A Sto­ry Told Over Din­ner” con­tains an impor­tant ker­nel of truth, stat­ed in the narrator’s intro­duc­tion to their ret­ro­spec­tive oral his­to­ry: “it’s impor­tant to tell you about how things were in the sub­urbs where the low­er mid­dle class­es expe­ri­enced the onset of the Desert.” It is not a banal point; for all of the laud­able con­cern for cli­mate change in devel­oped states, it is devel­op­ing states and poor­er regions which will feel the full brunt of cli­mate change (here’s a test: do com­pet­ing Google search­es for “Mia­mi flood­ing” and “Kiri­bati flood­ing.” Depend­ing on your geo­graph­ic loca­tion, the for­mer will have about twice as many hits as the lat­ter, even though flood­ing in the lat­ter is an exis­ten­tial cri­sis for a sov­er­eign state.

Such a con­clu­sion has pro­found impli­ca­tions for how we process the impact of cli­mate change on our plan­et. If most of the sto­ries like Bengfort’s take place in an indis­tinct devel­op­ing world, we will react dif­fer­ent­ly than if it takes place in the small towns of mod­ern Amer­i­ca. The recent debates over refugees from the Syr­i­an con­flict in Europe and the Unit­ed States may be seen as indica­tive of future reac­tions to cli­mate change-linked dis­place­ment affect­ing those liv­ing in what is often called the Glob­al South.

The recent debates over refugees from the Syr­i­an con­flict in Europe and the Unit­ed States may be seen as indica­tive of future reac­tions to cli­mate change-linked dis­place­ment affect­ing those liv­ing in what is often called the Glob­al South.”

Respons­es to the Syr­i­an refugee cri­sis have fall­en into two dif­fer­ent tracks. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel is fac­ing intense polit­i­cal pres­sure over her government’s gen­er­al­ly pro-refugee poli­cies, which reflect the offi­cial Euro­pean Union posi­tion that its mem­ber-states should pro­vide shel­ter for those seek­ing safe­ty from civ­il war. By con­trast, Hun­gar­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orban has defend­ed his country’s poli­cies, which take the oppo­site tack of try­ing to con­trol and pre­vent refugee flows, a response he defends by cit­ing the need to pro­tect Europe’s “Chris­t­ian val­ues.

This push­back is just one slice of a broad­er cross-sec­tion of anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment (and not just from the Mid­dle East). There is lit­tle evi­dence to sug­gest that those flee­ing cli­mate change nat­ur­al dis­as­ters or resource scarci­ty will receive a warmer wel­come. Coun­tries which have no wish to set a prece­dent have shield­ed them­selves behind the fact that “cli­mate refugee” is not a cat­e­go­ry rec­og­nized by inter­na­tion­al law—a fact that a divid­ed Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil seems in no hur­ry to address, despite the yawn­ing esti­mates for future vic­tims of sea-lev­el rise.

Add to that the pos­si­bil­i­ty that cli­mate change may act, in the ver­nac­u­lar of the Pen­ta­gon, as a “threat mul­ti­pli­er” for future con­flict, and it is clear that we are deal­ing with a pro­found threat that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is only now begin­ning to grap­ple with. As Bengfort’s sto­ry makes clear, human sol­i­dar­i­ty is con­tin­gent, nego­ti­at­ed, and a ser­vant only to the fair weath­er moments of func­tion­ing civ­i­liza­tion. With potent warn­ing of the prospec­tive dis­lo­ca­tions of a warm­ing world, the only times we may even have the option to act is right now.

Neil Bhatiya is the Cli­mate and Diplo­ma­cy Fel­low at the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Secu­ri­ty. He cur­rent­ly stud­ies the chal­lenge cli­mate change pos­es to U.S. diplo­mat­ic and devel­op­ment pri­or­i­ties, with a spe­cial focus on impacts in South Asia. He is also a Fel­low at The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion, a non­par­ti­san think tank. Fol­low him on Twit­ter.