There is a conversation I do not know how to have, a conversation about what happens if we are heading for disaster. It is not a theoretical question for me. I have two daughters. The older has just turned 13, the younger is nine. On current projections we will pass the point at which it is possible to hold warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels before the younger has finished school. By the time she is at university the coral reefs will be gone. By the time they are in their early thirties we will be committed to two degrees. By their forties they will inhabit a world in which the ice shelves are melting, the Amazon is burning, and ecosystems around the world are collapsing. A world of massive refugee flows in which hundreds of millions will die of hunger, heat, disease and the accelerating effects of social and economic breakdown.
It is difficult to see how our society could survive in anything like its current form in such a world. Five million Syrian refugees deranged Europe, a fraction of that has dramatically affected the dynamic of Australian society. What happens when tens of millions head north and south from Indonesia and equatorial or sub-Saharan Africa? When Central America or parts of India become uninhabitable? When Bangladesh and Myanmar flood? What happens when that occurs at the same time food grows scarce, water resources dry up and economic activity contracts to less than nothing as global commerce collapses? Last year I interviewed one of the lead authors for the International Panel on Climate Change. When the formal part of our conversation was over, we talked a bit about emission pathways and the fact we remain on the outer limit of projections, suggesting we are heading for four degrees or more of warming. He laughed. ‘We’ll never get there,’ he said. ‘Look around yourself. Think about the level of disruption we’re experiencing at only one degree of warming. The reality is human society will collapse long before we get to four degrees.’ For weeks afterwards I couldn’t get his words out of my head. I still can’t.
I don’t know how to think about this, or what to do. Should I be teaching my kids to hunt and farm? To shoot? To fight? Should we sell our house, buy a place outside the city, somewhere we could be relatively self- sufficient? Should I be stockpiling food? A friend of mine studies preppers and bunker culture. The last time we spoke he said they have stopped talking about whether society will collapse or what is likely to tip us over the edge; instead they now assume it’s just a matter of time. ‘I’ve come at this so many ways,’ he said. ‘But the problem is I know they’re right.’
Even asking these questions makes me feel like a crazy person. But I know I am not alone. Although we talk about the climate crisis, we don’t really talk about it. I’m not sure we even know how. Instead we manage not to think about it, or when we do only briefly or glancingly. Instead we perform our despair on social media or make queasy jokes about rising sea levels, heatstroke, climate chaos, as if it’s possible to treat civilisational collapse as a punchline. And while there’s no question there’s sometimes an edge of hysteria to these sorts of conversations, a sense that while our jokes may help us paper over the cracks, they can’t entirely prevent the terror from leaking in, for the most part we manage to distract ourselves with the business of today and tomorrow and the day after that, carefully avoiding discussion of what happens in a decade or two…
As a result we inhabit a weird duality, a world in which we know but do not know, and where these mechanisms of evasion and denial allow us to avoid staring into the eye of what is coming. It doesn’t always work: I am a skilled compartmentaliser, but still there are moments when it overwhelms me, when the knowledge of what is coming is too much to deal with, moments when I look at my kids and wonder what I have done by bringing them into the world. Like most parents, I want them to live full and happy lives. I want them to grow up believing the future is a place of possibility. I want them to have hope. Yet I know that is not what awaits them. Instead they will inhabit a world progressively poorer, less stable, more violent, a world where hundreds of millions and possibly billions of people are likely to die from the effects of global heating and environmental collapse by the end of the century. They will endure fear, chaos and deprivation. Their future lives will not be better but significantly worse than their lives now. Because like Wile E. Coyote running in the air, not yet aware the ground beneath his feet is gone, we have already stepped out into the void; all that remains is the fall.