For the first time in my life, the arrival of summer has brought with it a tinge of dread.
Something changed last year. Whatever part of me that, perhaps for my own peace of mind, was keeping dammed the fullest realization that this is no longer the climate we once knew stopped doing so.
At the end of summer 2017, I split my time between Calgary and Vancouver just as the climate-stressed forests of interior B.C. were succumbing to the longest and most destructive fire season in the province’s history.
For days, everything fell under an eerie, constant dusk, the blazes having simplified once-living ecosystems down into ghostly and billowing particulate red-scattering sunlight in two cities.
Travelling the highway between them, I never saw the fires themselves, only signs of their raging: the notices announcing which routes were closed, and which, for now, were still open; the pillar of smoke churning over the mountains like an eruption plume.
Along that same highway just a few summers ago, you could see, stretching to the horizon like a rash on the forest skin, infested trees in dying blooms of autumn colours, shades of orange and russet that evergreens are not meant to turn. The warmer winters could not keep pine beetles in check. Driving past them last summer, those forests looked stricken as if by mange, scattered patches excised from them in clearcut swaths, the only way to exorcise the infestations.
It was in this context that I heard the news about the hurricanes that battered the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. in quick succession. It's what I remembered as I read about the wildfires searing California at the end of the year. It’s what makes me wonder now, as temperature records are being broken all over the world and 33 people in Quebec alone have recently lost their lives to the heat, what else might be waiting for us in the weeks and months and summers to come.
Is this summer from now on? Not a time to experience the world at its most living but a season of high alert and anxiousness, a time when everything can start going wrong?
And if climate change can alter the meaning of the seasons, what other cherished meanings will it change?
The earth and the meaning of human
Our sense of self sprouts from our prevailing understanding and experience of nature.
It was the chimera of an inert earth, for instance, that made it possible to believe in a conception of the human being as free from nature’s constraints and obligations. A number of authors have argued that this shift in thought was essential to the origins of capitalism and science. If the earth was simply unliving, desacralized, non-retaliatory matter, why would we not be free to extract its secrets and its resources to better control and profit from it? Why not reorganize it to serve limitlessly expanding human wants?
But these would not have been the only Enlightenment projects grounded in a view of humanity and our experience of the world. At the core of the various utopian political efforts to improve the condition of the human being was an understanding of what being human means — what needs we have, what responsibilities we owe one another, what best qualities of ourselves we might feasibly build a society around.
And that could be in danger.
If the struggles to win rights, equalities, freedoms, and a just global society were all reliant on the backdrop of a more quiet earth — one we could take for granted would remain benign, fecund, and stable — the unsettling possibility is that the notion of the human that allowed those struggles to resonate widely may not long survive an angrier climate.
New epoch, new humanity?
The conception of the human that I’m worried might be climatically vulnerable is the one that sees all people, by virtue of being people, as entitled to the necessities for leading a meaningful, free, safe, and decent life. We can see glimpses of it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities or even those struggles for universal access to health care, though it’s a conception that also fits more expansively radical or progressive politics.
But for a conception of the human like this to have taken root, it had to be plausible. And this conception is plausible as long as we live in a world where there is enough abundance to be justly distributed, where states are sufficiently spared from frequent or overwhelming disruption that they will not foreclose democratic freedoms, where societies can be wealthy enough to promote human development and security even beyond their borders — all conditions that may no longer hold in a new climate state.
What alternative understandings of the human might then come along to push that one to the fringes? A possibility for the near term is that it will be the rising far right that provides, at least for many, the conception of the human that makes most sense on a crueler, more miserly earth.
It would be a view of the world as a place of scarcity, where anyone demanding entitlements is demanding state theft from someone else. A view of society where we cannot look out for everyone so we look out for those like ourselves. A philosophy where life is hard-won and earned in a world of constant, necessary suffering and zero-sum competition, where some are more fit to live than others.
That’s precisely the kind of thing we need to watch out for if this summer brings anything like the last.