In a terrifying summer, a search for safety
I live in the far NW corner of the US, a place “better-than-most” to live for the rest of my climate-deranged lifetime. I speak of these crises every day, everywhere, and am on the local Emergency Planning Commission. We are at risk from ocean rise and mountain flooding…our desirable but low-lying ag land is sure to be lost. So even though people would want to relocate here for nicer temps, the localized food system is likely short-term. When the dikes are breached (already happening in bits over the past few years), thousands of acres of prime growing land will be ruined. So no, there is no perfect place…except where we can join in solidarity to figure it out together, combine skills and resources, and live like the communal, cooperative, conscientious beings we can be.
The news about reduction of deforestation in Brazil is very heartening. And I love the stuff about people helping each other in Vermont (and I'm sure in plenty of places elsewhere). We ARE a social species, and this sort of thing brings out the best in us.
On the other hand, what the hell's the matter with Rishi Sunak?!!
Someone recently dropped a link on one of my comments on a Substack about the climate crisis (might have even been here on this very Substack!). I had commented about moving to Portugal several months ago and the climate and infrastructure related collapse I left behind in Georgia (the state). Their link was to an article I'd already read about how Portugal is set to be the EU nation most deeply impacted by the climate emergency. I think their intent behind dropping the link and their accompanying comment about “out of the frying pan into the fire” to be some sort of a “gotcha Lib” drive by, which is funny because they neither got me, nor am I even remotely a Lib.
For one, I came here with my eyes wide open after careful weighing of the pros and cons of different countries available to me and near-to-longer term projections about specific regions within each country.
But perhaps more importantly, I took culture and levels of collectivist attitudes into consideration, and that's ultimately why I chose the city of Porto, Portugal.
Is it perfect? No, but I never expected anywhere would be. But nearly every day I witness or benefit directly from the collectivist culture of the Portuguese people as a whole. I’ll take facing the climate devastation that's coming surrounded by my new Portuguese comrades, language barriers and all, any day before I’d want to face them in the individualistic and callous culture bred in the U.S., especially in the South. I never feared my neighbors turning on me more than I did in conservative Eastern Washington and Red-ruled Georgia.
Bill, as much as your columns are mostly wise and valuable, you are absolutely wrong about population growth. The United States is the major industrialized nation with the greatest per capita greenhouse emissions. In the last 34 years we've added ~85 million. That's equivalent to four New York States plus South Carolina. Half of that growth has come from immigration. The average immigrant's greenhouse emissions have risen three to four fold after arrival--in large part because so many come from third world countries with low per capita emissions. They want to consume like Americans.
Going forward, the Census Bureau projects 75 million over the next 40 years, of which all but 7 million will be from immigration. Yes, we're telling Americans we need to stanch our emissions, but by adding nearly four New York State populations, our emissions are going to keep rising.
Furthermore, even in the third world, population growth is probably going to necessitate more agriculture, and more sprawl--think of the burgeoning cities in Africa and Asia--and when virgin land is converted to anything, large amounts of carbon that are sequestered in virgin land are released to the atmosphere, as two articles in Science showed in 2008, in research that has not been refuted and is not going to be refuted.
Scientists such as EO Wilson have urged humankind to set aside half of Earth for untrammeled nature. But we already use half the world's habitable land for agriculture. Moreover, climate change is reducing Earth's carrying capacity--it will take more land to produce enough to feed us all. We can't keep growing our population.
In other matters, in the 20th century, when the African population rose from less than 100 million to more than a billion, the population of elephants plummeted from 20 million to 500,000. It's still plummeting. Elephants are important players in the African ecosystem, and they are also among the smartest non-humans, who have a lot to teach us if we listen. Elephants are nicer than primates, and it's a matter of their politics. The oldest female is automatically the leader--none of the back-stabbing that goes on among chimps. When I raised this issue, Jane Goodall agreed with me. (Bonobos are also matriarchal and nicer than we are.)
As elephants go, so go the other African megafauna, and much of the rest of African fauna, and so go African ecosystems.
We are in the midst of the sixth major extinction--the first ever caused by a species (us).
The greatest cause of extinction and reduction in the numbers of other species is habitat destruction.
The human population grew from 2,000,000,000 to 8,000,000,000 during the last century. The best thing we can do for the environment--short of all of us becoming Buddhists and living like it--is to let--or even encourage--the human population drop back down (and doing so in the US would have the biggest bang for the $).
Again, you make a lot of very important points, which I will probably comment on in another comment.
I found what you said about "where" to live interesting, as I already live in a mountainous area which moderates temperature, has plenty of rainfall (sometimes too much), and a high level of neighborliness, as evidenced in the last year as we dealt with recovery from the same kind of flooding Vermont experienced.
I've been involved in activism and community building work over many years. What I've noticed is that the quiet, slow process of people doing things together doesn't usually make the headlines, but it is constantly going on in the background nonetheless. We've got to maintain and accelerate this work. Inevitably more people will be drawn in as the need to do things together becomes our only choice. This is why I think the idea of living democracy that Australian green thinker Tim Hollo is writing about are worth checking out.
I can't "like" this post because it's too depressing, but thank you for writing about all of this. Rutland just got hit AGAIN with 2" of rain in two hours. They had to use swift boat rescue to get some people out of their homes. One commenter said, "Every rain is a 100 year rain now." Lastly, my jaw is still on the floor after reading this: "Royal Bank of Canada, one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel lenders, is looking for a new Head of Climate Transition. One of their responsibilities will be to “Develop and implement effective and lasting responses to Climate Activism."" We are truly in surreal times. It feels like a mass hypnotism for half the country/world.
Not a very helpful article. Within the United States it seems to me anyplace close to the Great Lakes will benefit from their unlimited supply of fresh, clean water and their buffeting affect on extreme temperatures. The rust belt cities (and their suburbs) of Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo all have these qualities along with very affordable housing prices. In addition their cold winters, long seen as a major disadvantage will moderate.
Bill, may I have your permission to republish this article at The R-Word?
PS - Immense praise and appreciation to you for allowing comments from non-paying subscribers! Many of us have very little money for subscriptions ... because we're doing the work that needs to happen but which isn't paid work.
Kudos to you Bill McKibben for another fine article on climate; my two favorite pieces: the rising of the young Gen Z activist to interrupt and speak on behalf of a million protesters not heard! They are young, idealistic, energetic and immortal; they will save this gem of the universe 🌎 if just allowed in the door of change. It is their generation that has the most to gain by ACTION after all. And the reduction in the deforestation of the Amazon by the new leader and his climate designee is miraculous and so welcome.
Planting a trillion trees is a good idea, apart from any positive effect they may have on the climate disaster, particularly if they're diverse and build habitat. But I was reading just this morning that we simply don't produce enough saplings to carry out the project, and those we do produce are mostly of species intended to be logged when they get big enough. Before we start planting, we'd have to spend some time on fixing that.
Thank you for all of this and for the ways you summed up the impacts. I am heavily considering no longer using ChatGPT for the fact that it consumes so much water. I had no idea the ratio was so high. This is important writing, thank you for your work.
Another great article on climate change ruined by veering into another lane with bad "science". There are so many co-factors as to why states faired differently regarding Covid vaccines and illness/death. Age, socio-economic, population density, etc. To suggest that Vermont had a better outcome than other states BECAUSE of the high vaccination rate is just wrong! Many good epidemiologists have discredited this theory. Just like the suggestion that republican states did worse than democratic states. And now, two plus years into vaccines, it's looking worse and worse for the vaccinated vs. the unvaxxed. I'm sure some here will pull up this or that study that show the opposite. But it's confirmation bias. Wanting an outcome to validate your beliefs. Climate deniers do this all the time. By using the same tactics, you turn people away from the climate crisis. Sad!
Do people ask your opinion of Miyawaki forests? I'm womdering if starting one would be a good intergenerational project for a church.
No place is safe …
Your comment, “how do I avoid this huge communal disaster” – made me think of a quote, I think it was from the Esoteric Philosophy Manly P Hall state, and I paraphrase, “that ever since humanity moved into cities, it’s become worse for the human condition.” He mentions Rome and how when they went to cities, the pollution increases since you now have to account for all of humanity in one location, i.e., sewers and waste problems.
This makes me think that we should evaluate our cities and begin to explore more open, almost “nomadic” (emphasis on the air quotes) where we can be free and open – eliminating all the pollution that arises when humans and squeezed together in what we call “cities” (which could also be referred to as Mice Utopias)