ISSUES

Learning to Live in Apocalyptic Times: How Climate Despair Can Save (or Destroy) the World

Climate despair is becoming so widespread that some people are losing their will to live. Is this the new normal?

If you're reading this, you probably know that the earth is not doing well. A 2018 UN report declared that we have 12 years to keep the global climate from rising more than 1.5 degrees, or we'll face catastrophic warming levels. Even knowing this, our worldwide carbon emissions have only continued to rise, with atmospheric CO2 reaching a record high at 417.4 ppm in May 2019.

In essence, we know the world is ending, we know why, and yet we have done nothing to stop it. In fact, things are getting worse.

Image via blog.derby.ac.uk

The Argument for Despair

Faced with this truth, it's all too easy to slip into despair, and this is what's happening to people all over the world. A recent VICE article explored the mental health crises that many people are experiencing because of climate change. Known as "climate despair," sometimes called "eco-nihilism" or "human futilitarianism," chronic feelings of hopelessness about climate change are becoming all too common among those who have allowed themselves to fully comprehend the extent of the crisis.

For people who suffer from these feelings, it doesn't help that life appears to be continuing on as normal, while only a few of us seem to care that the world is burning down. This creates a sense of duality that can be even more painful than consciously accepting the reality of climate change, as it involves a deep suppression of pain and fear, which is then left to fester in the psyche. Living this "double life," according to Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair," can be detrimental. "Awesome and unprecedented in the history of humanity, the awareness lurks there, with an anguish beyond naming," she writes.

This awareness can manifest in many ways; and often it has lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Even therapists are having trouble knowing how to handle the looming specter of climate despair. Several people quoted in the VICE article described how their therapists attempted to trace their terror of climate change back to personal traumas, instead of acknowledging the validity of these fears.

Image via Its Nice That

Children are just as vulnerable to these feelings as adults. As they watch governments refuse to act, kids are growing up in the world with little faith in the government or the adults around them, and with the knowledge that they've been born into a disaster they never asked for but have to deal with.

Greta Thunberg was one of these kids. She's spoken extensively about the feelings of despair that nearly paralyzed her as she became more and more aware of the climate crisis. "Before I started school striking, I was … so depressed and I didn't want to do anything," she once said.

But when she began to speak, as many of us know, she became one of the most outspoken and well-known climate activists in the world. According to Thunberg, this was not a choice. "I feel like dying inside if I don't protest," she said. For those suffering from climate despair, that feeling of dying inside is a familiar one. But Greta's inspiring actions contain seeds of hope, perhaps the best hope against climate despair.

The truth is that things are only hopeless if we don't take action. Conveniently, taking action might also be one of the best things we can possibly do to work through climate despair.

Image via Handelszeitung

Our Best Shot at Hope

Although they might be realistic responses to the threat of climate change, feelings of despair—when they aren't turned into action, or are suffered through in solitude— present a terminal danger to the climate movement, as they promote stagnation when what is truly needed is unity and protest.

This doesn't mean that we should deny the gravity of the situation. Action begins with admitting the problem, not stuffing it away under layers of performative normalcy. "Until we find ways of acknowledging and integrating that level of anguished awareness," continues Joanna Macy, "we repress it; and with that repression we are drained of the energy we need for action and clear thinking."

Still, the answer is also not necessarily to let oneself fall down a hole of hopelessness. Often, the doomsday-esque reports that are inundating the Internet and certain academic circles can be the opposite of productive. Sometimes, these reports are inaccurate, overly dramatized and apocalyptic. These alarmist articles that proclaim that we are all doomed often have the opposite effect, shaking people into complicity when the truth is that though things are really bad, there is definitely hope.

There is hope.

Though we won't be able to reverse climate change, it is possible to salvage so much of the world and to prevent the worst consequences of ecological decline. Human beings have mobilized massively before—we've split atoms and spread cell phones across the globe in less than a decade—and we can do it again. We have the technology, the money, and the capability: All we need to avert immediate crisis is the will and the public support to elect people into office who will take action.

Image via Flickr

We have the resources to fight climate change. Many countries are instituting programs to reduce their carbon emissions. Small nations like Denmark and Belgium have successfully slashed their carbon emissions, and plans like the Paris Agreement are promising attempts at global change. What we need to do is fight, to spread awareness, to elect people into office who will take action, and to make it clear that we as a human race won't go down at the hands of an elite cult of carbon-worshipers determined to ruin all of our futures for the sake of their own fortunes.

Climate activism doesn't solely have to be a fight against something, though: it can be a fight for a better world. Though climate change is often painted as an entirely doom-and-gloom issue, some of the things that fighting it will combat it could actually benefit our whole society, healing some of the deep wounds that have caused our modern epidemic of mental illness, addiction, and loneliness.

According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this impasse at the brink between oblivion and climate disaster presents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. This crisis can be a beginning, not an ending, she argues: the beginning of a movement towards a more interconnected and compassionate world.

"Climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well," she writes. "The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change...It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now."

This kind of future would require a paradigm shift, a complete departure from our current free-market model that glorifies isolated successes and prizes maximum consumption above all else. It would require that, among other things, we sacrifice our own desires for the good of everyone else.

We need to sacrifice the concept that the goal of life is to be able to pursue one's individual fortune to the highest level: And we have to acknowledge that we operate in an interconnected network, and must lift each other and our planet up, if we wish to continue to live on this earth.

The shift is already beginning. Organizations like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion have emerged at the forefront of the fight against climate change; and artists are starting to wake up, too. But even if you don't have a massive platform or aren't going to protests, even just talking about the ecological crisis with others can ignite powerful chain reactions. Overall, probably the most meaningful thing you can do is work to elect officials who will make good on their promises to cut emissions and create a better world while doing it.

Image via Ethics and International Affairs

Where We Go From Here

Still, considering the amount of mobilization and effort that these changes require—and considering how determined major, extremely wealthy fossil fuel companies are to squander these efforts—it's extremely difficult to be hopeful all the time when it comes to the climate crisis. Plus we've already damaged some things beyond repair, and we've lost many people to the wildfires and hurricanes rooted in climate change; to name a few, the 79 people lost in California's Camp Fire, and the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in Hurricane Maria.

And so, as the VICE article proposes, to comprehend the full extent of the climate crisis, first we need to let ourselves grieve. We need to allow ourselves to grieve as we would in the face of any other tragedy—to comprehend the harm that we've done to our planet and to recognize and honor our feelings about it.

Once we recognize these feelings, we can begin to deal with them. As Macy continues, "To experience pain as we register what is happening to our world is a measure of our evolution as open systems. This is true not only from the perspective of systems science but from that of religion as well. How many mystics in their spiritual journey have spoken of the 'dark night of the soul'? Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances, they let their old convictions and conformities dissolve into nothingness, and stood naked to the terror of the unknown. They let processes, which their minds could not encompass, work through them. It is in that darkness that birth takes place."

While it's important to embrace one's despair and grief regarding climate, it's equally important to view these feelings as starting points for a spiritual and political revolution, instead of hindrances that need to be suppressed. If we view climate as a consequence of evils we've always been peripherally cognizant of—like selfishness, greed, and the hypocrisy that plagues human society—then we can view the climate crisis as an opportunity to at the very least connect with other people who understand that we, collectively, cannot continue this way.

Through this lens, climate despair is far from an end point. Rather, it connects us to the world around us, and to other people who care enough to want to see a better future for everyone and everything. "As our pain for the world is rooted in our interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power," writes Macy.

So if you're pained by climate change, good. That pain means you love something. That love means you're alive.

Image via Occidental Arts and Ecology Center

WORLD

On World Population Day: How Climate Change Could Make Us Go Extinct

The world is both hotter and more overcrowded than ever before. Naturally, these things are intertwined.

World Population Day was established in 1989 by the United Nations Council in order to draw attention to population issues. Back then, the world's population stood at 5.198 billion. Thirty years later, there are 7.7 billion people in the world, with an estimated 360,000 more being born each day.

It's hard to think about overpopulation without thinking about climate change, which threatens the livelihoods of every single one of these new children.

Climate change's consequences have already begun to emerge, and needless to say, they will worsen exponentially if climate change continues at its current rate. Effects include rising sea levels, tens of thousands of heat-related deaths, polluted air, a spike in chronic illnesses, severe droughts, mass extinctions that ruin ecological systems and destroy agriculture, and many natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires that will devastate infrastructure and generate massive flows of refugees. We've already seen these things, in the devastating 2018 California wildfires, in hurricanes like Sandy and Maria, in the drought that was a root cause of the Syrian refugee crisis, and in so many other instances.

Image via Undark

These events are only the tip of the iceberg. A 2018 UN report announced that we have twelve years to reverse the worst effects of climate change; if we fail to essentially keep temperatures from rising above 1.5C, hundreds of millions of people will suffer the consequences.

Certainly, the vastness of our world's population is a root cause of this deadly warming. According to Business Today, "One of the greatest consequences of growing population, which is perhaps a great threat to our livelihood as well, is the quick depletion of natural resources." More people means more carbon burned, more resources consumed, more people falling through the cracks.

In a merely theoretical sense, it seems logical that humanity's population explosion would happen concurrently with exponential climate change and ecological disaster, because the way our population has grown is anything but natural.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human society followed a particular law: As populations grow, food supplies decrease, and so the population decreases, and the food supply increases. This is the same rule that keeps animal populations in check. However, since the dawn of industry, human beings have been producing more and more food and resources to support our burgeoning population, effectively placing ourselves at the top of the food chain, subsequently displacing animal populations, and decimating our natural resources.

Now, we are reaching a breaking point.

Image via MarketWatch

However, it's too simplistic to say that the amount of people in the world is directly proportional to the rate of climate change. It's true that the locations where the largest percentages of children are being born are the places that will be most severely damaged by the rising tides and hurricanes that are stemming from warming. According to Time Magazine, rapid population growth will only lock these nations into cycles of poverty, making it extremely difficult for these places to rebound from climate change's effects. However, these places are not the ones producing the majority of carbon emissions: That honor is reserved for developed countries, like the US.

The real cause of climate change is not overpopulation alone. It's the mentality that has allowed oil companies to grow into the massive corporations they are; and that has allowed Americans, who comprise 5% of the global population, to consume 25% of the world's resources, and that has allowed many childless couples in the US to consume far more resources than couples with children. That mentality has led us to accumulate endlessly without paying any heed to natural balances or equity.

Therefore, reducing the population is actually not the most important step that needs to be taken in order to combat climate change. This is because, according to Vox, it's not that the resources we have can't support a larger population: the US could successfully feed 400 million people simply by consuming locally what we are currently exporting. The problem is that we can't maintain the kinds of resource-guzzling, carbon-based lifestyles that we—and particularly, the extremely wealthy—have become accustomed to living. Simply reducing the number of people but not addressing our society's problem with carbon and consumption will have a negligible effect on the climate. In actuality, lower fertility rates can lead to higher GDP, as childless folks can accumulate more resources that they in turn spend on flights and other energy-guzzling activities.

Image via RT.com

Though population control would help, it's far more important that we figure out how to re-distribute resources in a sustainable way, rather than wasting such a vast amount of resources like we do in America. In the end, slashing carbon emissions—and, concurrently, shifting our cultural obsession with accumulation and individualism to an emphasis on egalitarianism—is still by far the most important thing we can do for the climate.

Even so, having fewer children and making education and birth control more widely accessible would be hugely significant overall. Furthermore, deciding not to have a child is totally a viable, impactful way to combat climate change (and it's possibly even the ethical choice, given the ecological mess that new generations will find themselves involuntarily subjected to).

Because if we remain on the path we're on? The population will just continue to expand, hitting a projected 8 billion by 2050. Soon enough, natural disasters will result in the deaths of millions; more people will starve or die in refugee camps; and then, as water becomes undrinkable and the planet becomes too hot for any growing thing, that will be the end of this whole experiment called life.

Researchers Have Created an AI Too Dangerous to Release. What Will Happen When It Gets Out?

The GPT-2 software can generate fake news articles on its own. Its creators believe its existence may pose an existential threat to humanity. But it could also present a chance to intervene.

Researchers at OpenAI have created an artificial intelligence software so powerful that they have deemed it too dangerous for public release.

The software, called GPT-2, can generate cohesive, coherent text in multiple genres—including fiction, news, and unfiltered Internet rants—making it a prime candidate for creating fake news or fake profiles should it fall into the wrong hands.

Fears like this led the Elon Musk-founded company OpenAI to curtail the software's release. "Due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology, we are not releasing the trained model," they announced in a blog post. "As an experiment in responsible disclosure, we are instead releasing a much smaller model for researchers to experiment with, as well as a technical paper."

In addition to writing a cohesive fictional story based on Lord of the Rings, the software wrote a logical scientific report about the discovery of unicorns. "In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains," the software wrote. "Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English. The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid's Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science."

This journalistic aptitude sparked widespread fears that AI technologies as sophisticated as the GPT-2 could influence upcoming elections, potentially generating unfathomable amounts of partisan content in a single instant. "The idea here is you can use some of these tools in order to skew reality in your favor," said University of Washington professor Ryan Calo. "And I think that's what OpenAI worries about."

Elon Musk quit OpenAI in 2018, but his legacy of fear and paranoia regarding AI and its potential evils lives on. The specter of his caution was likely instrumental in keeping GPT-2 out of the public sphere. "It's quite uncanny how it behaves," echoed Jack Clark, policy director of OpenAI, when asked about his decision to keep the new software under locks.

The fears of Elon MuskImage via express.co.uk

In a world already plagued by fake news, cat-fishing, and other forms of illusion made possible by new technology, AI seems like a natural next step in the dizzying sequence of illusion and corruption that has rapidly turned the online world from a repository of cat videos (the good old days) to today's vortex of ceaselessly reproduced lies and corrupted content. Thinkers like Musk have long called for resistance against AI's unstoppable growth. In 2014, Musk called AI the single largest "existential threat" to humanity. That same year, the late physicist Stephen Hawking ominously predicted that sophisticated AI could "spell the end of the human race."

Stephen Hawking's apocalyptic visionsImage via longroom.com

But until AI achieves the singularity—a level of consciousness where it achieves and supersedes human intelligence—it is still privy to the whims of whoever is controlling it. Fears about whether AI will lend itself to fake news are essentially fears of things humans have already done. All the evil at work on the Internet has had a human source.

When it comes down to the wire, for now, AI is a weapon.

When AI is released into the world, a lot could happen. AI could become a victim, a repository for displaced human desire. Some have questioned whether people should be allowed to treat humanoid creatures in whatever ways they wish to. Instances of robot beheadings and other violent behaviors towards AI hint towards a darker trend that could emerge should AI become a free-for-all, a humanoid object that can be treated in any way on the basis of its presumed inhumanity.

Clearly, AI and humanity have a complex and fundamentally intertwined relationship, and as we all become more dependent on technology, there is less of a clear line dividing the human from the robotic. As a manmade invention, AI will inevitably emulate the traits (as well as the stereotypes) of the people who created it. It could also take on the violent tendencies of its human creators. Some thinkers have sounded the alarm about this, questioning the dearth of ethics in Silicon Valley and in the tech sphere on the whole. Many people believe that AI (and technology in general) is fundamentally free of bias and emotion, but a multitude of examples have shown that this is untrue, including instances where law enforcement software systems displayed racist bias against black people (based on data collected by humans).

AI can be just as prejudiced and close-minded as a human, if not more so, especially in its early stages where it is not sophisticated enough to think critically. An AI may not feel in and of itself, but—much like we learn how to process the world from our parents—it can learn how to process and understand emotions from the people who create it, and from the media it absorbs.

Image via techno-pundit.blogspot.com

After all, who could forget the TwitterBot who began spewing racist, anti-Semitic rants mere hours after its launch—rants that it, of course, learned from human Twitter users? Studies have estimated that 9 to 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots—but each one of these bots had to be created and programmed by a human being. Even if the bot was not created for a specific purpose, it still learns from the human presences around it.

A completely objective, totally nonhuman AI is kind of like the temperature absolute zero; it can exist only in theory. Since all AI is created by humans, it will inevitably take on human traits and beliefs. It will perform acts of evil when instructed to, or when exposed to ideologies that can inspire it to. It can also learn morality if its teachers choose to imbue it with the ability to tell right from wrong.

Image via cio.com

Their quandary may not be so different from the struggle parents face when deciding whether to allow their children to watch R-rated movies. In this case, both the general public and the AIs are the children, and the scientists, coders, and companies peddling new inventions are the parents. The people designing AIs have to determine the extent to which they can trust the public with their work. They also have to determine which aspects of humanity they want to expose their inventions to.

OpenAI may have kept their kid safe inside the house a little longer by freezing the GPT-2, but that kid is growing—and when it goes out into the world, it could change everything. For better or worse, at some point, super-intelligent AI is going to wind up in the public's hands. Now, during its tender, formative stages, there is still a chance to shape it into whom it's going to be when it arrives.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Talk to her about AI on Twitter @edenarielmusic.

ENVIRONMENT

Experts Urge "Unprecedented Changes" to Prevent Environmental Disaster

A U.N. panel recommends "rapid, far-reaching" overhauls to prevent global catastrophe by 2030.

When responding to a disaster, the last phase is containment. The latest report from the world's leading experts on global warming is urging world leaders and policy-makers that that time is now. In order to prevent the earth's temperature from rising any more than another .5 ˚Celsius over the next 12 years, "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" are necessary.

The report is the latest from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws from thousands of publications and reviews of data on climate changes to assess and measure "increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level." In the past five reports, the IPCC has gone from investigating if and to what degree global warming was taking place to finding it "unequivocal" that global warming was an ongoing disaster with a 5% chance of being caused by natural climate change and a 90% probability that society's emissions of greenhouse gases were perpetuating the damage.

Environment and Human Being

Now, the IPCC is no longer concerned with spreading awareness or recommending practices to prevent damage from global warming, but to contain the coming destruction. The latest report cites that global temperatures are already 1 ˚C higher than in pre-industrial times; if temperatures rise more than 1.5 ˚C, environmental damages will put hundreds of millions of human lives at risk.

Furthermore, Earth's temperatures are expected to rise to the catastrophic 1.5 ˚C as early as 2030, unless "unprecedented changes" in transportation, agriculture, and energy are implemented. The IPCC's report verifies that carbon dioxide emissions have not been hampered by existing environmental policies, or lack thereof, recommending "rapid and far-reaching transitions" in society that leave some doubtful of its feasibility.

Skeptics include Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, who stated, "Even if it is technically possible, without aligning the technical, political and social aspects of feasibility, it is not going to happen. To limit warming below 1.5 ˚C, or 2 ˚C for that matter, requires all countries and all sectors to act."

The rhetoric of environmentalism has been deemed alarmist and even fear-mongering in the past, but one reason skeptics remain unmoved could be due to a history of sanitized language. Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, doubts not only the IPCC's radical changes but their words: "If you're expecting IPCC to jump up and down and wave red flags, you're going to be disappointed. They're going to do what they always do, which is to release very cautious reports in extremely dispassionate language."

Scientists involved in the IPCC hope that the newest report will counteract that history of apathetic fatalism, urging that the present risk should merit the global, united response it will take to scale back potential disaster. "It's a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now," affirmed Dr. Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC's working group on climate impacts. "This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilizes people and dents the mood of complacency."


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


ENVIRONMENT

Does 'Going Green' Really Help the Environment?

Is there truth behind going green and can it really help save the planet?

So many campaigns want you to recycle, avoid creating trash and reduce your carbon footprint. There are many, many tips online to living a green lifestyle. And many people are attempting to reduce waste and conserve energy — but is this enough to really make an impact?

Sure, if every single person (or at least most people) in developed societies lived an eco-friendly lifestyle, there would be a significant impact on the environment. But right now, about 75 percent of Americans don't do more than turn off the lights and recycle even though about 79% consider themselves environmentally conscious.

...fossil fuels are intertwined with pretty much everything we do.

If you live in an urban area, it might be a little easier to make more green lifestyle choices. Your city probably has the ability to recycle more than in other areas. You have access to public transportation and many more options when it comes time to shop or get groceries. These options just aren't as widely available in suburban and rural areas. Some municipalities don't even have any kind of recycling plant. Everything (including plastic, paper, bottles and cans) goes to the dump. Beside the fact that going through the effort to change your lifestyle to become more green takes time and money that some just can't spare.

But let's take a step back. Even if a lot of people do everything right and live an incredibly environmentally conscious lifestyle, nothing will really change. Why? Because fossil fuels are intertwined with pretty much everything we do. The solution to global warming isn't rooted in going paperless (using paper is more eco-friendly than smartphones anyway). The solution is in fundamentally changing the very fabric of our economy. That's not something individuals can do on their own.

Almost everything you buy and consume has to be transported to the store (for you to purchase. Within the country, this is done with trucks. Overseas, it's usually done with ships or planes. Every single one of those vehicles burns some type of fossil fuels to get going. You probably burn them when you're going to the store too. (You can't really get around this by ordering online either.)

In the end, using an electric car can actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than your average gas-powered car.

Electric cars are often seen as a solution for this. It's better to use electricity than gas, right? Definitely — if most of the power didn't come from burning fossil fuels. America's power grid is powered by about 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, 20 percent nuclear power and about 10 percent renewable sources (mostly hydroelectricity). If you own or are considering an electric car, you would most likely still be burning fossil fuels. And that's not even taking into account everything that goes into making a new car. Just like a regular car electric vehicles require precious metals and minerals to be manufactured. What's more is all of the materials and parts are transported using fossil fuels as well as the final product itself. In the end, using an electric car can actually put more carbon in the atmosphere than your average gas-powered car.

Just about every facet of our modern economy depends on burning fossil fuels. That isn't something one person can change. To really live a sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle, we need to change everything about how we live. That just isn't an easy process.

Of course, it still helps to reduce, reuse and recycle — but that only makes a relatively small impact compared to the overall economy. But it isn't all doom and gloom. The Paris Agreement was an encouraging step toward reducing carbon emissions around the world. If you really care about reducing your carbon footprint, the best solution is to organize and lobby companies and the government to change procedures and regulations. Ultimately, individuals independently choosing to live a greener lifestyle only makes a small impact in reducing our global carbon footprint.

ENVIRONMENT

What happens when the earth's water well runs dry?

We may forget that water is not an infinite source on the planet so what happens when we run out?

While seventy percent of the Earth is covered in water, only about two percent of it is drinkable. On top of this, most freshwater is inaccessible, either frozen in glacial ice or buried deep beneath the Earth's surface. According to several sources, there are currently one billion people in developing nations who lack access to clean drinking water and by 2025, up to two thirds of the world's population could living under water stressed conditions. When looking at the increasing scarcity of usable water, rising populations, and today's volatile political climate,many experts have come to the conclusion that we are on the verge of widespread conflict and many are saying that the next major war will be fought over water.

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