Talking about the future

SUBHEAD: How to talk about the likely death of billions of people without freaking people out.

By SanJoseMike on 11 September 2013 for Nature Bats Last -

Image above: Adults talking to youth about future sustainability. From (

Talking about climate related deaths in the billions is not an everyday conversation. I thought I would share with you some successes I have had, and some occasions where I have no idea how to proceed. I am sure someone reading this will have some insight. Here are the three situations I face:

Teacher/student. I teach SAT biology and AP biology and AP environmental science. At the SAT level, the coverage of global warming on the test is very minimal, just how does the process work, and a brief (and very understated) list of consequences. I always go ‘beyond the book” in every class I teach, so I expand on the theme of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and droughts/floods.

Several times I have gotten the question, “How bad will it get?”

I use the example of carrying capacity, and explain how populations that exceed the carrying capacity always crash, and then briefly mention that we (humans) have far exceeded the carrying capacity, and human population will crash to a much smaller number. This seems to work well for high school students with some basic knowledge of ecology. I can tell by looking at the faces that most “get” it, intellectually, but not at the gut level.

A few clearly think I am delusional, and maybe one or two in each class seem to begin the process of really internalizing it. I haven’t yet had any bad reactions from parents. It seems that since this is a logical extension of the “official” lesson, it doesn’t come off as trying to “indoctrinate” the students.

My daughter and 3 grand children. Here, I really feel at a loss as to where to go. My daughter is 38, the two girls are 15 and 17, the grandson is 5. My daughter knows the basics of global warming, but is at the stage of “we can come together as a species and pull through.” Part of me wants to show her the mounting evidence that society will move backwards, and rapidly, as billions die. I want to treat her as an intelligent adult who should know the facts…but I can’t.

 Perhaps I feel that if I lead her to a deeper knowledge, then I am responsible for the stages of Denial, Anger, Grief, and possibly Acceptance. It’s one thing to stand outside and say, this is what a mature adult should do.

But, how do I tell my own daughter that her children will face a world growing more and more hostile to life every year? How does that knowledge change the way she raises her kids, my grandkids? My current thinking is, to very gradually bring up the results of scientific studies, step by small step, and see how she integrates the information.

Not talking about the imminent chaos is like pretending it isn’t real, and I have always been poor at pretending. No option here seems good. I am sure some of you have been in this situation; What did you do? And, what were the results?

Adult friends with families. I have two people in particular that I am thinking about. Both are seriously religious (I am an atheist), both have made enormous personal sacrifices to help family members who had absolutely no one else to turn to. Both have so much else on their plates that keeping up with climate change studies is impossible.

My thought here is, when the topic of global warming comes up, just to say something true, but not even coming close to the full depth of the problem. These good, moral people are stretched to the limit as is, and I don’t see that trying to confront the full reality of what we face is even possible for them.

There is a common thread to these situations. I have accepted, fully and deeply, the reality of my own death for many decades. I can imagine without rancor a world without me, because I always said to myself, “Life will go on. Humans will go on. When I die, it leaves a spot so someone else can live, and grow, and flourish.”

In other words, one can make a meaningful life by being part of a larger whole … humankind as a species, or even life in general. Now that we know that humanity is going down (how far down is still unsure), and taking much of the natural world down as well, what do you look to in order to make life worth the effort? One reason I am reluctant to talk about the impending collapse is that people will ask me that same question: What do I do now? How do I go on? I don’t have a real answer.

You probably noticed this is my first posting here at Nature Bats Last. I’ve previously neither written an essay nor posted a comment.

• SanJoseMike is a 61-year-old, self-employed tutor/teacher of biology, chemistry, and environmental science, at the high school and early college levels (SAT, AP, and higher). He is actively involved with working against the Keystone pipeline. He has decided that, even though a major eco crash is unavoidable, he still has a moral obligation to do all he can to work against it.

Comment by Gail on original site of article above

Mike, you have articulated some of the really hard questions that are hard precisely because there isn’t any good answer to them. I understand the same challenge that you describe, how to make life meaningful when confronting the fact that we have most likely lost what used to make it worthwhile – continuity.

I guess it is the same acceptance of individual death that is so difficult, made indescribably larger because it’s the (likely or at least possible) death of our species. It’s even more soul-crushing for me because I see not just the death of our species but most everything else on earth, starting with the trees, no matter how soon industrial civilization shudders to a convulsive halt.

I suppose I am at the point where I try to cherish every moment and let go of notions of the future. I try not to worry too much about what will happen to my children – there’s never been any guarantee of a peaceful painless death in old age, anyway, and they’ve had extraordinarily nice lives, for the most part, so far. And I try to respect everyone’s choices, even those in denial, since it really doesn’t do any good to resist, and even those who make futile gestures. Hey, I signed up for the Sept. 21 KXL pipeline protest, because even though I think it’s a failed strategy, it’s the only game in town making any noise – and I’m already on the FEMA list, so why not.

I also think that deeply buried in our avoidance is the underlying certitude that only perpetual growth and a large substrate of impoverished slaves makes modern life possible, and without those clearly unjust and unsustainable conditions, no human population no matter how small can exist indefinitely at anywhere near the standards enjoyed in the developed world today. We might in theory walk away from creature comforts like central heating and fast transport and out-of-season foods, but virtually nobody actually does.

I happened upon an interview this morning with a woman who has been living in the wild who I admire for two reasons:
  1. She goes so much further than lip-service and nominal gestures; and
  2. Although she chooses to live by and teach survival skills, she fully understands it isn’t remotely possible for anyone (even her) to live full-time without industrial civilization any more, at least, not in North America…so she offers no false hope.

As far as informing children/friends/family, I have had mixed results trying to do so. At this point I think it’s a good idea to drop a few hints, enough so that your child/friend/family member understands that you could be a source of information/commiseration if at some point they decide on their own they want to talk to you overshoot, they will. But trying to educate them when they are resistant tends to backfire, in my experience.

1 comment :

  1. Clay was staggered by the terrible reality as he looked at the sprawling desolation. In the near distance he saw broken skyscrapers stabbing the sky. He’d thought the Bay Area had been awful but this was far worse. Clay saw no plants anywhere. He could see no signs of life. Under the burning sun nothing moved except the blowing sand and dust.
    The airship had come in off the ocean flying over the hills north of the downtown. They had landed in what used to be Griffith Park, next to a giant storage yard overflowing with building materials. Clay helped load wood pulled from the rubble of the valley below. He couldn’t imagine how the folks who’d collected all this had been able to function in the heat. Clay could feel the hot ground through the soles of his shoes. As they filled the zepp with various things, everyone was dripping with sweat. They had to stop frequently to rehydrate.
    During a break, Clay went to look out at the city from the top of the ridge. He had read how, during the rare storms here, the rain would form raging rivers tearing to the sea. With no plants, there was nothing to restrain the water and keep it from chewing the earth away. Looking down at the ruins, Clay saw several giant ravines gouged out by these flash floods. Below him a massive freeway bridge had tilted over into one of these huge arroyos.
    Clay thought about how everything the climate scientists had predicted lay spread out before him. The consequences of too often doing worse than the worst-case scenario was clear. California had been a garden once and now look at what it had become. Clay felt sad. So much destroyed. So much lost.

    p.308 The Arkadian Way