The Stranglehold of Grace

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully —Samuel Johnson

Let’s hope to god that Johnson was onto something.

PreambleIt would be a mistake to expect the world’s elite to lead the way on climate change, on the Climate Crisis. The world’s elite has had three decades and twenty-eight carbon-intensive COP meetings to get their act together; and yet greenhouse gas concentrations – this being the only measure that really matters anymore – continue to rise to this day, indeed faster than ever. Progress has been made, yes, but the amount of global heating now baked in is greater than it has ever been.

Nor should we necessarily take at face value everything we read or hear in the media. Yes, it’s surely the case, as often reported, that the “public” has little appetite for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that come at economic cost; who could doubt that this is true. Yet the fact remains that not all members of the public have an equal stake in the future. Isn’t it a bit unfair that young people, who have more at stake than anyone else, shouldn’t have a corresponding say in decisions today that will impact them tomorrow?

That they don’t, and won’t, means again, that it’s up to all of us as individuals take the lead. Unless of course we as individual really don’t care, which is of course another matter.

But what kind of lead ought we as individuals to take? Obviously that depends on what kind of future we think awaits us – an area of inquiry that even the pundits have lately begun to shy away from. And yet surely the general shape of the future is obvious enough, how it stretches there before us like a long tunnel narrowing to some kind of event horizon before which words fail and the imagination falters.

Except that’s really not the shape of the future at all. Read on.

First Approximation

For Aria

I’m really not sure why I remember it; it wasn’t even very funny. But there it is, lodged like a mote in my mind’s eye – that syndicated newspaper comic strip of four, maybe five decades ago, Archie maybe, still sitting there to this day in random access.

There’s a school bus. It’s parked at roadside by the entrance to a drive-thru tunnel. The bus driver is standing outside the bus, his right arm akimbo, his left hand scratching his head. Well I can get her in there alright, he says, but danged if she’ll make it through that mousehole at the other end. Something like that.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Climate Crisis is a bit like that. In this one self-fulfilling-prophetic sense I mean: that how it looks to you – existential or otherwise – depends very much on how you look at it.

If you look at the Climate Crisis through the lens of the latest climate studies and disaster reports flashing across your screens most days, then the Climate Crisis will probably look a lot like that tunnel, the one with the bus parked outside – the Tunnel of Despair I call it. There’s simply no getting through and that’s that. Despair, as I say.

But if on the other hand you ask your mind’s eye to float above the Climate Crisis looking down, what comes into focus now is something very different. It’s this something very different that I want to briefly talk about here. The Stranglehold of Grace I call it – the place where hope, even if only dark hope, has taken up residence in these latter days.

For let’s be very clear. The world can no longer be saved in the sense of somehow being returned to what it was in the Time Before; that ship sailed maybe thirty years ago and there’s nothing left to be done about it except wave goodbye. Like it or lump it.

But what can be done is to come to terms with the new exigencies now shaping themselves about us in these Pandoracenean times – to learn to see them for what they really are: an invitation to reinvent ourselves as Earthlings, that is, as citizens of, rather than antagonists to, the Living World That Sustains Us.

For unless I’m very much mistaken, Aria, it’s precisely this coming to terms, this quest for belonging, this seeking after meaning in their lives that your generation is now being called to – urgently, unceasingly, inexorably called to, as though your very lives depend on it.

The Climate Crisis, of course, is only just getting started. As it revs up, as invariably it will, it will squeeze and squeeze us all like a hangman’s noose tightening around our collective necks. Many will die, many are dying already, in this time of tightening noose. For this is what things must come to when decision makers, or some of them, mistake the Pandoracene now closing around us for the Time Before now gone for good.

And yet, and yet there will Inevitably come a day, probably not too far off, when the pain of personal, social, economic and geopolitical wreckage finally overwhelms the opposing forces of corporate self-interest and (let’s face it) slack-jawed disinterest. On this day, just you wait and see, there will be heard throughout the world a roar of pain and grief and rage like the world has never heard before, not in a very long time at any rate. Perhaps not since the day the asteroid hit and wiped out the dinosaurs.

On this blessed day, Aria, the Stranglehold of Grace will cease tightening and begin at last to release its death hold; for on this day of pain and grief and rage, the world’s elite, fearing for their very lives, will begin to absorb the wisdom of the young, stop bickering like spoiled children, and at last take heed of the message the Living World has been screaming out for decades; finally on this day, they’ll get with the Pandoracenean programme.

Shortly thereafter, a Climate Crisis Marshall Plan will materialize, as out of nowhere, like a rabbit pulled from a hat – at terrible cost no doubt for having been left so late in the game, but what can you do. Still, and before too long, global greenhouse gas emissions will start to decline and, about a decade later, maybe somewhat more, the global climate will began to stabilize and the future once again begin to beckon. And awaiting us there, with arms wide open, will be a new world dawning.

How could it be otherwise? The Climate Crisis is no fad, here today gone tomorrow, like some Hollywood heart throb or new brand of breakfast cereal. The Climate Crisis is here to stay – which is really, when you think of it, only a darker way of saying that the Stranglehold of Grace is on its way.

So you see, Aria, it simply won’t do to lapse into terminal despair. First, because that’s not what the Climate Crisis is about. What the Climate Crisis is about is learning to love and to care about the Living World itself. And second, because nobody ever build a future for those who come after by lapsing into despair.

I began with a story, so I’ll end with a story too. This one’s about three bricklayers laying brick in an empty lot. Asked what they were about, the first one said Laying bricks, the second said Making a wall, and the third said, Building a place of worship.

To build a place of worship is exactly what it means to learn to love the Living World.

Blue Marble