Growing up in Alaska, the wild space around me was something invisible. I had no awareness that the world was something other than myself. My friends and I perambulated the wilderness with the careless disregard of youth, clambering to the peaks of 100-foot-high pine trees and swinging from the soft tops on dares.
There was a tree fort out in the woods that was 25 feet in the air — not even halfway up the tree. The way up was almost entirely crumbling chunks of boards nailed erratically into the trunk to form rungs. At the top, one had to stretch out and grab the floor of the fort and sort of clamber up over the lip of the platform. Conveniently, the platform was disintegrating, so the edge was rougher and shallower than it once had been, making it less a switchback climbing maneuver to swing to the platform than a lean of faith. I wonder if the kids who live in those houses now even know it’s there — some aeriform retreat hovering above the houses like a mossy cloud.
I used to love reading that story, The Giving Tree, to my kids. But lately I think about the story less as a tale of selfless love and altruism, and more as a metaphor for the hubris of humanity. How arrogant to assume dominion over the trees. I imagine a story in which no one ever fells the tree. One in which the kids are too old to climb, so the tree slowly carries their youth to heaven, one coccoony green bud at a time, as the old kids gaze longingly at the bottom step, that alluring and impossible 2×4 rung. I’ll bet the world is speckled by lost tree forts. When I think about it, we’re the stumps in the story — far more ephemeral. Even our houses outlive us. We’ve framed the conversation all wrong: we don’t need to save the trees. We need them to save us.
I remember my father, then a district ranger for the Forest Service, telling me about fire jumpers in California dying from inhaling superheated air. They’d arrive at the first-aid tent, walking and talking, and suddenly get desperately thirsty. Then they’d gulp water as fast as they could and drown — their lungs burned beyond repair. There was nothing anyone could do; they were dead when they arrived at the first-aid tents. It’s haunting, the idea of those exhausted, sooty faces, and the staggering impossibility of being simultaneously dead and alive.
I think about this a lot.
I participate less and less on social media in discussion about climate change, because I can no more convince someone of climate change’s very real and immediate threat to humanity than I can be converted to scientology. And even if someone believes Earth is changing, most distressingly, I can’t convince them to care about it.
I’m tired of saying that phrase, actually: climate change. It’s a terrible misnomer, really. Like me saying, “pulse reduction” rather than “death.” I know we’re in an era of fear-induced delusionality, where we are all long-term despair-management consultants rather than depressed people discussing 20 percent carbon emission reductions as though that was a radical and revolutionary idea. It’s hilariously inadequate — a glass of ice thrown at a house on fire. What silliness. We’re not talking about stopping climate change anymore. We’re talking about what — whom — will live. Right now, proceeding at our current emissions rate, the answer does not include us.
Let me clarify my motivations, since they are now suspect: I’m not writing about this to convince you. I’m writing this because I need to say it out loud. I don’t care which political party champions climate protections any more than I would inquire into the political affiliation of the doctor saving my daughter’s life. And let’s just be candid: we made all that shit up anyway. There is no durable or discrete character to one political party or another. Ask any Hamiltonian Federalist or the pro-slavery Democratic party. You’re not a good or bad person because of your political affiliation any more than you are a good or bad person because your name is Dave. You’re a good or bad person by turns, just like the rest of us fuckers. We’re all hypocrites, we’re all geniuses and idiots, depending on the subject and circumstances, and we all have our reasons. I can’t believe I need to explain this, but if your political affiliation includes racism, sexism, or any other ignorance rooted in hatred and fear-and-contempt based thinking, then you are espousing racism, sexism, and any other ignorance rooted in hatred and fear-and-contempt based thinking. In the words of 1990s weirdo band They Might Be Giants, “you can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.” What I’m getting at here is that climate change is not a political issue. You can care about it whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, or basement-dwelling conspiracy theorist.
Who believes what about abortion, taxes, or God changes none of the truth about what’s happening to our planet. That part is a scientific fact. It’s tangible, measurable, predictable, and unaffected by opinion. It will happen to you whether you’re a good person or not, just like death, gravity, and entropy.
Sometimes, when I don’t think about my children (and certainly not theirs), this seems okay with me. We have been caroming toward human apocalypse for a long time — arguably even before Thomas Malthus set his demographer’s pen to writing his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in which he neatly calculated the point at which humanity would overwhelm the earth’s resource potential to support human life. So, not the Earth’s resource potential, period, but the Earth’s resource potential to keep you and me in soybeans and oxygen. That last bit is critical to understanding this conversation, since an inadequate number of humans care enough about the Earth itself to shoulder the climate change grindstone. We’re not talking about destroying the Earth. We’re talking about making the Earth a place incompatible with human life.
There are a number of dire contemporary human problems, all of which are relevant to every single modern political debate occupying our many screens at the moment. My goal, in writing this, is to explain how they are connected, how they cause and compound each other, and how, critically, how they share two common solutions.
Migration, that glorious modern political dog whistle, isn’t as simple as it seems. The obvious stuff is true: most people migrate to richer countries to make money or go to school. The overwhelming majority of migrants come from India and go to the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and the United States. Indians (people from India) in the United States are a very distinct group of people. Among racial and ethnic groups in the United States, Indian-Americans are among the highest educated and have the highest income. Mexico is the second-largest source of migration around the world, and the United States is the primary destination, as well. The much-maligned Mexican migrant population is vital to the U.S. economy, and is responsible for starting far more entrepreneurial endeavors than non-migrant citizens. Also, the U.S. Mexican migrant population has a lower age demographic than the rest of the U.S. population, which means the U.S. economy will benefit from these folks’ efforts for decades to come.
Again, Mexicans are coming mostly for work, leaving their families, their lives, and their culture behind to make a future for themselves and their families. It’s not an ugly motive. One might argue that it’s sort of what the colonized United States advertised: a nation of equals in which people (not kings or queens) are sovereign, which rejected any aristocracy, abhorred and condemned corruption, demanded civic participation, and invited contribution at any and every level from anyone who wanted to join the republic.
All of this is interesting, the way any hypocrisy is interesting, but more importantly, demonstrates the fucking arbitrariness of fear and hatred.
I want to know — seriously — what is wrong with migration? What, exactly, is the problem with people moving to America, becoming Americans, and living their lives as tax-paying citizens? I’m familiar with the headlines promulgated by corporations that benefit from the division of America and radicalization of wackos and zealots (who are actually the miniscule minority of humans in the United States): Migrants characterized as singular in their usurpation of American jobs and their burden on our welfare system and economy. (Let’s not spend any time with the very simple logic argument of how someone who becomes an American citizen can be stealing American jobs.) I’m going to let you fret about the hairy details — the conflicts in data and ambiguity of some terms — and just leap to the end: these accusations are wrong. Not just mischaracterizations, but dramatically inaccurate. Immigration has an overall positive effect on long-term economic growth in the United States. It’s not speculation. It’s careful analysis of longitudinal data, compiled by financial experts and available in a myriad of charts with labels and arrows, and a paragraph under the bottom of each one explaining what they mean.
Really, I’m only bringing that up so I can ask the next question, unfettered: Does being American mean I have intrinsically more value than if I’d been born in Mexico, India, or Syria? Why? Why is anyone responsible for the provenance of their birth?
Does the conversation change materially if the people migrating are not coming to America for money, but are coming because their towns no longer have water?
We’ll know soon. This is primarily a financial problem at present, but it’s about to become a climate problem. By even conservative estimates, we’re less than ten years away from this eventuality. Cape Town, Mexico City, Cairo, Tokyo, Jakarta, São Paulo, Beijing, Bangalore, Melbourne, and London are all in immediate danger of running out of water adequate for their current populations. More concerning, estimates for both water collection and usage are always based on the past — a past that featured predictable weather patterns and population growth. Both have become unknown quantities. A rapidly warming climate means sinking cities, rising sea levels infiltrating freshwater aquifers with seawater and widespread drought. And population growth by birth might remain predictable, but population changes as a result of climate change are not predictable: What happens when water runs out in, say, Jakarta, a city of nearly 11 million people? What about Mexico City, with nearly 21 million people? What will happen if both places run out in the same five-year period? Keep in mind that resource constriction causes migration, too: the water doesn’t need to be gone, necessarily. Just going. Where will all of those people go?
A sincere question to the anti-immigration and anti-choice folks reading this: do those lives matter? If not, why not?
I bring up the topic of acceptable deaths for two reasons: one, I’m genuinely curious how to justify standing by and watching millions of people die because they were born in the wrong part of the world. Two, resource scarcity foments violent conflict. We already know that conflict increases migration, which puts population pressure on any area migrants are able to settle. But a changing planet, in which basic resources like water are becoming increasingly limited, seems likely to dramatically increase violent conflict. There’s no solid means of predicting this increase, since the climate change we’re facing is unprecedented. But we do know that extreme weather caused by climate change and the subsequent disasters caused by storms, landslides, etc., can damage infrastructure like city water delivery systems, hospitals, power grids, and other essential services.
This catastrophically damages economies.
It makes sense. If living in an area is impossible because the water and power have been destroyed by storms, and transportation of goods and services from one area to another is disrupted further by destroyed infrastructure as well as a suddenly displaced population, trade and labor are also disrupted. This ultimately devalues farming and livestock production, which intensifies inequality between social groups.
All of these factors increase violent conflict. Whether or not you personally find violent conflict abhorrent enough reason by itself to necessitate intervention, the steady supply of (suspiciously affordable) goods and services we’ve come to rely upon will eventually also be interrupted. And ultimately, when violent conflict reaches a critical point, the people most affected will flee to safer locations. Whether those locations are in the United States or not, this problem will affect us: we are a global economic community and will feel that shift, irrespective of where it happens. So, it’s important to be candid about what we’re discussing here. It’s a grander version of the trolley problem, that ethics thought experiment in which a subject has the fictional choice to save five people in danger of being hit by a trolley by redirecting the trolley to kill just one person. The term is often used in ethics in which any choice forces a trade-off between what is ideal and what sacrifices are acceptable when no ideal solution is available. It’s acutely relevant, in the world right now.
Right now we’re letting the trolley carome into millions of people because politically we’re having a moment of American exceptionalism and nationalism — a sort of collective, delusional anxiety attack — and we think we’re the bystander, and the people in the trolley’s path are less exceptional than us. Or, that it’s their responsibility to handle their own trolley problem. The truth is that neither thing is true or relevant. It’s naiveté (or downright fantasy) to believe a trolley propelled by global climate change and global population change will not have global consequences. We may be able to influence the path of the trolley, as the richest nation on Earth, but we will not escape its path if we do nothing. If this isn’t a moral imperative, it’s certainly a logistical one. As exceptional as we might believe ourselves to be, we are, at least for now, confined to the same globe as every other human.
Our current administration, and many around the world, share a nationalistic wet dream of some insular utopia in which we go back to a world that never existed, where boys will be boys and we’re all growing corn in our yards and teaching our kindergarteners cursive and respect while Daddy works at the shoe store for a living wage. They want our global society to be firmly drawn and siloed into discrete, isolated sovereign states. Perhaps this is possible for the human beings within the borders: those giant organisms with bodies that can be kept in or out with walls. But as we’ve seen very recently, teeny tiny organisms — such as viruses — don’t give a flaming shit about our borders.
Coronavirus has all but halted the world, shutting down economies and killing more than one million people. In the United States alone, more than 1,000 people a day are dying of the disease. And here’s the thing, although COVID-19 is certainly not comparable to influenza, as Donald Trump, the inexplicable and morally bankrupt current leader of the free world has purported, it also isn’t fucking ebola. Can you imagine what will happen if Donald Trump is given another four years to grab the world by the pussy, and ebola arrives in Donald Trump’s America? Because the same people who want you to return to an America they saw one time on a 1950s sitcom also want the money they get from international brinksmanship. That kind of money — Mars-colonizing money — comes from corporate behavior that has no respect for or interest in borders, except for the ways they might confer tax and production cost advantage. These deals require people and goods to travel. Our society is grown into the fabric of the world, whether we are busy hating the people elsewhere in it or not.
Disease finds such things as race, country of origin, or religion irrelevant to infection. Infection is based instead on exposure. We are, at this very moment, watching a live action model of exactly this phenomenon develop and mature, and the data is compelling. Stopping disease in a global society is a very tough battle to win, even if you don’t have a sentient ham sandwich running your country. Worsening this particular unfortunate circumstance is the fact that when major storms wipe out infrastructure like water and power, they also wipe out hospitals. At the same time, they simultaneously create an ideal environment for the spread of disease. Usually, it’s old-timey stuff we only hear about on the history channel: cholera, dysentery, dengue, malaria, hepatitis, and so on. But it can be anything, and as population concentration increases, more people are displaced, and more extreme storms/weather events occur in more widespread locations, we are increasingly likely to face new and more worrisome foes. And as we’ve seen with coronavirus, some diseases hide in plain sight, allowing their transmission vector to promulgate exponentially before a carrier even shows symptoms. That trolley seems a much more immediate and personal problem when viewed in this context.
Finally, poverty is a force magnifier for all of the problems we’re discussing. It’s what drives the economic insecurity that compels someone to leave their country of origin, their ancestry, language, family and culture, to go work in another country. This phenomenon is so well-established and documented that remittances, i.e., money sent to the countries of origin of international migrants from their work in their new countries of residence/citizenship, are significant line items on annual calculations of gross domestic product.
Poverty makes infrastructure vulnerable, since poorer nations tend to have scantier or less modern infrastructure, such as aging or antiquated powerlines, water and sewer systems, and roads. This outworn infrastructure plus poverty also makes it harder for vulnerable communities to rebuild when infrastructure is damaged or destroyed due to storms or extreme weather events. It makes it harder to address or contain disease outbreaks, because staff and supplies are often unavailable, and facilities are limited if they exist at all. Poverty, like all social inequality, also makes it more likely for violent conflict to erupt.
When I look around the world, I think about those firefighters, guzzling water in the first-aid tents. In the United States we’re talking about these problems — climate change, migration, water shortages, disease, violent conflict and poverty — like they are future problems we can avoid. We don’t feel them the way folks in Cape Town or Syria do. That softening of reality makes it seem as though we have time. It makes us feel comfortable with our angsty discussions of 20 percent carbon emission reductions, or slightly tightening the pollution prohibitions imposed upon new mining projects, or the merits of a cleaner coal plant. We debate the moral rectitude of building a wall to stop migration, and deride poorer nations for their response to everything from landslides to a particularly slick virus. We throw blame and cast aspersions with the same firmness, resolve, and shortsightedness that one might dig shallow graves on a battlefield.
Meantime, the Venn diagram of the greatest problems the world is facing has two enormous areas of overlap: poverty and climate change. When you think about it this way, addressing international poverty isn’t primarily altruism, and addressing climate change isn’t green-hearted liberal tree-hugging: it’s a multi-pronged approach to stabilizing forced migration and controlling population growth, preventing and controlling the spread of disease, and preventing or ending violent conflict. Dropping boxes of tampons and rice, or building a Coca-Cola or Nike factory don’t count: those things are half-measures at best, and regressive at worst. Addressing poverty in a real and lasting way requires much bigger thinking, and that thinking must simultaneously include climate change. The same goes for climate change: addressing it alone is inadequate, since many major contributors to climate change are born from the necessity imposed by poverty.
I know it’s customary to end these sorts of discussions by saying that I don’t claim to have any answers. But the truth is many people, smarter than me, have devised a veritable catalog of incredible ways to arrest climate change, address poverty, and redress the damage to people and planet that both have inflicted.
We are too late to stop the water shortages that earth-heating trapped gasses have already started. But we can build desalination plants and smaller-scale water treatment facilities in the areas in which they’ll have the most effect: those regions most likely to develop political instability and violent conflict. We can change international loans to offer better interest rates or even loan forgiveness for any projects that measurably improve the prosperity of the region in which the project is built, measurably affect the gross national product and gross domestic product, reduce carbon emissions, displace environmentally detrimental businesses or practices, or replace faulty or antiquated infrastructure. We can offer equity stakes in the businesses receiving these loans to the people in the communities in which the businesses are located, or, at minimum, pay a comfortable living wage. We can offer international incentive to countries advancing plans, business, or technology significantly affecting their continent in similar ways: positively affecting the prosperity, GDP/GNP, carbon reduction, or infrastructure of their incumbent continent. Last, we can rejoin the United Nations in a meaningful way, collaborating with our global neighbors to fight our common foes with the combined intellect and resources of 193 nations.
We get overwhelmed by the diversity of our troubles, wound up in the capriciousness of each particular conflict’s origin, the ephemerality of different governments or leaders, and are devoted to parsimony in assistance and excess in profit. We tarry in legal precedents, international taxes, and somehow forget that these lines are arbitrary, and will not protect us from sharing a planet with the troubles plaguing the planet. The discrete, non-traversable boundary we are craving is between us and space, but does not and cannot exist on a shared Earth. The United States is by far the country with the most available resources to address international poverty and climate change. This wealth has been cited again and again as forming a moral imperative: the country with the most has an obligation to act to help those with the least. But despite the very strong declarations and performative Christianity of the gaggle of Horcruxes running our country, this is not an interesting or compelling reason for the United States to intervene. (Which Jesus, exactly, are they so devoted to? Because the one I know about is super into loving your neighbor. It’s like, his main thing.) It doesn’t have to be a moral imperative. Because primarily — essentially — addressing these issues is wildly pragmatic. There is no faster or more efficient way to get what we want. The Earth doesn’t need us to save it. It will survive our folly. We need a healthy Earth to save ourselves.
The one resource at our disposal that is infinitely renewable and replenishable is money. We don’t even need to throw it around like Scrooge on Christmas morning — we can invest it and expect returns, like those of Dr. Mohammed Yunus’ microloan program, or the revolutionary water efforts funded by Imagine H20 (82 percent of those ventures are profitable — and that is an amazing statistic by any business standard). We can formulate a package of offerings based around the significant similarities in each primary target region, and make our investments based on the caliber of returns — both financial returns and global prosperity. We can and should quantify the cost to our environment of the existing businesses we rely upon for revenue, and reassess their profitability. We should create a carbon-credit and carbon-offset economy in which we heavily motivate a race to the bottom, paying commensurately for each kilowatt we don’t generate or use, currently a three-to-one cost difference in favor of conservation. We should widely distribute scalable co-generation technologies, and allow the communities in which they’re deployed to profit as cooperative shareholders. All of these efforts will pay us in dollars, peace, human lives, and time on this planet.
Back to that careening trolley. The answer to the trolley dilemma, I believe, is the moral of the corporate personhood fable. Who do we shove in front of the speeding trolley to avert its path from crashing into millions of people? I suggest we shove the corporate person: Money. We push money in front of the train. Let it do some good for us, for all the many bloody sacrifices we’ve made for it.
I think I had it right when I was a kid. The Earth is not something other than me, in the ways I’ve since been taught to view it: A set for my antics, an inventory of supplies for me to use, a place that exists to support my life. I’m no different from a tree in the ground, an insect in the soil, a cloud in the sky, as far as the Earth is concerned. I’d like sometimes — especially right now — to create a more definite boundary between myself and the wildest wilderness, myself and the people with whom I most painfully disagree, between myself and death and disease. But it’s illusory to think there is any real or meaningful distinction to be made. We share more space than we don’t, whether we like it or not. When I am my most disheartened, feeling the most overwhelmed by the antipathetic, belligerent, and pugilistic timbre of political discourse and the direness of our global situation, I’m comforted by those abandoned treehouses.
Over the course of the 300,000 years of human evolution, imagine how many of those treehouses our ancestors built and abandoned. They must be all over the world, tucked into the rangy, greenest heights like nests. Mossy and forgotten, fragile memorials to the giggling, squirming wildlings, hearts pounding with excitement and joy, climbing higher and higher into the trees. The trees, reaching effortlessly into the clouds over ten of my lifetimes, like the living arms of the sky.
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