Will we survive the Anthropocene? If we do, what comes next? At Firebird Journal, we explore these questions.
UPDATE: This founding article on the issues explored at Firebird Journal was published in April, 2017, before Greta Thunberg’s first, solitary school strike in Stockholm (September, 2018) and the subsequent eruption of today’s youth climate movement. It was also before the UN COP26 climate summit (November, 2021) where it became clear that the world would not stay within its Remaining Carbon Budget, the total amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere by around 2030 to keep us from blowing past the Paris Agreement’s “aspirational” warming target of 1.5ºC , and likely on to a disastrous 2.0º by 2040-50.
After COP26 made it clear that our current generation of political and business “leaders” would not come close to meeting the challenges of the climate crisis, I realized that the burden of saving civilization and the planet will fall on today’s younger generation, who I have dubbed “Gen-R,” meaning the generation tasked with R-eviving and R-estoring our ailing planet. Thus this first Firebird’s Missssion article should be read with the understanding that, while the publication’s original questions are more valid than ever — and while we should all work toward heading off climate change and restoring the biosphere — it is Gen-R that will engage in that ultimate struggle — for better or worse.
Following this Firebird Question article is an update, originally sent to a personal email list, that explains how I came to my conclusion that the task of saving the planet would fall on Gen-R’ shoulders.
GEN-R and the FIREBIRD QUESTION (founding article for the blog, April, 2017)
One of the many names I considered for this blog, before settling on FIREBIRD JOURNAL: Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene was The Planet and the Future. Thus, the general topic explored here is whether the human race can survive what it’s doing to the planet and/or to itself (by proliferating weapons of mass destruction), and what principles and practices are needed to create a peaceful, sustainable, global society… either before of after an “apocalypse.”
Along with many other observers, I believe we have entered an epoch in the earth’s history best described as the “Anthropocene” — a geologic period when human activity is
reshaping the planet. Humans are rapidly changing (1) the global climate, (2) the nature
of the oceans including their chemical composition, their size (by melting landlocked ice masses and thermal expansion) and the geography of their shorelines, and, (3) significant aspects of the terrestrial ecosystem through deforestation, desertification and the elimination of biodiversity.
Most observers agree that these changes are not positive, either for the health of the biosphere or for the continuity of human progress. We are, in fact, entering an era of “climate chaos” in which superstorms, region-wide droughts (sudden-onset and long term), unsurpassed flooding, sea level rise and other manifestations of climate change will continually and unpredictably disrupt human economies and societies, as well as raise havoc with biospheric systems that underpin and support human civilization.
The connections between climate change, economic hardship and conflict are already manifesting. The degradation of the biosphere from global warming, deforestation, despeciation and pollution — all interconnected — has begun to drive economic and political crises that can devolve into regional or even global conflicts with the potential to escalate beyond “conventional weapons” warfare. The ongoing Syrian civil war is an example of the interaction between climate-change-induced drought, the collapse of an agricultural system and the exacerbation of tensions that ultimately lead to armed conflict.
Similarly, drought and resource depletion in much of East Africa and the Sahel underlies both regional conflicts and mass migration toward Europe — which in turn sparks reaction in host countries that can destabilize economic and political systems. Also, conflicts are likely to erupt at the extensive border of India and Bangladesh, where Bangladeshi climate migrants try to escape into India to flee flooding caused by sea level rise and supercharged monsoons. North America, too, is no longer immune to the effects of climate change: up to 250,000 Puerto Rican islanders are expect to migrate to the mainland in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Many of them, although formerly employed, now have no means of employment, either on the island or the mainland, and will have to rely on already-overburdened social services networks. As these crises worsen, similar situations are developing in other regions and, ultimately, will develop in all parts of the world.
Where are these trends leading us? How fast will “things fall apart” as climate chaos worsens and accelerates? Are there policies and practices can we adopt to direct or slow the process of devolution? What will the world look like when the current trends have reached their climax? And, ultimately, what’s on the other side of the divide: what sort of global system might arise from the collapse of the present world order?
The firebird, or phoenix, is the magnificent mythological creature that arises cyclically from the ashes of its own destruction. After living for 1,000 years, the firebird builds a special nest for itself, dies there in a burst of flame, and, after a time, is reborn from its own remains. After the new firebird lives out its life, the cycle is repeated, with death and rebirth following each other in perpetuity. Thus, the firebird is a symbol of renewal, or, if you prefer, of resurrection.
Assuming that there is anything left at the end our current cycle of destruction, and that any positive order can be established — that is, assuming that in the future humans aren’t subsisting in small, scattered, devolved and fascistic societies — what will that new order look like? By what principles can we live, prosperously, in harmony with Gaia and in peace with one another? This is the Firebird question, to be explored in its many aspects in this publication.
Update: Gen-R and the Firebird Question (originally sent to a personal email list on Feb. 5, 2022)
Two recent developments have brought me to a conclusion I’ve long resisted: Nothing meaningful will be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before we’ve passed some dangerous and possibly irreversible thresholds. (Specifically, loading the atmosphere with enough carbon to blow us past the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC global temperature target and quickly toward the likely irreversible 2.0ºC threshold. We’re now at 1.18ºC.) Instead of acting, we’re going to kick the climate can down the road for today’s upcoming generation — people now under 25 — to deal with. I’m dubbing these climate-crisis inheritors “Gen-R,” the generation which, when it takes over the world’s economic, political and social reins around mid-century, and will be tasked with R-eviving and R-estoring the planet.
A bit of background: Since 2012 my newspaper column, Your Ecological House, has focused mostly on climate change. During that 2012-22 decade, which included some modest international successes such as the Paris Climate Accord and some major setbacks such as Trump’s presidency, I’ve stubbornly clung to the belief that humanity would somehow have a timely epiphany and the political Powers That Be would suddenly decided to take robust measures to reverse the climate crisis.
I see now that I was wrong, and my perennial optimism, which I clung to, in part, to keep my sanity, was actually a form of denial. As I mentioned, two recent developments made this clear.
The first development was the failure of last November’s Glasgow climate summit (COP26) to agree to any binding international commitments which even begin to address the scope of the climate crisis. While some positive things happened in Glasgow, those measures still fit squarely into the too little, too late, compartment.