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)

Hi All, 

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. 

 
Additionally, many of the proposals floated at COP26 were coopted by financial interests or simply betrayed, the latter exemplified by a seemingly small but hugely important change in the wording of one of the conference’s major initiatives for rapidly eliminating the use of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. The change was pushed initially by India, then backed by China and other coal using and producing nations. The proposal’s wording, which matters, was changed, from “phase out coal” to “phase down coal,” building an easy escape clause in the the agreement. This was done just before the conference closed, without a discussion or vote by the majority of delegates. It was last minute arm twisting — the major powers involved would not sign any agreement unless it had the wording they wanted. 
 
But not to worry. India has committed to get to zero emissions by 2070 — three generations from now!
 
The second demoralizing development was our domestic failure to pass President Biden’s “Build Back Better Act,” even after the original proposal had been cut by almost 60% to please Joe Manchin. One man, possessed of a coal-based financial fortune, has stymied all but token U.S. efforts at addressing climate change. 
 
These two high-profile political events were not just setbacks, as we might be able to view Trump’s detestable but temporary rejection of the Paris Accord. They are part of an entrenched pattern of killing climate initiatives in the service of the Powers That Be in China, India, Russia, Australia, Canada, Brazil, the U.S. and numerous other nations — a pattern that won’t change, can’t change for at least another decade because there is too much vested interest in the status quo and political inertia.
 
Even if the U.S. manages to get its climate act partially together by expanding the Democratic majorities in Congress and passing climate legislation, is it possible that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi (India), Scott Morris (Australia) and other rulers of petro-states (producers) or petro-dependent states (developing nations) will will suddenly see the light, or even feel the heat and speedily reverse the huge momentum driving their fossil-fuel economies?  Will Jair Bolsonaro wake up one morning and think, “You know, we really should protect the Amazon rain forest because it’s such an important carbon sink?”
 
Will all of this, or even a meaningful portion of this happen before 2030, when we’ll pass the threshold where atmospheric carbon pollution locks us into a minimum 1.5ºC temperature rise? Unfortunately, the simple, straightforward answer is “No.” 
 
Sadly, “No.”
 
So, where does that leave us? Do we throw up our hands and stop working toward a better future, a future that avoids apocalyptic, dystopian outcomes and begins the process of reviving and restoring the planet and human society? 
 
The answer to that is also, “No.” Or “No, of course not.” Or, “Hell, No!”
 
But it does mean that we have to recognize that trying to change the global economy and human society — controlling unbridled capitalism, redefining material well being, reversing population trends — will be a long struggle with an uncertain outcome. If there is an ultimate positive outcome, it won’t happen in time to forestall a great deal of damage to the planet and significant portions of the human population, as well as a partial breakdown of global civilization. It’s also a struggle that many of us will have to join with a bit of blind faith because we’ll be very old or dead by the time a victory for the planet and humanity comes into sight — if it does at all.  
 
A smart gambler would bet against humanity. There’s a lot stacked up against us, and a lot of bad water has already passed under the bridge. (Or, in the case of some recent extreme-weather events, over the bridge!)
 
But I’m betting on Gen-R, today’s youth. The climate/environmental crisis will come to a head, with the downward trends either being reversed or becoming truly irreversible, about the time they take the reins of social, economic and political power — say during the decade of 2040-2050. Whether they’ll be up to the challenge, and will have and implement the answers, will depend on them, of course. But it will also depend a great deal on what the rest of us do, say and write as things continue to fall apart around us. We can clarify and espouse the philosophical underpinnings needed to inform and inspire a movement — a “Green Transformation” — that literally remakes the world in the middle of this century. We can finance and support today’s youth climate activists. Having failed to leave Gen-R a thriving planet, we can at least leave it with the the tools and  guidelines for creating one. 
 
 Here’s the link o the first of a series of articles on Gen-R at Firebird Journal: https://firebirdjournal.com/2022/02/01/gen-r-todays-youth-must-r-evive-and-r-estore-the-planet/ 
 
 
 

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