Pushing Through Ice: Resilience in the Changing Climate
Early spring has always been my favorite season. February’s crocuses and daffodils pop up from snowbanks and beds of pine needles. Crows give way to bluebirds and robins. And all of Carolina comes back to life in the pinks of cherry trees, the purples of plums, the magentas of redbud, and the stark gold of forsythia. Us dedicated gardeners weather the last cold rains in galoshes and straw hats to scout the plain public landscaping where we’ll drop seeds in the coming weeks. From squirrels to bumblebees, all of nature is shaking off the winter’s reign.
I choose this imagery to open with because it fits well not only with the season in which I am writing, but the topic I am writing a series of pieces about beginning with this one. Ironically—given rising temperatures around the globe—the reality of climate change is something that can in a sense freeze us in too much overwhelming knowledge but not enough practical strategies for solutions. Thawing that psychic paralysis is this idea of ‘resilience,’ a term with its roots in ecology, but which in today’s world is understandably growing into a more engaged if not also political or spiritual approach to species interaction and environmental-cultural design.
In this essay I take a high-level look at both the crisis we are facing and the nature of our resilience. For folks keeping a close watch on climate science and various proposals around addressing it, there is not much that is new presented here. Nevertheless, I feel like it is important to establish a common perspective from which my later essays on these subjects can sprout.
The Science of Crisis
Talk to an ecologist and the term ‘resilience’ has a fairly specific meaning. It’s all about an ecosystem’s capacity to resist collapse and to recover after being disrupted. From this definition, two key stages can be identified: crisis and recovery. Where many of us enter this conversation is as human beings concerned by climate change, which importantly is only the symptom of our actual crisis.
The recent IPCC report projects that human-driven global warming is set to push temperatures 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052. Lack of serious global concern and leadership on climate change has secured the practical inevitability of this future. And without rapid, significant changes to the way humanity exists on Earth, reaching a level of 2 degrees or higher by 2100 is more and more likely. In either future, climate scientists predict unbearable heat making areas of the world uninhabitable and unusable for crops, sea level rise displacing populations and subjecting others to floods, the disappearance of the ocean’s coral reefs, significant insect and plant population loss, global potable water scarcity, loss of Arctic sea ice and Arctic animal populations, extreme weather events like supercharged hurricanes and shifting polar temperatures, along with a host of accompanying social ills as we grapple with this new existence. The difference between a certain 1.5 and likely 2 degree temperature increase with regards to these effects is simply a matter of scale.
In many ways these futures are already visible. For readers in the States, the power of supercharged hurricanes has been within our consciousness since at least Hurricane Katrina. More recently, Hurricane Florence flooded several rural areas of North Carolina, completely wiping away people’s homes and businesses—more or less at the same time as wildfires consumed nearly two million acres out west. Temperatures have notably risen during the winter months both here and in the Arctic, this year even causing the polar vortex to take a nosedive into the heart of North America. And recent troubling studies on insect populations around the world provide a new dimension to worries about our declining global pollinator networks and what effects disappearing insects will trigger further along Earth’s eco-webs.
We are no longer facing an honest question of whether climate change is real or even if climate change can be reversed or stopped. Our futures are questions of what level of ecological collapse we will be able to survive and whether it will be individuals, communities, private enterprises, or governments who will take the lead in preparing for it. To stop global warming from peaking past the 1.5 degree increase, nothing short of a 45-55% reduction in global greenhouse emissions (from 2010 levels) by 2030 then reaching net zero by 2050 is imperative. From giving up animal products to shopping or growing food locally, cutting out air and car travel, planting trees, and more, there are many ways we as individuals can contribute to the root-level changes necessary in adapting human life to the changing climate. However, while at times these actions can be wielded as blunt instruments against larger destructive industries, we face an uphill battle defined by the power held by states and capitalist interests.
To some, the politicizing of resilience is antagonistic, impolitic, and uncompromising in idealism. Yet in a world with elected officials from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promising to develop the rainforest and satisfy an increasing global appetite for Brazilian cattle, to U.S. President Trump’s border wall crossing not only people but Mexican grey wolves, Quino checkerspot butterflies, and dozens of other endangered species, to California Senator Dianne Feinstein scolding children as though time is a luxury the masses of life on this planet possess, urgency is necessary. Assertive—if not aggressive—restructuring of human society without regard for the hand-holding patience and decorum demanded by an aging and financially insulated ruling class is an imperative act of survival for all other life on the planet.
Grasping at Straws
So what does a 44-55% reduction in emissions look like? Well, to put it in perspective, a 2018 study suggests that meat and dairy production accounts for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that giving up both could result in a 73% individual carbon footprint reduction, while also drastically freeing up farms lands for native wildlife to reclaim, reducing water waste, and netting many other ecological benefits. Not everyone may be able to or presently motivated to adopt a vegan diet for whatever reasons, but as an example, that degree of lifestyle change is on scale with the level of restructuring human survival demands of human society. While veganism is on the rise, it’s more likely that the human response to this ecological crisis will come in a variety of synergistic (and even contradictory) strategies.
Understandably it’s our reflex to want the answer to be simple. It would certainly be easier if the answer to global warming and the whole of our ecological crisis could be found in straight-forward buzzwords and campaign slogans, or in largely superficial acts of ableism like making it impossible for disabled people to drink in public. But even uncovering one problem, like the clearing of wild lands for cattle ranching, reveals another, like the fundamental truth that no human settlement requiring imports of any food (animal products or otherwise) is sustainable. Likewise, while capitalist interests are an obvious driver behind human ecological destruction, redistributing ownership of today’s leading industries to include all their workers invests countless more people in perpetuating these industries’ destructiveness rather than in dismantling their very real threats to life on this planet. Even the solar panels and other ‘green’ technology governments will likely champion to meet net zero emissions in the coming decades present considerable ecological challenges.
These complexities reveal the deeper nature of both our ecological crisis and our ecological resilience. Our crisis is less that a single component or set of components in human civilization are malfunctioning, and more that the entire design of human living we have been born into is one defined by unsustainable values. We are living in a moment where the reality of human impact on the planet is very much exposed and observable through all of our senses. The realm of imaginably possible choices we can make on any number of pressing issues is bleak. And these politics feel like an economics of triage, not resilience.
Envisioning New Springs
What then will a redesign of human living look like? As I said before, I believe that humans will respond to this crisis and this moment in myriad ways, including more mainstream or superficial reforms. Perhaps though part of our problem to this point has been an over-reliance on large-scale planning to the detriment of niche solutions. In other words, the ways my ecosystem bounces back may look nothing like the ways yours does the same. And the collective weight of state- or private-driven reforms added to grassroots radicalism may net a much greater positive effect than spending precious time attempting to win converts too far out of any individual’s comfort zone. The fruit of our resilience craft will be in our tangible successes, not in dialectical conformity or practical uniformity. This shift alone is a dramatic one for humans accustomed to identifying as nations, ethnicities, moralities, corporations, and other collective social structures ahead of a plurality of geographic and ecological niches.
Resilience, for humans and their ecosystems alike, is probably quite messy. After all, if you are in a burning building, your impulse is survival not adherence to social norms or stopping to entertain debate on whether your method of escape is affordable or politically expedient to others pursuing different routes.
In this sense, I do not believe resilience will feel like safety. More bluntly, I believe our understanding of safety is so spoiled by the destructive path of our recent ancestors that to aim for it still now seems destined to mire ourselves in inaction until extinction. However, to a degree, I believe the existential dread we experience in this un-safety can also be something marginalized people in particular will find familiarity in, and then, perhaps, hope and guidance as well. For instance, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who launched the first youth strike for climate justice in August of 2018, has credited her Asperger’s as providing a critically different perspective of the world which informs her understanding of the severity of climate change and the urgency with which we must act. For others, the need to re-evaluate our relationships to basic necessities like shelter, food, and community may follow a familiar trail already mapped at least once before when navigating out of homophobic, abusive, or other authoritarian situations.
The society of our crisis has neither been designed for disabled humans nor for bumblebees. The society of our crisis is not designed for the uninhibited breadth of seahorse, bonobo, nor human gender and sexuality. The society of our crisis is not designed for reproductive agency nor freedom of movement, regardless of species. The border walls of this society cross the cultures of people and wild animals alike, and the economics of this society domesticate us both. Perhaps then, those of us on the margins whether people or possums, coyotes, or dandelions are already ahead of everyone whose sense of belonging and safety resides in a society in crisis.
Wildness instead of safety is a virtue and sensation I would associate with resilience. After all, it is the curious human hubris to run contrary to the wild’s self-regulating assemblages of life which now triggers our global crisis. To escape, to survive, to heal, I believe we are faced with reconciling with our own relationship to the wild. How long has it been since someone asked humanity as a whole about our ecological niche? Our population range or natural distribution? What is a human habitat, if not a nihilistic sculpture to the forests and meadows and topsoil that once were? What is the human diet, if not a cacophony of transnational monocultures, neutered and gassed for single-lifetime consumption? What is a human community, if not cubicle farms and bureaucracy, citizenship and employment?
There must be millions of questions like these which don’t correspond to easy or readily identifiable, singular answers. For me, they are at the heart of our crisis and my resilience craft out of it. In the estimated twelve years we have to steer human civilization away from more extreme ecological catastrophe, yes, I will be advocating for political and technological solutions. I will be voting with my diet and planting as many seeds as possible for my community and the insects we share this space with. But I cannot un-know that the crisis exists even in some of these solutions, and that our healing lies even further out from them.
The rewilding of humanity is not an overnight accomplishment. I doubt even that it is possible within a single individual’s dedicated lifetime. But this moment of crisis is an opportunity for deeper perception. It is an opportunity to redirect our practice of being human, to cross-pollinate among many different strategies and experiments for escape, and to—like all animals, all plants, and all life on this planet—begin adapting into something resilient that will withstand rising tides and scorching heat.
This essay appears as part of the Deepening Resilience community blog project. Project coordinator Syren Nagakyrie and the project’s contributors are creating conversation on climate change and human responses to the issues our ecological crisis raises. Learn more or even submit your own thoughts at the blog project’s home page or Facebook group page.
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Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org