It Came from the Skies
What deluges and flash floods are telling us about living with climate chaos, discontinuity and the loss of certainties.
When folks first truly grasp the nature of this planetary crisis, one of the concepts that’s most difficult for many to accept is the loss of continuity, of the way things are.
At the end of last month — the hottest September since records were kept — parts of New York City got a half foot of rain. The subway flooded. Whirlpools formed on Brooklyn streets. Cars drifted in the murky eddies.
And that was only one of hundreds of such stories this year. Things are not as they were, and they won’t be, ever again.
We have all been raised to expect that when things change from a pattern we’re used to, they eventually settle in to a new pattern we can learn to live with, a new normal. This expectation has largely been true in the past: things change, baselines shift, the young grow up used to it, eventually no one notices.
The planetary crisis is an all-consuming crisis — a crisis of everything; a polycrisis; the Jackpot — because it is a set of discontinuities, of new realities for which old experience is a poor guide.
A person who learned how the climate works in, say, 1960 (and stopped paying attention), would have no framework for understanding the warming spikes we’re seeing now. Heck, even brilliant scientists with a firm grasp on our latest models are not entirely sure what to make of them.
Climate change itself is a discontinuity. The weather we thought we knew suddenly fills our landscape with threats: where once there was a relaxing beach, now there are massive storms and tidal surges; where once there was quiet forest, now there’s firewood and kindling awaiting the lightning strike; where once there was a peaceful creek, now there’s a torrent of rainwater, washing bridges and houses away.
It’s like going to a mountain lake house on vacation, only to glimpse a shark fin moving through the water.
That’s not all. We talk a lot about climate change. Makes sense: Warming the Earth is altering the planet in ways we’re still figuring out.
Yet, climate change, as important as it is, doesn’t come close to being the totality of the crisis. We’re also flying into a tornado of extinctions, ecosystem collapses, souring oceans, grim toxic acculmulations, resource depletions, famines, evolving epidemics, and novel new dangers we’re still learning about. It’s like an unboxing party hosted by Pandora.
Each problem’s dire. Some subsets of these problems — like topsoil loss — are civilizational challenges all by themselves. Whirl them all together, watch them accelerate and alter one another, and we end up with the biggest transformations of natural systems any human beings have ever experienced. Discontinuity on a profound scale.
That’s no shark in that lake — that’s a megalodon.
The biggest discontinuity of all, though, is one we don’t talk about much, because it’s hard to wrap our heads around. The most powerful way this crisis is a discontinuity is that the totality of the changes in Earth systems spawns larger and larger numbers of different discontinuities, not just in the natural world but in our own lives and societies. (That megalodon’s pregnant.)
There’s no new normal, sure. But there’s no one kind of abnormal either. We should have no confidence that all this never-before-seen wild weirdness is, in fact, the full range of strangeness. We are experiencing a discontinuity not just of the particulars, but of the whole context. We are surrounded by a growing number of events for which we not only are not prepared, but cannot, at least in direct and targeted ways, prepare for.
One does not simply adapt to a situation like this.
One of the standard definitions of the verb to adapt is to become adjusted to new conditions. The word itself strongly implies both the essential continuity of the thing being adapted — X adapted to Y new condition is still X — and the existence of a defined set of new conditions. This is not a helpful mental framework for understanding the challenge ahead. Indeed, much popular discussion about how we’re going to adapt to climate change has come unglued from actual reality.
People (including political leaders) talk about building sea walls and flood plains to adapt to our rapidly rising seas, or funding cooling centers and lots of street trees to manage our deadly heat waves, or doing controlled burns and clearing defensible space around homes to guard against our new megafires. People talk about discreet actions to meet specific risks, and debate how little they can do to keep life the same.1
People think of adaptation as a way of keeping our lives and communities safe from change, as the world convulses around us. Adaptation is meant to hold the chaos in the world out there.
Thinking that way leads to fantasies about how we’re going to keep the chaos out there. The fantasy might be utopian ecosocialism, or post-apocalyptic survivalism; planning new cities in the Arctic, or obsessive homestead gardening. Some are harmless, some are corrosive of social trust, some are dangerous to their practitioners and others. None of them are effective. We can build a perimeter fence, but it won’t keep the chaos out.
The chaos is already in here with us.
It’s everywhere, that chaos — in every system and place and practice and relationship we depend on. The way we live is no longer suited to when we live — largely because the nature of this new planet is going to keep becoming unlike anything we’re used to, year after year. Thousands of natural systems shifting in unforeseeable ways, causing millions of different iterations of, “We never saw that before.”
And for every never-before-seen event, there will be societal reverberations.
Part of our continuity delusion is to believe that while all this churn and upheaval roils around us, we humans will remain largely the same, wanting the same things, acting in the same ways, and that humanity is the stable target of ecological instability. Or to believe that people will change just enough to go on living some version of the lives they lead before.
We won’t be the same people on the other side of this. “As fast as the planet is changing, this crisis is changing us faster.”
As we change, a lot of people are going to find it advantageous to disrupt and disaggregate all sorts of formerly stable arrangements, agreements, networks, political and economic relationships. I think it’s hard to overestimate how much torque has built up in ways that can no longer be managed by an orderly transition, but will almost certainly spill over into out-of-control, previously stable parts of our societies. Some of that will be very ugly, if history offers any lessons.
Many — perhaps most — of those reading this have never lived through any genuine societal upheaval. But we will: Geopolitical shifts, mass migrations, conflicts over land and resources, asset bubbles collapsing, and economic turmoil as impacts hit and risks escalate.
The chaos is not just in here with us; the chaos is us.
This makes the task of foresight simultaneously more urgent and much harder.
Indeed, the loss of predictability here is staggering. We’re still largely in denial about it:
This simultaneity of shifts in interconnected systems is a profound challenge to our ability to predict what’s coming. The models excurse their boundaries. The data become contextually unreliable. The odds go wonky in combinatorial explosions.
Fundamental assumptions about the world around us will prove to no longer be true, and trustworthy new assumptions won’t soon be forthcoming to replace them.
It's not just that specific incidents are hard to predict, it’s that the entire predictive context — what's taken for granted when we try to understand what’s changing — is increasingly awash in deep uncertainty.
That doesn’t mean we’re blind. The world is not a mess of primordial possibilities about which nothing can be said. Even where we cannot predict, we can still create methods of making sense of what we’re seeing and how it might change. Foresight is now less about prediction than anticipation; less about preparedness than building robust capacities; less about optimization than hedging the strategic landscape.
As I wrote before:
Events being unprecedented does not make them beyond comprehension. The loss of continuity does not mean a descent into blind chaos. We can learn to thrive amidst discontinuity, disruption, upheaval. There are thousands of people teaching themselves how, right now.
We will, eventually, get used to a shortage of continuity, become more skilled at living without certainties. We still know a lot. We’re learning more about the nature of the discontinuities around us every day. We will likely restore more confidence to predictions with more experience and more powerful tools. But it’s going to take time.
Today, the task is to learn how to thrive without knowing. Paradoxically, that demands fast action, and leaning into uncertainty.
Not knowing tends to make us conservative, to want to wait and see, to try to be frugal with change, to disrupt as few aspects of our lives as possible.
One of the most obvious failures in the climate/sustainability debate is acting like we’re still making choices our inaction has already made for us.
But in our situation, one of the things we can judge is how fragile our systems are as they’re exposed to greater turbulence. We can test how brittle our communities have become under the torque of discontinuity. We can ask ourselves what will happen to these places and practices and policies from the old world, as this new world unfolds.
And we can invest in making them better suited to the planet we live on today — not by bolting on various short-term solutions to specific threats, but by making them more operationally rugged across a range of circumstances. We don’t have much time, so we need to build big and build fast.
That’s expensive, and this crisis is bound to rob of us prosperity as it unfolds, so in the real world, the actions we take have to deliver not just greater strength but greater opportunities. We’re looking for strategies that reduce risks while increasing capacities. That means we’re going to have to embrace real transformations in our lives.
The lives we dreamed of and worked for when we expected the world to go on as it once did have been grown in new directions. Even the things that do happen as we hoped will feel strange, and carry a new meaning… and even unlock new possibilities we haven’t yet imagined.
Everything we’re experiencing is not signs of the end of everything, but of the beginning of a new era. It’s just unlike anything we’re used to.
There’s a certain form of denialism of these facts, coming from people who realize that recognizing this loss of predictability and planning continuity undermines their own expertise, stature and market value. Asserting on-going predictability of decision-making is critical to selling and defending triangulation strategies.