WE ARE IN DISCONTINUITY
The true measure of the seriousness of the planetary crisis is not destruction but discontinuity.
My most succinct working definition of a “discontinuity” is a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future. It’s a critical concept, so I’m going to do my best in this week’s email to quickly explain what it means to me, and why it may be useful to you.
The planetary crisis is what I call the interlocking, complex, accelerating changes our actions are bringing on in the natural world. Climate change is the largest problem within this crisis, but it is interconnected with ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, topsoil loss and water shortages, threats to food systems, changes in ocean chemistry, the release of rivers of toxic chemicals into the biosphere, invasive species and so on. We can talk about them as separate challenges, but in reality they are all one crisis. And it is getting worse, fast.
The planetary crisis is a discontinuity. This is the most important thing about it. Failing to understand the climate/ecological emergency as an all-encompassing discontinuity in human societies is failing to understand it, full stop.
Every time human systems and planetary realities clash, the human systems fail, and human beings lose. It sometimes takes a while for the defeat to become obvious, but on a wide variety of fronts, the defeats we’ve already dealt ourselves over decades of inaction are growing unignorable. Many more are coming into focus now—and we’re still losing our conflicts with nature on a grand scale.
Those defeats have altered all our human systems, already. Not only is the Earth’s entire biosphere being transformed at a speed greater than anything humans have lived through before, but the human world has become something no human has ever experienced before.
Discontinuity is a fact of our lives. It’s no longer a choice. Most of us are confused about when we are. I know I’m still figuring it out.
Here’s something we do know: The longer we delay acting at disruptive speeds, the more discontinuous the near future will be with present expectations… and the less value present systems will retain. Disruption now, or even more discontinuity (and then more disruption) that’s our choice—and the speed of our actions is how we choose between them.
Acknowledgment of that reality may be the most powerful idea on earth right now.
The planetary crisis is a crisis because it has unleashed discontinuity throughout human systems, and because only a few of us can see it yet.
We are in the teeth of a King Grizzly discontinuity, and it’s shaking our material certainties and our cultural assumptions apart like a salmon-wrapped ragdoll. Oily stuffing is already flying in all directions.
DENIAL OF DISCONTINUITY DOESN’T MAKE IT GO AWAY
This is not the kind of language you hear in public radio policy debates, at high-ticket ideas conferences, around the conference tables at thinktank brownbag lunches, or at the dinner parties of the very serious people. No, the buzz in those circles is that the challenge of climate action is balancing progress with continuity. Trade-offs, and how to make the smartest ones.
These days, even former anti-environmentalists and climate denialists claim to want action on climate and sustainability. Companies and nations solemnly pronounce net-zero goals. The need to act is now treated a given in most mainstream policy debates. Flat-out denial plays to smaller and smaller audiences. In 2021, even oil companies espouse “cleaner futures.”
Yet, the decline of denial does not mean the acceptance of reality. It remains a bedrock assumption, often buried too deeply to be noticed, much less questioned, that the purpose of climate action and sustainability is to prevent changes in the human world, to keep hold of what we have.
Now, we humans have an innate desire for continuity. That desire is not the problem. Denial is. We are deeply in denial about the reality of living in discontinuity.
The consensus vision of success is one in which we solve climate change, and the human world remains pretty much as it is now, especially for those in the wealthy parts of the world. Sure (the idea runs), we may get our energy from sun and wind. Every car may soon be electric. We may have to ditch cheeseburgers and fast fashion for vatgrown veggie proteins and durable natural designs. Well, we all need to make some sacrifices to avoid the ecopocalypse. But our lifestyle shall endure. The consensus about success is that we must meet the planetary crisis precisely so that we can avoid changing anything important.
“You don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things that we know we have to achieve,” US climate envoy John Kerry said last week—echoing president George Bush’s famous attack on the 1992 Earth Summit: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”
Belief in continuity serves a profitable purpose: it is a precondition for predatory delay. In order for good people to accept the moral implications of predatory delay—the massive losses, harms, and further discontinuity brought on by unchecked ecological mayhem—they must be convinced that the systems they're defending will still have value in the future. For predatory delay to seem reasonable, the unsustainable must be described as systems of great inherent worth, ones that can be reliably and gradually modified into new versions of themselves. They must believe in an orderly transition between their legacy and a positive future.
There’s more. If continuity is valid, then change is a choice, and those choosing change should compensate those being forced to change. The emphasis has to land on the “trade-offs” between the needs of the status quo (and those best served by it) and the speed of action demanded by real world conditions.
In this untrustworthy calculus, the only costs that count are the lost profits and jobs in unsustainable industries, the only fairness is that those who don’t want to change shouldn’t have to. The deserving are coal miners, not construction workers sent home during heat waves; gas station owners, but not shellfish farmers; auto dealership and gas stove manufacturers, but not the mountain towns whose whole economies depend on skiers showing up in the winter, staring at bare rock and warm days in December.
LOSS OF CONTINUITY IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, BUT IT CAN BE AN EXPRESS TRAIN TO CRAZYTOWN
The demand for continuity, especially in America, is held is place with panic, precarity and populism.
In the real world, even the truly dire scenarios for the human future are no longer actually apocalyptic. Too much action is underway, and much more action is now inevitable (for reasons I’ve spelled out in the podcast).
That doesn’t mean we won’t see almost inconceivable tragedy and mind-bogglingly stupid losses—and that we don’t want to fight like hell to minimize them—but they’re not the end of the human story. Failures are not doom.
Indeed, one of the grimmest aspects of this crisis is its transapocalyptic nature. That is, just how much of the world can thrive relatively well while enormous numbers of people suffer. We live already in a world of climate refugee camps—and luxury survival vacation compounds; of deserts where once stood forests—and glistening green artificial wildernesses, heavily managed to produce optimal carbon storage, biodiversity and recreation opportunities. The local forecast for some may be ecological collapse with choking air and a side of failed state—but elsewhere, times are good, the skies are clear and the markets are up.
Whatever the reality may be, the perception is that if we can’t hold on to continuity, all is lost. The end of the world is nigh. Discontinuity can only mean apocalypse.
It’s simple to make this case. Anyone with a command of THE FACTS can assemble them into an imaginary landscape with all the hallucinatory intensity of a bad peyote rush. Whole climate post-apocalyptic fanfic genres exist—some with foundation funding or tenured chairs—and among them you’ll find more subtle variations than 20th century Marxist splinter groups. All are long on centers not holding, mere anarchy and rough beasts.
Indeed, whether we conjure up a zombie apocalypse or a future of deep adaption on the dark mountain, it is clearly far easier and less scary for most people to imagine the end of everything than a time of uncontrolled change. As we used to say back in Worldchanging days, the World Without Us is easy; the future with us takes fortitude.
Some doomers like to take their new fluency with the ecological end times as evidence of their intellectual superiority over the sheeple who cling to say, seeking a survivable future for their kids. These “first time climate dudes” are big on casting themselves as the only ones with the guts to call it like it is.
Doomerism's "courage,” of course, is largely being fearless about profitably declaring defeat, while sacrificing young people's lives and dreams. "I am intellectually brave enough to decide you don't have a future" is pretty crap as an iconoclastic stance.
All this doom-tripping is bullshit; it also has real-world consequences. Doomerism excuses reckless disregard for others and the worsening of manageable problems as unavoidable parts of the process of an unfolding apocalypse. Hate the gameover, not the player, man.
The supposed imminence of apocalypse gives selfish people a reason to begin acting as if the shit has already hit the fan. Sometimes that’s angry hostility to immigrants, environmentalists and elites. Sometimes it’s climate boogaloo survivalists, sharpening their knives for the purifying collapse to come. Sometimes its right wing mobs storming the Capitol.
Worse is coming. A sense of doom is a powerful force in the landscape, especially in the U.S. We ignore it at our peril.
Tens of millions of Americans are living in the crosshairs of disaster, in a degree of economic precarity we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, a missed paycheck away from a foreclosed home, surrounded by culture wars, violence and pandemic grief. The only news many of them get is that an American Ragnarok is coming. As I wrote for another project back in 2016:
“When we can imagine no future we want, something far more dangerous takes its place in our minds: the future we fear. Without visions of progress worth coming together to fight for, crisis tears people apart. A dark unknowable future becomes raw power in the hands of a fear-monger. All over the world, we see demagogues lashing audiences into frenzies by putting old faces of hate on people’s new fears for the world ahead of us. Combining the anxiety of crisis with political scapegoating has birthed some of the greatest evil humanity has ever seen. Make no mistake: That evil is again on the march in the world, with talk of walls and camps, wars for living space and the battle for the last remaining resources.”
The apocalyptic is in its very heart a refusal to see past the end of an old worldview, into the new possibilities of the actual world. It is a refusal to imagine a new future worth fighting for. That refusal is wet dynamite.
Many responsible people, though, ignore the refusal. Or, they see it as even more reason to restore an orderly transition, to hold on to the lives we’ve built, to keep everyone feeling like we’re all in it together.
COLLECTIVE ACTION WON’T RESTORE CONTINUITY
The insistence that the point of action be the restoration of continuity leads to the belief that only massively-scaled collective action can save us. Here in the U.S., the rhetoric of the mid-Twentieth century features prominently. We must, we are told, rise to meet the planetary emergency on a sort of wartime footing, like the industrial mobilizations of World War Two. A Green New Deal is demanded to save us. We need a climate tech Moonshot.
The problem comes when we’re forced to ask, What do we do if none of this is going to happen?
Our rhetoric and our reality live in different worlds. Despite assertions that this crisis changes everything, most large collective action proposals in fact propose to change only a few things, in a smooth and just transition. There is an almost religious belief that by invoking the noble traditions of grand collective actions of the past, we can summon a new collective action large enough to unmake discontinuity itself.
It’s a forlorn hope that we can tackle the crisis while avoiding the very conflicts over the speed of change that created this fucking crisis in the first place.
As we discussed last time, president Biden’s climate proposals and actions—despite being the boldest this nation has ever seen—are not even sufficient to meet this crisis, much less to run the meter backwards into a past world that could avoid discontinuity.
It very unlikely, furthermore, with a potentially catastrophic midterm election approaching, that we’ll even see the fulfillment of these ambitions, much less a ratcheting up of their scale. The limits of the politically possible are real. With climate, they fall far short of the scale of action required to meet the current discontinuity in a coherent and energetic manner, never mind on a scale that would reverse it. Tens of trillions of dollars would be the price-tag of the former; the latter, I believe cannot be had at any price.
There are scores of reasons why we can’t spend our way back to continuity, beginning with the most powerful one, which is that the damage we’ve done to our climate and biosphere is not reversible in human time scales. This is a one-way trip. The ticket we’ve already bought means taking a ride that is going to land us on a different planet.
The human world is also discontinuous along multiple trajectories. Even if climate change and ecological collapse mysteriously ceased to be problems tomorrow, we’d still be awash in tidal forces—technological acceleration, economic inequality, the breakdown of the nation state, deepening globalization, and so on—that together add up to an ongoing discontinuity in their own right. The planetary crisis is not going anywhere, though. Indeed, not only is it the core context of the rest of our lives, but it is itself an enormous driver of discontinuity in all these other aspects of human life.
The reasons that are least discussed may be the most important.
We are surrounded by ubiquitous mismatches between the value of systems, enterprises and places given their suitability to the world we now live in, and the way those things are priced by markets. We are surrounded, in short, by bubbles. (I tend to classify them in three categories—the unsustainable, the brittle, and the outdated—and this week’s podcasts explore how we know these bubbles are so pervasive. The important thing to remember, though, is that most of the time, when discussing the planetary crisis, we don’t foreground these bubbles, and the extent to which a massive and widespread repricing is on its way.) We pretend a stability in our economy that doesn’t exist.
These bubbles are kept inflated by denial. One of the reasons even massive programs of government spending can’t restore continuity is that to engage in spending at that scale is to reveal the fragility of the unsustainable, brittle and outdated. Focusing a major share of public resources on meeting the planetary crisis—which is what is demanded to head off the worsening of the crisis—itself shatters the illusion that value will persist in assets and expertise that cannot endure. It forces a reckoning with reality. To go big is to burst bubbles.
The truth is, we’ve already failed to create an orderly transition.
We are not now capable of designing a future that works in continuity with our existing systems and practices while producing emissions reductions and sustainability gains fast enough to avoid truly dire ecological harm. This is an option that no longer exists.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t want the boldest, fastest action we can get. Preferably, every dollar invested by the public sector, everywhere in the world, would be responding to the planetary crisis: reducing emissions and resource use; preparing communities for the impacts of this crisis; restoring ecosystems and working landscapes for the futures they face; innovating and experimenting over a wide range of challenges. An all-out mobilization would be smart in the present and a gift to future generations. I don’t think the politics of our moment allow forsuch a mobilization, but it would be a good thing.
It does mean that action whose aim is the restoration of continuity has failed before it starts. Which brings us to the most important point: We can create a better future even in a context of discontinuity.
DISCONTINUITY IS OPPORTUNITY
To believe that our choices are the restoration of continuity or the breakdown of society paradoxically is to not take the planetary crisis seriously enough—and that's terrible, because the unexpected boon of seriousness is awakening to possibility, to the capacities we gain amidst disruption and acceleration.
Seen through 20th century eyes, everything is about to get really weird, really fast.
But discontinuity is not just danger. Discontinuity means change in our selves and our societies. Transformation is not just a matter of loss. The losses are profoundly tragic. They are not, however, the whole story, or even its most important plot line. The fiercest truth of this emergency is not how bad things have gotten, but how much is now within our power to change for the better. It is too late to avoid huge losses, enormous suffering. But it is absolutely not too late to limit our losses to those we’ve already set in motion, and to seize our opportunities to build a better human world—indeed, quite possibly a better world than the one we have now.
When we center the planetary crisis in our thinking about the world, one central fact becomes clear: our ideas about the pace of change—how fast we can create change, the costs and benefits of more rapid action, the politics of speed and delay—are the most out-of-date part of the climate/sustainability debate. Our sense of tempo is broken, and few of us are ready for how fast things are beginning to move… or that most of humanity benefits more the faster we move.
Barriers to action that have stood half a century are falling now. As they fall, a vast demand is revealing itself: a demand for the new models of sustainable prosperity. Billions of people need better ways of providing for themselves—better both in the sense of more sustainable, and more accessible. They need deeper ruggedization of vulnerable human systems, faster deployment of solutions, more aggressive policies and plans.
Above all, this means building. It means hundreds of millions of new homes; wind farms and solar fields by the tens of thousands, factories churning out batteries and electric cars and induction stoves and geothermal systems; new shipping infrastructure; the rebuilding of coastal cities everywhere; massive investments in ecosystem services, fire protections, water and soil conservation; a reinvention of huge industries like chemicals and concrete and consumer plastics; a landscape in upheaval. A giant building boom is what successful action looks like.
The Los Angeles Times brought rare clarity to this reality when it wrote last week, in an editorial titled There is no drought:
"We legislated and plumbed this state for a different climate, when annual winter rains reliably fell ... and a full Sierra snowpack reliably melted every spring and summer to feed streams and irrigate orchards and fields … We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we remember it."
It’s difficult to overstate the scale of the demand for sustainable prosperity and rugged systems, and how fast we need them. That demand by itself exerts a sort of strange gravity that’s hard to gauge as long as we’re focused on the loss of continuity. That demand also means unparalleled opportunities.
The urgency of this crisis has fused with the scale of those opportunities. Seen clearly, they are the same phenomenon, and they stand to drive both the speed of change and the rate of human progress at a pace we’re not used to imagining. The coming boom will collide with the worsening of the planetary crisis. Then things will become truly, deeply discontinuous.
As one venture capital firm puts it, ”Our general view is that climate is eating the world."
We have never needed new thinking more. The demand for clear advocacy, for fresh foresight, and for strategic acumen is effectively unlimited. The supply, however, is not. We need thousands upon thousands of committed people learning how to lead in the real world of unprecedented and uncontrolled change, and finding ways to leverage opportunity and impact together. We need a snap forward.
It promises to be a wild adventure.
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