The other night, I went to pick up takeout at a local Irish pub. It was a gray and rainy evening at the end of a long week, and my partner and I were suffering from Zoom fatigue. We love this pub not just because it has good food, but because it’s a living part of our community. Pre-Covid, they used to have Irish traditional music sessions, and any cold and snowy night you’d be greeted with a burst of cheer, a packed house, friends and families all out for a cozy good time.
Now it’s a ghostly quiet. Social distancing rules mean that even at max capacity, it still only has a tiny fraction of its usual clientele. Standing in that empty pub, haunted by the sense of what we were missing, I felt an ache for “normal” as acute as any homesickness I ever felt — even when I served in the Army in Iraq. I still feel the twinge every time I put on my mask. I want our normal lives back.
But what does normal even mean anymore?
It’s easy to forget that 2020 gave us not just the pandemic, but also the West Coast’s worst fire season, as well as the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. And, while we were otherwise distracted, 2020 also offered up near-record lows in Arctic sea ice, possible evidence of significant methane release from Arctic permafrost and the Arctic Ocean, huge wildfires in both the Amazon and the Arctic, shattered heat records (2020 rivaled 2016 for the hottest year on record), bleached coral reefs, the collapse of the last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic, and increasing odds that the global climate system has passed the point where feedback dynamics take over and the window of possibility for preventing catastrophe closes.
President Biden has recommitted the United States to the Paris Agreement, which is great except that it doesn’t really mean much, since that agreement’s commitments are voluntary. And it might not even matter whether signatories meet their commitments, since their pledges weren’t rigorous enough to keep global warming “well below” two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels to begin with. According to Climate Action Tracker, a collaborative analysis from independent science nonprofits, only Morocco and Gambia have made commitments compatible with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and the commitments made by several major emitters, including China, Russia, Japan and the United States, are “highly insufficient” or “critically insufficient.”
It’s also worth noting that the two degrees Celsius benchmark is somewhat arbitrary and possibly fantastic, since it’s not clear that the earth’s climate would be safe or stable at that temperature. In the words of a widely discussed research summary published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even if the Paris Agreement targets are met, “we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.”
More alarming, recent observed increases in atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over the short term, are so large that if they continue they could effectively overwhelm the pledged emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement, even if those reductions were actually happening. Which they’re not.
Meanwhile, the earth’s climate seems to be changing faster than expected. Take the intensifying slowdown in the North Atlantic current, a global warming side effect made famous by the film “The Day After Tomorrow.” According to the climatologist Michael Mann, “We are 50 years to 100 years ahead of schedule with the slowdown of this ocean circulation pattern, relative to what the models predict … The more observations we get, the more sophisticated our models become, the more we’re learning that things can happen faster, and with a greater magnitude, than we predicted just years ago.”
In 2019, the Greenland ice sheet briefly reached daily melt rates predicted in what were once considered worst-case scenarios for 2060 to 2080. Recent research indicates that rapidly thawing permafrost may release twice as much carbon dioxide and methane than previously thought, which is pretty bad news, because other recent research shows very cold Arctic permafrost thawing 70 years earlier than expected.
Going back to normal now means returning to a course that will destabilize the conditions for all human life, everywhere on earth. Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it.
I remember last March, in the first throes of the pandemic, when normal was upended. Everything shut down. We hoarded toilet paper and pasta. Fear gripped the nation.
I was afraid, too: I was afraid for my mother, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I was afraid for my sister, whose husband works in a prison. I was afraid for my cousin, who’s a nurse. I was afraid for my country, under the leadership of an incompetent and seemingly deranged president.
But along with the fear, I remembered a lesson I’d learned in Iraq. I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.
What I saw in Iraq was that every time you shock the system, something breaks. Sometimes those breaks never heal. There’s no way we can undo the damage we did to Iraq or bring back the lives lost to Covid. But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.
In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence. I hoped we might recognize not only that fossil-fuel-driven consumer capitalism was likely to destroy everything we loved, but that we might actually be able to do something about it.
As the pandemic has worn on, the desire to get back to normal has increased, and I worry that the hope for radical positive change has subsided. But we must not let it dissipate. We can’t afford to. Because we won’t see “normal” again in our lifetimes. Our parents and grandparents burned normal up in their American-built cars, with their American lifestyles, their American refrigerators and American dreams. And now China and India are doing it, too, because capitalism is global, and we sold it wherever we could. More than three-quarters of all industrial CO2 emissions have occurred since 1945, and more than half have occurred since 1988 — since we knew what global warming was and what a danger it posed.
Now, as a new administration takes office and we look ahead to life after both Covid and Donald Trump, we need to face the fact that the world we live in is changing into something else, and that coping with the consequences of global warming demands immediate, widespread, radical action.
The next 20 years will be a period of deep uncertainty and tremendous risk, no matter what. We don’t get to choose what challenges we’ll face, but we do get to decide how we face them. The first thing we need to do is let go of the idea that life will ever be normal again — elsewhere, I’ve called this “learning how to die.” Beyond that, we need stop living through social media and start connecting with the people around us, since those are the people we’ll need to depend on the next time disaster strikes. And disaster will strike, you can be sure of that, so we must begin preparing today for the next shock to the social order, and the next, and the next.
None of this will matter, though, if our preparations don’t include imagining a new way of life beyond this one, after the end of fossil-fueled capitalism: not a new normal, but a new ethos adapted to the chaotic world we’ve created.
Roy Scranton is the author of “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.” He teaches English and environmental humanities at the University of Notre Dame, where he is director of the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative.
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