Scorched Earth: The Onerous Weight of Awareness

Photo by Peter Currier

PETER CURRIER – I’ve been lucky. I was born in a peaceful and rich country.

I and my mother survived my birth, just as my kids and their mother survived theirs. I was breast-fed, diapered, safely cradled. The vestiges of Victorian parenting noted, I was well loved. I didn’t catch polio, smallpox, malaria or typhoid. I took mumps, measles, and influenza in stride. No one stole or contaminated our land or took away our children. My grandparents survived long enough for me to benefit from their love, experience and wisdom.

I was never kicked by a horse, caught in a barnfire, or run over by a train when I was a yardman in the CP Rail freight yards. I have never lived in a dust bowl. I’ve survived hernia, heart disease, sleep apnea and myriad other afflictions and infections. My poor choices never did serious or lasting damage to either myself or anyone else.

I had second chances, sometimes third and fourth. My personal failings and academic shortcomings were concerning to those who cared about me, but ultimately, forgiven and resolved in a spirit of optimism. I have lived almost 30 years longer than the average Canadian did in 1900. In 1840, it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. I have done it in seven hours in relative comfort several times.

Then, beyond the miracles of electronics (for light, sound, print and voice), are the glasses and hearing aids without which I’d be an emotional shut-in no matter how populated my venue. And shoes? Just a small but critical blessing. They have been cheap, comfortable, and enabled mobility that historically would have been impossible.
Lucky indeed. And blessed.

But in the 200,000 years of my species’ existence, the last 150 have been savage.

Earth has gotten progressively more threadbare and unlivable than ever during those 200 millennia. It is a pipe dream to imagine that the best is yet to come. So I may have been lucky and blessed – living in what may prove to be the best eighty of those 200,000 years.

But sometimes there is comfort in ignorance. I have watched wildlife disappear; rich habitat become starved, logged, poisoned, overheated, built on and dredged. Last year, the far shore of the lake that I have a legal right to visit and occupy was shrouded summer-long in wildfire smoke. And at a deep level I feel responsible. Guilty.

For me, one of the major impacts of the climate catastrophe is the onerous weight of awareness – the dreadful knowledge of what, and who, has caused it and what the final consequence may be for our species. We in contemporary times feel that impact much more acutely than folks in those pre-catastrophic eras of naivety. Indeed, some feel it so deeply that they are forgoing parenthood. Beth McKinlay’s Crisis Line piece in The Greenzine captures it well.

Several years ago in France, my wife and I visited a geographical basin, Le Cirque de Navacelles, on the edge of the Massif Central mountains. It’s 300 m deep and maybe 6 kms across with a stream running through it and a sustaining patch of arable land on the bottom. In the hundreds of settled years there, many people lived and died in Navacelles without ever going even so far as the rim, least of all to what lay beyond it. To go beyond what they knew and experienced would require a leap of imagination that few could summon. Navacelles represents an ideal and utopian paradise like Thoreau’s Walden. However sheltered it may have been, there were harsh realities at that time and place too. But Navacelles serves here as an idyllic contrast to our contemporary option- and worry-cluttered lives. I find that innocence, in the light of what we know and fear in 2024, to be devoutly wished for.

Now assorted politicians, bureaucrats and “one-percenters”1 may acknowledge the Earth’s scorched future, but many of them believe they can buy their way out of a doomed future.

Blithely, it appears, they have renamed the three Rs: Rebound, Rebuild, Renew predicated on a fourth “R” − Ruin. Crank up the war machinery to the tune of billions of dollars and then: Ruin Palestine, Ruin Iraq, Ruin Ukraine, Ruin Russia. And then hallelujah! − Rebound! Rebuild! Renew! To the tune of billions more dollars. Millions of tons of fossil fuel emissions. And watch the already enriched get richer. By this warped ethic, humanity will be depleted before our oil reserves are.

Affluence is feeding anxiety today. The more of the former, the greater the latter. In the summer I swim along our forested shore and as I look up at the trees – the tallest living things that ever lived on Earth. I try to imagine what that shore would look like in 300 years. The struggle to summon a vision of profusion is futile. My future shore looks rocky, bare, barren, and bleak. To know “better” than the deniers, pollyannas and opportunists is to live in a state of dreadful awareness.

Recognizing the Cost

I don’t surge a huge motorized synthetic through the freshwaters of lakes. I am appalled at the sheer shortsighted, egocentric, self-glorification of those who tear down good buildings and replace them with over-spaced monster homes. I don’t replace forest with grass. I do my best to support sustainable, altruistic, local enterprises. In a world that appears to offer more food, more luxury, better health and longer life than any other time in history, I find it outrageous that there is plenty to go around but a marked lack of good will among the privileged to see that it does.

So now when I turn on the light or drive to the store, slice an avocado or hit the Mexican tarmac, I do some emotional accounting. I balance the luxury against what it costs. And what it costs is slow and subtle. Creature comforts get more important as I age. At this moment, what they cost is just not enough.

Elizabeth Kolbert closes a New Yorker article on phosphorus with these gloomy but prescient words:

“This is the hazard of innovation. Short-term solutions often turn out to have long-term costs. But, by the time these costs have become apparent, it’s too late to reverse course. In this sense, the world’s phosphorus problem resembles its carbon-dioxide problem, its plastics problem, its groundwater-use problem, its soil-erosion problem, and its nitrogen problem. The path humanity is on may lead to ruin, but, as of yet, no one has found a workable way back.”

And yes: both lucky and blessed, I live in the sweetest spot in all of history.
But I’m habituated to my lifestyle. As Elizabeth Kolbert says above, “it’s too late to reverse course”.

Scorched Earth: The Onerous Weight of Awareness © 2024 by Peter Currier in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 


Peter Currier lives and writes in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, Ontario

  1. Wikipedia: A member of the top one percent of a population by wealth, ability, etc. (same as the ninety-ninth percentile), especially in a society with high wealth inequality. ↩︎

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