After moving from Atlanta to Connecticut eighteen years ago, I became a daily reader of the NY Times -- and it has inspired many of my SOS Memos, including this one.
Today's inspiration (published on Monday) was written by Dr. Roy Scranton of the University of Notre Dame, where he is director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative.
Scranton is also the author of We're Doomed. Now What? and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. With titles like those, and the one below, you can probably guess what kind of message this new Times piece might be sending.
I've Said Good-Bye to "Normal." You Should Too.
Climate change is upending the world as we know it, and coping with it demands widespread, radical action.
Since I have been promoting "radical action" for about a decade, that pair of words caught my attention -- after finding this rare, well-researched, front-page climate piece
yesterday. In the third paragraph, he answers this question: What does "normal" really 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.
After chronicling the horrendous nature of our current state of affairs on this planet, he questions why we would wish to return to "normal" in the first place -- as going back to normal could well mean the end of global civilization was we know it. He writes...
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.
After re-reading Scranton's piece a few times, I took a look at several dozen of the 969 reader comments. Many of them reflect the kind of conclusions that I have drawn during the past few years -- as I have focused on trying to figure out how we humans can manage to transition to a sustainable way of life for the billions of children alive today -- and for the next billion who will arrive during the next seven years.
Here is what one reader had to say and, apparently, many people around the world are in total agreement -- as 686 of them recommended "Sapman's" comment to others:
A single virus has upended lives and disrupted the world's rhythms. What happens in the future when climate change throws a few different equally disruptive curveballs at us simultaneously?
People politicized something as fundamental and sane as wearing a mask prophylactically. And we're supposed to have faith that we'll be able to cooperate enough to avoid the looming disasters?
If the past year has demonstrated anything, it's that humans lack forbearance. People refuse to give up basic things, like socializing, even though they know it could be life threatening. Large percentages have failed the marshmallow test.*
If we're going to have any success fending off the impacts of climate change, it had better come through technologies that don't require humans to make any sacrifices.
That last sentence speaks volumes. And it goes to the heart of what I have writing and speaking about for the last two years. As we plan our new "system" of living for humans on planet Earth, we must ensure that, on balance, our future way of living, for the vast majority of humans, will be far more desirable than our way of living is today.
*I had to look up the marshmallow test and found that it relates to one of my favorite topics: delayed gratification.
How do we get started? By answering the simple question in the slide below. We must first realize that we're probably now living somewhere between 5% and 10% as sustainably as we need to be living in order to survive longterm as a species. One of my learned colleagues, Dr. Sailesh Rao, believes that we're only 2% there.
Whether it's two percent or ten percent, we definitely have a lot of work to do as we work urgently to answer this question:
In short, we must come together to plan, build and populate an entirely new system of living for humans on this planet. And that new system may have no resemblance to the GBN (Great Big Northern) that I have been writing and talking about for almost two years.
As I keep repeating, the GBN is just a "visual" clue of how a fully-sustainable civilization might look -- one that is possible using today's technology. As of early 2021, our prospects for creating that futuristic habitat for humanity doesn't seem very likely when one considers our current state of dysfunction in the USA.
But perhaps some huge natural disaster will jolt us into a joint venture with like-minded countries like the U.S., Canada, UK, France, Germany -- and a handful of powerful and innovative billionaires like Musk, Bezos, Gates, Cameron and Oprah.
If these three guys got together and brainstormed what a sustainable civilization might look like, the entire world would be talking about it within a week.
In our 2020 book, Outcry, we described one example of how a totally redesigned way of living on Earth might look -- using today's technology.
We had hoped that that single vision would help to spark a robust conversation about the desperate "need" to do whatever it takes for humanity to get right with nature.
So far, that much-needed conversation is still in its infancy.
Can A.I. help us get there? I have concluded that AI might be our single best hope when it comes to creating a beautiful, comfortable, meaningful and enjoyable habitat for humans. To get there requires radical positive change -- a phrase that Dr. Scranton also used in his piece:
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.
If you doubt my, and his, conclusion, you might want to take a look at Scranton's Goodbye to Normal article a few more times. Also take a look at the comments by its readers. It turns out that I'm not the only one who has been sounding off about radical positive change.
You should also take a look at this six-minute video (posted two days ago) about the millions of robots that are already becoming a huge part of our lives. And we're just getting started. When AI moves into the general intelligence and super intelligence spheres -- that's when things will really get interesting.
Battle of the Robot Armies - Elon Musk vs Jeff Bezos
Many people who know a lot more about AI than I do are fearful of what might happen when the robots assume too much power. I am more worried about what will happen if they don't get involved.
The Bottom Line. Left to our own devices, it is a near certainty that we will never learn to live sustainably -- soon enough to save ourselves. But, with the help of our lightning-fast thinking robots, we just might make it.
Here are two slides that I use when I talk about the hope that comes along with AI:
Do you disagree with my conclusion? You might want to take another look at Scranton's piece
. And while you're there, you should read a few dozen of those 969 comments. Here are Dr. Scranton's final words in this rare, front-page climate change article:
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.
Please circulate this SOS Memo widely and encourage others to do the same. Contact me directly at the email below if you would like to discuss.
You can find a handy link to this entire message at my SOS Memos page
. It is Memo #90, posted on January 26, 2021. While there, you can also join my mailing list.
In closing, let's do all that we can to get the attention of enough powerful leaders in industry, government, academia and entertainment to sharply raise the volume of the global discussion on this most crucial of all topics.
If you haven't read our book yet, it's not likely that you are taking this crucial topic very seriously.