Five years ago I woke in the middle of the night and wrote a letter to myself about climate change. I’ve never shared it with anyone. I didn’t think other people would relate to how I was feeling. But now that articles about the end of civilisation are going viral, I can see I’m not the only one who’s been up late at night, shuddering with this awful premonition.
The letter I wrote to myself is called ‘living in the lag’, and it starts like this. ‘The world around you right now no longer exists. The conditions that created it have already changed and the society you know remains the same only due to inertia. Recognise this lag. Plan according not to what you see around you today — a reality established by causes decades or centuries before — but according to the emerging conditions that will dictate the future.’
All abstract stuff, so let me draw out the lessons.
Our current society’s wealth is the product of centuries of burning fossil fuels. Our economic system is a carryover of 18th-century ideas that the environment is an abundant, endless resource for exploitation. None of this holds true anymore: we have to stop burning coal, gas and oil for energy if we are to have any hope of maintaining a stable climate, and we know there are hard limits to destroying the ecosystems that sustain us.
The foundation of our way of life has already crumbled away, but most of us haven’t noticed because the worst effects won’t hit for decades, and we can only see the world through limited human timescales. The next five or ten or 20 years can’t be predicted in precise detail, but the general trajectory of the next 200 years is pretty clear: the world will keep getting hotter, and our current civilisation will deplete the ‘natural capital‘ that underpins it. Technology will mask the initial symptoms, but ultimately compound the problem. (Air-conditioning, for example, can provide temporary relief during heatwaves, but increases electricity use and therefore greenhouse gases, heating our planet even further.) We are facing a sudden collapse, a slow but terminal decline, or an evolution to a society that uses far less energy and resources.
Climate change isn’t the only environmental crisis, but it’s the best example of what I’m talking about. The current overheating of the planet is a slow-motion catastrophe. Once in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide can continue to affect the climate for thousands of years. Much of the extra heat is absorbed by the oceans, also over extremely long time scales. There is at least 0.5 degrees of warming currently masked by smog, which has a cooling effect. Even in the best-case scenario, with drastic cuts to global emissions, we are still looking at two or more degrees of warming. This could trigger natural tipping points, such as the melting of permafrost, releasing even more potent warming gases. Once underway, the climate could enter a runaway ‘hothouse Earth‘ scenario over centuries or millennia.
The thing to keep in mind is that many of these changes are already locked in, either due to the scale and momentum of the forces involved, or because we can’t possibly shift global society quickly enough to prevent some effects. So the climate we will face in another 50 or 100 years already exists, we just haven’t arrived at it yet. The world around us now is an unsustainable society that hasn’t caught up to future conditions.
What do we do with this knowledge? In the dark hours of the early morning five years ago, I wrote some guidance to myself. ‘You may grieve for the loss of the present, the role you wanted to have, the person you thought you would be. You will be desperate to refute this new information. You will want to pretend the world around you right now might continue on indefinitely.’
This has been true. I don’t want to believe the foundations of our society have already shifted. I want to continue living the life of a cosmopolitan westerner, immersed in the cleverness of our media, the comfort of our conveniences, the wonder of our technology. I want to make a name for myself in my career, build up wealth, travel to exotic places, create beautiful works of art. While criticising my country and my culture for many of its cruel stupidities, I also love so much about this civilisation. Even more so than a physical place, western civilisation is my home, all I have ever known. I don’t want to change.
So here I sit: participating in the society around me, acting as if it will continue indefinitely in its current form, while knowing deep down that the conditions underpinning it have already changed. I too am living in the lag.
Sometimes it feels like culture shock. I’m dislocated, my body in the present but my mind focused on the future. When I’m in one of these moods, I ask myself: what is our purpose as humans alive at this unique moment? Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by an enormous sense of responsibility. As an educated citizen in a wealthy country, I have the privilege of knowing about climate change, and the time to prepare.
When I answer this question for myself, I realise it’s the same answer for our society. Along with fighting to reduce the pollution causing the climate crisis — because every bit matters — we also need to prepare for a hotter world. We have a few decades left to use the incredibly dense energy in fossil fuels to build a new, cleaner infrastructure that can allow us to retain the best aspects of the current civilisation (modern medicine comes to mind) while giving birth to a more sustainable culture. We are trying to save the planet’s species, but we are also trying to save ourselves and the generations after us.
There’s much more to this than just building renewable energy, switching to electric vehicles etc. As Clive Hamilton writes in Requiem for a Species, we need to ‘democratise survivability’ in a hotter climate. If the current inequality continues, then the ultra-wealthy will use their power to seize and monopolise essential natural resources. We’ll end up with ‘climate bunkers’ in temperate islands and mass famines elsewhere.
We also need to re-learn the skills we outsourced during consumer capitalism: growing food at home, mending clothes, living simply and cooperating with our neighbours in a village. For many of us, this will involve making amends with our families and living in traditional multi-generation households. (A good guidebook for making these changes is David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia.)
The tricky part is finding the time to learn the essential skills of this new culture while being enmeshed in the current one. This is what I struggle with the most. It’s hard changing the system when you’re still plugged into it. But this is one of our difficult tasks while living in the lag: to use the extraordinary wealth of the present to prepare for the hotter climate we’ve already locked in.