A New Kind of Refugee

Our best science suggests that millions of people will suffer greatly in a warming world, from flooding, from fire, from disease. Many are becoming a new kind of refugee, exiles from a planet losing its resilience.
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I have a lot of sympathy for the climate skeptics. It really is hard to believe that our disorganized little species could have embarked on a project as grand as changing our planet's atmosphere. Sarah Palin, tapping on some sort of wireless device, recently wrote that it's "Arrogant&Naive2say man overpwers nature... R duty2responsbly devlop resorces4humankind," and unlike many of her bons mots, this one was almost poignant. We look skyward and still feel small. And we are, individually.

But there are a great many of us these days, and the relatively short course of human history is riddled with collapsed civilizations who presumed that the world's supply of one resource or another -- water, timber, animals, oil -- was infinite. Right now it seems that we're 'devlop'ing ourselves to death. We've filled many habitable parts of the world to the brim, and are, at least unconsciously, depending on the world to remain exactly as it is, or maybe a little bit nicer, to allow life to go on as usual.... much like the United States Congress' directive to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1950 that the distribution of flow and sediment in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers was "desirable" and to be maintained for ever.

The world, however, seems to resist nothing so much as staying the same. A few months ago I was startled to read that Virginia Woolf, in 1928, casually referred to the world population of two billion people as if it were a large number. My grandfather, I realized, was a toddler when she said this, and for some reason this fact, more than any chart or graph I've ever seen, brought home the strangeness of the reality that eighty years later, within a single human lifetime, we are now at nearly seven billion people, headed for nine. An unprecedented thing has happened, but outside of UN conferences, we don't really think or talk about it much in our daily lives, even as it looms over us.

Maybe it's beyond us. We're so hard-wired to reproduce, our economies are so dependent on a growing young population, and our minds are so focused on our immediate concerns that we may never voluntarily steer our numbers or our consumption into a sane, graceful decline (though a slight adjustment to the birth rate would work wonders in a short time, and prosaic solutions like contraceptives and improved education and opportunities for women really do help, apparently). When I look out the window of an airplane, I see our fingerprints and footprints on every inch of the landscape, sometimes so thoroughly obscuring it that it's nearly impossible to imagine what it was like before we swept over it like a wave. It's hard not to think that we must be approaching some kind of limit, that we're exhausting our world's elasticity, its ability to shelter and protect and provide for us. And you wonder: how did this ever become a 'normal' kind of life? How long can it possibly last? David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, used to give a speech in which he compressed the entire history of the earth into six metaphorical days. The dinosaurs, he said, would have appeared on the afternoon of the sixth day. The industrial revolution happened one-fortieth of a second before midnight. "We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely," he said. "They are considered normal, but they are stark raving mad."

Watching the depressing muddle of the Copenhagen talks, I kept thinking of the people of Bikini Atoll, who were evicted from their remote island home in 1946 so that the United States could tow battleships into their lagoon and scuttle them with atomic bombs. Film of the Bikinians being loaded into Navy ships is heartbreaking -- especially one shot of an humble, elegant Polynesian sailboat, lifted by a crane onto the deck of a destroyer, a relic of a world that's suddenly come face to face with a power too great to resist, and for which it was completely unprepared.

It wasn't the current representatives of island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives, nervously eyeing a rising sea, who reminded me of the Bikinians -- those delegations, in fact, seemed pretty clear-eyed. It was everyone else. In the rich world, we seem content in our own lagoons, blissfully (if deliberately) ignorant of approaching forces against which, if we do nothing now, our last-ditch efforts may indeed seem small. Some images stand out as bellwethers -- the gaudy spires of Dubai or Las Vegas, the Olympic ceremonies in Beijing, the aqueduct snaking through the desert to water Phoenix. But little scenes stand out just as much to me. People complaining about long lines at customs in Heathrow, for instance, always amaze me, given that they've just crossed continents and oceans in a few hours. Likewise the young soldier I saw entering the parking garage at the airport here in Austin, who announced with genuine relief that it was great to see big cars again. In the United States, at least, there's a frustrating and insidious knee-jerk reaction against even modest attempts by the government to curb the consumptive habits we've developed over the last few decades. Whenever I hear these voices, I always think of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, presidential candidate, and his campaign song: "Whatever it is," he bellows, "I'm against it."

I don't mean to paint this as a grand moral failing so much as a reflection of what seems to be a deeply human and ingrained trait. We have an amazing ability to get used to almost any circumstance, however ephemeral, cement it in our minds as a permanent condition, and then resist any suggestion of change. It's probably one of the very qualities that's allowed our species to thrive in so many different places and situations. But on a large scale, the result is a myopia that seems nonsensical at a very short distance. Another film I watched recently, a documentary about a wealthy Lebanese family struggling to maintain the life to which they were accustomed in Beirut during the civil war, seemed an almost cartoonish example of this. On the grounds of the house, as she fingered the leaves of a date palm mangled the previous night by shrapnel, a woman explained that "we were raised to believe that everything would always be all right. It is hard to let go of this feeling."

Whether we come to some kind of consensus or not, whether our population balloons or stabilizes, whether we keep burning coal by the megaton or not, whether we back away from the edge or sail over it, even whether the warming we're experiencing is or isn't a result of human depredations, our best science suggests that millions of people -- some of them toddlers now, many more yet to be born -- will suffer greatly in a warming world, from flooding, from fire, from disease. They are not likely to suffer in silence. Many may become -- indeed, are becoming -- a new kind of refugee, a new presence in the cities of the urbanizing world, exiles from a planet that's losing its resilience. And if we, in the richest nations, can't curb our appetites enough to forestall the worst of this suffering, the least we can do is consider that the people who are poised to face the greatest shocks are also the least able to absorb them. More than likely, they will also bear the least of the blame.

Whether you decide to care about them is up to you. But if Sarah Palin can spend time thinking about her duty to humankind, the rest of us should probably get in on the act, too.

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