Watching the World Go Bye

Eliot Jacobson's Collapse of Everything Blog

Climate Change

Children on the Road to Nowhere

Sometimes I just have to write about it, what else is there to do?

This morning my skin was crawling with how quickly collapse is accelerating.  On every front worse shit is happening than ever before in recorded human history on a global scale. And yet we are still talking about solutions, as-if any of them would really work or any of them would really ever happen.

It must be comforting to find a climate solution and truly believe in it. To think that we will mitigate methane to buy time to transition off fossil fuels while the planet moves to a prosperous and bright green economy full of climate justice for all. We are desperate to have hope, and solutions offer hope, no matter how unlikely their future.

Become a vegan, end fossil fuels, shut down fracking, use green energy, ride a bike, drive an electric vehicle. The answer is carbon taxes, credits, offsets, scrubbers and sinks. We need to be sustainable, clean, green, organic, adaptive and natural while planting our victory garden fertilized by our own recycled human excrement. All we need is de-growth and to freely share our “new economy” bitcoin fortunes while gluing our hands to bank counters in order to enact social justice worldwide, for the children.

I’ve got a low-calorie solution: let’s all turn our heads to the sky, take the deepest breath we can, and blow that hot air right out of here. That’s how ridiculous all of this shit sounds to me at this point.

If you haven’t been paying attention, methane (CH₄) is sitting near its all-time high near 1910 parts per billion (ppb) and carbon dioxide (CO₂) just hit a new all-time high of over 420 parts per million (ppm). If this doesn’t sound like much CO₂, for comparison it’s about the same dilution as if 3500 people all peed into an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the same time.

Other greenhouse gasses are also hitting new record highs, including N₂O and SF₆. Atmospheric CO₂ has gone up about 30% in the last 50 years. Methane was under 750 ppb just two centuries ago, meaning it has risen over a staggering 150% since pre-industrial levels.

For more than 200 years we have been witnessing a real-time grade-school chemistry experiment playing out in our global atmosphere with no adult supervision around to stop us from blowing up everything.

And because of all of these gasses and all of the other accelerating feedback loops already in place, things are heating up like never before. The earth energy imbalance  (the difference between the amount of incoming solar radiation and outgoing  longwave radiation) just hit a new all-time high of 1.64 watt per square meter (W/m²).  The heating of the planet is now three times faster than it was just 20 years ago. (Thanks to Leon Simmons for permission to use this image.)

The World Meteorological Organization just predicted that there’s a 40% chance the planet will break 1.5°C for a full year sometime in the next five years. The Paris accord limit, an ice-free Arctic and the Amazon rainforest will be in the rear view window very soon.

But, what about the children?  What about the grandkids?  What about their future?

With some frequency I am contacted via e-mail or DM by a 20-something asking me what they should do? Should they stay in school? Start a family? Have kids? What can they do to help save the planet? Will they have a future at all?

All I can do is say how I respond, what having this knowledge does for my personal life choices. I mention volunteerism, my personal go-to for stress relief. Of course, this relies on my having loads of free time, no kids to take care of, as well as retirement income, putting me well into the category of “entitled.”

Climate anxiety is now in the headlines several times a week. Among young adults aged 16-25, almost 60% say they are “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. There are dozens of books, including agonizing fact-filled treatises and dystopian-apocalypse-filled fiction, detailing what might take place. There are interviews and videos, essays and blogs, experts from ecology to sociology to economics to physics all spelling it out in the clearest voice — everything is going away. Civilization is collapsing. The planet is collapsing. We are living in the days of the sixth great extinction.

No matter where the child lives on the planet, they are learning this truth one way or another. They are learning that there there are no “plans” for a bright future and that adults lie about a lot of things. They are learning to distrust and reject organizations, including non-profits, NGO’s, industry, religions, education and their own government. They are being confronted with dozens of “solutions,” including saving the rainforests, banning beef, carbon capture, stopping coal and geo-engineering. Our children are learning that no solution, no amount of money and no social change is going to fix this mess.

Our children and youth are so much sadder than we can imagine and they are getting sadder by the day. Unlike recent generations, their anxiety is not a result of being worried about school or friends or relationships, and it is not about war or hunger or poverty or disease; it is anxiety born of attempting to come to terms with the demise of everything and having no emotional tools for the task. We adults who are aware enough to know what’s coming will be the ones cradling today’s youth in our arms, sobbing uncontrollably along with them, whispering, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” even while dealing with our own growing and often-times disabling grief.

I say all of this not to alarm, but to give another side to some of the absurdities being expressed. One thing we should never do, not for a moment, is raise unrealistic expectations about what the future of this planet holds. The sober truth is what will allow us to properly grieve and be strong, while we help our children and today’s youth make life choices knowing this unstoppable future in coming.

Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D.

Retired professor of mathematics and computer science, retired casino consultant, now a full time volunteer, husband and grandfather. Know-it-all doomer. Born in the year 316 ppm CO2.

13 thoughts on “Children on the Road to Nowhere

  • 2

    Thank you for this. I take no comfort in guessing how things would go back in high school, almost 40 years ago. I felt some hope in the late 80s and early 90s, given the Montreal Protocol and the Rio Earth Summit, but even CFCs are being produced again, if illegally.

    I have no children to face with these dilemmas, but I’ve wondered what I would say to young people that asked me what I would do, or what hope there is. I’m faced with the same paradox all adults are asked to accept in terms of their own value and identity: you’re very important, and need to be here, while it’s simultaneously true that you don’t matter, at all. But even below that, the foundation of all relations with youth must be an absolute refusal to lie to them. Very difficult, given that we live in a phantasmagoria constructed to addict people to buying things they need to define their identity, a great show where the biggest difficulty we face is inconvenience and insult. But the truth is as Buddha described: lying right there, so common people trip over it, then pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go on as if nothing had happened.

    The best formulation of our current crisis I’ve come across is an exhortation to give up hope, which is worse than useless. Now, we need to be brave.

  • Malcolm Waugh

    Did you know about this connection between black-jack and Los Alamos scientists? From a first-hand account of a nuclear bomb test:

    By the time we reached Las Vegas, it was about nine at night. A test had been scheduled for the following morning, but it had become customary for the people who were working at the test site to spend their free time in Las Vegas. Since the tests were scheduled just before dawn to insure the right light for photography, and since there was nothing for us to do at the site anyway, we joined some of the other people from Los Alamos to play blackjack in the casinos. Not long before my summer at Los Alamos it had been shown, mathematically, that black-jack is the only casino gambling game in which a successful strategy can actually be made. It is fairly complicated, and makes use of the fact that in casino black-jack the dealer is, in effect, an automaton who follows preset rules. In any event, the theoreticians at Los Alamos had developed the strategy empirically by playing thousands and thousands of hands of one of the computers in its off hours. (The same strategy had also been worked out independently by mathematical methods). This had resulted in the preparation of a summary strategy card of which people going to the test site could get a copy. If one followed the rules one would be assured, at least, of losing one’s money at the slowest possible rate. I have never enjoyed card games very much, but this one appealed to me as a mathematical exercise. I do not have any recollection of having won anything. Low remembers hat he won about ten dollars. About 1:00 A.M., there was some prearranged signal in the casino, and we all left by automobile for the test site (Jeremy Bernstein, ‘Science Observed’, 1982, p. 134).

  • Brian R Smith

    “Become a vegan, end fossil fuels, shut down fracking, use green energy, ride a bike, drive an electric vehicle. The answer is carbon taxes, credits, offsets, scrubbers and sinks. We need to be sustainable, clean, green, organic, adaptive and natural while planting our victory garden fertilized by our own recycled human excrement. All we need is de-growth and to freely share our “new economy” bitcoin fortunes while gluing our hands to bank counters in order to enact social justice worldwide, for the children.”

    George Carlin couldn’t have strung that litany of foolishness together any better. And I think satire is actually a gift, essentially well meant, to those on the receiving end. A gift of unrepentant honesty, whether they thank you for it later or not. So, thanks for your unrepentant honesty.

    I have two grand children, 11 & 9, but don’t get to see them often. Their privileged, informed parents are at a loss, for now, about what to tell them, so they keep the terrible secret off the table. For now.Fairy tales with heros & hopeful endings aren’t coming back to buffer the end-of-the-world story, they are well aware. So It will be unimaginably hard for our young to deal with an expected dystopian future they are helpless to change or avoid. There are no tidy life-saving answers parents can give them. All we can do is help them understand reality & the need prepare ingeniously & unselfishly.

    • 0

      Thank you for your nod to Carlin, that is a great compliment! As for parents who are “at a loss” on how to tell their kids — at least that means they understand the problem. Many of us are in a similar spot — who can we tell and how can we tell it? I am sure there are some young folks reading this blog — they figure it out pretty quickly.

      • Jayasree Srivastava

        Thank you for this post. It makes me feel less alone. I live in the consumption capital of the world, Dubai, surrounded by people who seem to have incredibly naive views on sustainability and the like. I have no one to talk to (not even my husband) about how much grief I feel for what my children are likely to encounter.

        • 1

          Thank you for your honest and heartfelt reply. Dubai is a city built on the wealth of fossil fuels, it must be very challenging to be aware of what’s happening while being surrounded by all that.

  • 1

    Thanks for this. In 2018 I made a submission to the UN that argued the safe global temperature rise was less than 0.5degC and we needed immediate SRM, and we needed it for hundreds of thousands of years and we needed to go to zero carbon to have any chance of surviving. I gave talks to the great and the good in Europe abs my colleague did the same in the US.

    Nothing happened, so as you say the future is non existent.

    The response is for children and schools is get immersed in the ideology of trans. Its image of multi coloured unicorns contrasts with the monochrome black of the future and the trans philosophy of maximising person liberties contrasts with climate change’s philosophy of minimising personal liberties to merely cushion the blow of a crash landing.

    In some UK schools, about 1 in 10 girls identify as trans. Teachers and students mutually reinforce the dogma and stamp out dissent. Meanwhile, other than the most trivial, there is no worthwhile teaching on sustainably anymore.

  • 1

    We read the wrong book; heard the wrong people. We are still watching graphs and making
    measurements, analyzing past collapsed cultures like the Maya and Sumerians.

    We are ruled by-as Hannah Arrendt says-“Nobody.” Now is the time for the poets and writers and knowers from Lao Tzu to Wordsworth.

    The Bourgeoisie as understood by Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan is collapsing; the human lower NAF as the Sufi’s and Rumi and the poet Lorca knew, was winning the battle.

    The solution? There is one- despite the calamities we know are real; it’s not in a graph or in measurements; there is no angst or hand-wringing: it is the understanding of human spirit, human appetite and to be adults-the hardest thing in our lives because, as before, as Lao Tzu or Rumi articulated, it takes a Moses to kill a “fetish made of energy.”

    That’s where we are, dealing with as Lorca said 70 years ago:”
    The primitve energy (is) dancing with the machine energy, in their frenzy wholly ignorant of the original light.” (Tranlsation Robert Bly).

    Forgo the hand-wringing and angst and the message of doom; talk to our you youth in the terms of these poets, writers and knowers; we do not know what the Earth will do, but it is its own organism and yes, we are in the way of energies far beyond our understanding or capabilities.

  • 1

    Thank you for this heartfelt lament. It resonates.

    I grieve for my students’ future. I count myself lucky – so undeservedly lucky – to have been born at the best time possible, lived through the height of the party, to have timed it all just right so that my creaky old self now walks hand-in-hand with the whole planet into the looming void.

    Earth will soon be a peaceful place, like Mars and Venus.

  • Duane Howison

    I went vegan about 15 years ago but it might make things worse if adopted worldwide. We could feed a lot more humans on a plant based diet which means we WOULD feed a lot more humans.

  • 1

    I’m afraid that too many of the young are going to choose hate and violence as a solution to their anxiety. I feel increasingly fearful and sad for the violence and death being delivered by the hateful to people who do not deserve it.

    Long ago I worked with people with severe mental illness, helping them grocery shop and clean house, and I noticed that some of the most fearful of them used anger and scapegoating as a way to feel less powerless. As we all feel the powerlessness growing, too many otherwise mentally normal people are going to turn to scapegoats and violence to medicate their anxiety. Unlike my former clients, these people are not going to be so disorganized they can’t execute on their paranoia. They will be people fully capable of brutality, of executing their plans gleefully. It’s terrifying.

    Thank you for encouraging young people to turn to kindness, generosity and service. It really is the only right thing to do.


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