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How to talk about the likely death of billions of people
Talking about climate related deaths in the billions is not an everyday conversation. I thought I would share with you some successes I have had, and some occasions where I have no idea how to proceed. I am sure someone reading this will have some insight. Here are the three situations I face:
Teacher/student. I teach SAT biology and AP biology and AP environmental science. At the SAT level, the coverage of global warming on the test is very minimal, just how does the process work, and a brief (and very understated) list of consequences. I always go ‘beyond the book” in every class I teach, so I expand on the theme of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and droughts/floods. Several times I have gotten the question, “How bad will it get?” I use the example of carrying capacity, and explain how populations that exceed the carrying capacity always crash, and then briefly mention that we (humans) have far exceeded the carrying capacity, and human population will crash to a much smaller number. This seems to work well for high school students with some basic knowledge of ecology. I can tell by looking at the faces that most “get” it, intellectually, but not at the gut level. A few clearly think I am delusional, and maybe one or two in each class seem to begin the process of really internalizing it. I haven’t yet had any bad reactions from parents. It seems that since this is a logical extension of the “official” lesson, it doesn’t come off as trying to “indoctrinate” the students.
My daughter and 3 grand children. Here, I really feel at a loss as to where to go. My daughter is 38, the two girls are 15 and 17, the grandson is 5. My daughter knows the basics of global warming, but is at the stage of “we can come together as a species and pull through.” Part of me wants to show her the mounting evidence that society will move backwards, and rapidly, as billions die. I want to treat her as an intelligent adult who should know the facts…but I can’t. Perhaps I feel that if I lead her to a deeper knowledge, then I am responsible for the stages of Denial, Anger, Grief, and possibly Acceptance. It’s one thing to stand outside and say, this is what a mature adult should do. But, how do I tell my own daughter that her children will face a world growing more and more hostile to life every year? How does that knowledge change the way she raises her kids, my grandkids? My current thinking is, to very gradually bring up the results of scientific studies, step by small step, and see how she integrates the information. Not talking about the imminent chaos is like pretending it isn’t real, and I have always been poor at pretending. No option here seems good. I am sure some of you have been in this situation; What did you do? And, what were the results?
Adult friends with families. I have two people in particular that I am thinking about. Both are seriously religious (I am an atheist), both have made enormous personal sacrifices to help family members who had absolutely no one else to turn to. Both have so much else on their plates that keeping up with climate change studies is impossible. My thought here is, when the topic of global warming comes up, just to say something true, but not even coming close to the full depth of the problem. These good, moral people are stretched to the limit as is, and I don’t see that trying to confront the full reality of what we face is even possible for them.
There is a common thread to these situations. I have accepted, fully and deeply, the reality of my own death for many decades. I can imagine without rancor a world without me, because I always said to myself, “Life will go on. Humans will go on. When I die, it leaves a spot so someone else can live, and grow, and flourish.” In other words, one can make a meaningful life by being part of a larger whole … humankind as a species, or even life in general. Now that we know that humanity is going down (how far down is still unsure), and taking much of the natural world down as well, what do you look to in order to make life worth the effort? One reason I am reluctant to talk about the impending collapse is that people will ask me that same question: What do I do now? How do I go on? I don’t have a real answer.
You probably noticed this is my first posting here at Nature Bats Last. I’ve previously neither written an essay nor posted a comment.
SanJoseMike is a 61-year-old, self-employed tutor/teacher of biology, chemistry, and environmental science, at the high school and early college levels (SAT, AP, and higher). He is actively involved with 350.org working against the Keystone pipeline. He has decided that, even though a major eco crash is unavoidable, he still has a moral obligation to do all he can to work against it.