Archaeologists working in the buried Roman city of Pompeii say they have uncovered a “sorcerer’s treasure trove” of artefacts, including good-luck charms, mirrors and glass beads.
Most of the items would have belonged to women, said Massimo Osanna, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
A room with the bodies of 10 victims, including women and children, was excavated in the same house.
Pompeii was engulfed by a volcanic eruption from Mt Vesuvius in AD 79.
The fatal eruption froze the city and its residents in time, making it a rich source for archaeologists.
The trove was found in what remained of a wooden box. The wood itself had decomposed and only the bronze hinges remained, preserved by the volcanic material which hardened over it.
- Pompeii’s not-so-ancient Roman remains
- Horse found in harness at Pompeii
- Narcissus fresco uncovered in Pompeii
In it were crystals, ceramic, amethysts and amber. Scarabs (beetle-shaped amulets) from the Middle East were identified, along with various gems, including a carnelian with a craftsman figure and a glass bead engraved with the head of Dionysus, the Roman god of wine, fertility and ritual madness.
It was more likely the objects belonged to a servant or a slave, rather than the owner of the house, Mr Osanna told the Italian news agency Ansa. None of the artefacts was made of gold, much favoured by the wealthy of Pompeii.
“They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories, biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption,” Mr Osanna said.
Archaeologists are now trying to establish kinship ties between the bodies found in the house via DNA analysis.
“Perhaps the precious box belonged to one of these victims,” Mr Osanna speculated. The items in the box may have been worn during rituals as charms against bad luck, rather than as ornamentation, he said.
The chest was uncovered in the House of the Garden in Region V of the archaeological park – the same area where an inscription was discovered last year, indicating that the eruption may have taken place in October 79, two months later than previously thought.
The house itself would have belonged to a man of high status, confirmed by the quality of the amber and glass beads found in the trove, archaeologists say.
Most people in Pompeii were not killed by slow-moving molten lava, but by a vast cloud of hot gas and fragments, called a pyroclastic flow. The cloud surged over the city, killing its residents wherever they were, and burying them in ash, preserving their final moments.
This is the sixth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.
Few scholars have been as influential as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing in imagining new ways of being in a multispecies world at the edge of extinction. We were delighted to have these two creative and inspiring thinkers join us in a wide-ranging conversation on the Plantationocene on April 18, 2019. The conversation took place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Miami, Meskwaki, Sauk and Ho-Chunk peoples, who were forcibly displaced from their home areas through acts of violence and dispossession.
Over the course of the evening, the discussion spanned from the possibilities and limits of the Anthropocene as a new geologic epoch, to the enduring legacies of the plantation, to the symbiotic and mutualistic associations that constitute all forms of life, to the capacity of joy and play in a world facing warming temperatures, rising seas, accelerating species extinction, and widespread land dispossession.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights and a full transcript, edited for clarity, follow.
These transcribed interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Find the full transcript of their conversation available as a PDF here.
Gregg Mitman: I want to start with this concept that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, the Anthropocene—this notion of the age of the human, that we are now living in a geologic age where humans are a geomorphic force on the planet at the planetary scale. I know both of you have somewhat different relationships to this concept, and I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about what possibilities it offers, what limitations it poses, and why it angers you so, Donna?
Donna Haraway: Or does it still?
GM: Let’s begin there.
Anna Tsing: I use the concept of the Anthropocene despite acknowledging the importance of many criticisms, including Donna’s, concerning how this word can mislead us. There are two reasons that I use the word anyway. Maybe a third reason is my general philosophy that it’s better to try to add meanings to words rather than to subtract words. But there are two substantive reasons. The first is that it’s the term that allows interdisciplinary conversation between natural scientists and humanists, and I think that conversation is essential to learning anything about what’s going on in our planet these days.
The second reason has to do with some of the very worst things about the term’s Enlightenment legacy. The term appeals to a false universal of homogeneous “Man,” which was created with a white, Christian, heterosexual male person as the basis for the universal. Paying attention to that legacy can help us to figure out what’s happening on the planet. It allows us to ask, for example, why so many landscape modification projects were made without thinking at all about what their effects might be on the people who live around them as well as local ecologies. That problematic legacy can help us focus in on the uneven, unequal features of planetary environmental issues.
DH: It’s not that I disagree with anything that Anna said, and I also tend to want to work by addition and not by subtraction, multiplying terms to a point where you can foreground them and background them to do different work differently situated.
Also, I think the term Anthropocene has simply been adopted, and that it is no longer a question about whether to work within this category in productive ways and in the kinds of alliances that it encourages. I share very much with Anna the sense that my natural science colleagues understand the Anthropocene and can speak to me or to others about it while other terms—like Capitalocene, for example—kind of put them off. But this strength is also a problem.. My natural science colleagues—and for that matter myself and my colleagues in general—have a tendency to think that apparatuses and terminologies like, for example, climate change are going to be translatable somehow to all parts of the world, even if the phenomena in question are experienced differently.
For example, the astute peoples of the circumpolar north have developed Indigenous vocabularies and both analytical and experiential ways of talking about the changes in the ice, the changes in the waters, the changes in the position of stars in the sky because of the way sea ice and fog will refract differently and so on. These people, who live on the land might react to the notion of climate change as another southern importation that tends, yet once again, to make it almost impossible to propose local terms for analytical work.
I want to nurture—to somehow force, if necessary—the attachment sites and contact zones so that all of the players have to somehow learn each other’s idioms in a way that changes everybody so that no one remains the same as they were at the beginning and can perhaps find more collaborative, decolonial ways to address urgent problems. Often, Indigenous people are forced to learn southern idioms, but the reverse is much less true. That is not tolerable.
I want to nurture the attachment sites and contact zones so that all of the players learn each other’s idioms.
The power of a term like Anthropocene, it’s importance, has a very problematic quality. Then I’m also less generous than Anna about the potential of remembering the Enlightenment dimension of the “Anthropos” and of “Man” because I experience, in fact, among my colleagues across activist and scholarly worlds, a tendency to think that Anthropocene really does mean a species act. That the problem really is humanity, not “Man” in the Enlightenment sense, but humanity in its evolutionary social history on this planet— its increase in numbers, its increase in demands. This strengthens the illusion that turning all that is Earth into resource for humanity is inevitable, if tragic.
There’s a way in which the Anthropocene is considered a species act as opposed to an historical, situated set of conjunctures that are absolutely not a species act. Most peoples on this planet have precisely not lived and exercised the same kinds of processes that break generations, that radically simplify ecologies, that drastically force labor in a mass way that creates a kind of global transformation and global wealth that is in and of itself genocidal and extinctionist. That is not a species act; it’s a situated historical set of conjunctures, and I think to this day the term Anthropocene makes it harder, not easier, for people to understand that.
GM: You talked about proliferation of terms and the importance of that in terms of generative thinking. You yourself have really helped us with that in generating some more ‘cenes beyond the Capitalocene. In the midst of a conversation around the Anthropocene that you and Anna had at Aarhus a few years ago, you said, “Well, what about the Plantationocene?” So, what is the Plantationocene? Why did you feel the need to introduce that term? Maybe we could just begin with this question: what is a plantation? This is actually not so simple. We’ve been wrestling with that definition here in the conversations and seminars we’ve been having.
DH: We were wrestling with it, too. There is a way in which the Plantationocene forces attention to the growing of food and the plantation as a system of multispecies forced labor. The plantation system speeds up generation time. The plantation disrupts the generation times of all the players. It radically simplifies the number of players and sets up situations for the vast proliferation of some and the removal of others. It’s an epidemic friendly way of rearranging species life in the world. It is a system that depends on forced human labor of some kind because if labor can escape, it will escape the plantation.
The plantation system requires either genocide or removal or some mode of captivity and replacement of a local labor force by coerced labor from outside, either through various forms of indenture, unequal contract, or out-and-out slavery. The plantation really depends on very intense forms of labor slavery, including also machine labor slavery, a building of machines for exploitation and extraction of earthlings. I think it is also important to include the forced labor of nonhumans—plants, animals, and microbes—in our thinking.
The capacity to love and care for place is radically incompatible with the plantation.
So, when I think about the question, what is a plantation, some combination of these things seems to me to be pretty much always present across a 500-year period: radical simplification; substitution of peoples, crops, microbes, and life forms; forced labor; and, crucially, the disordering of times of generation across species, including human beings.
I’m avoiding the word reproduction because of its productionist aspect, but I want to emphasize the radical interruption of the possibility of the care of generations and, as Anna taught me, the breaking of the tie to place—that the capacity to love and care for place is radically incompatible with the plantation. Thinking from the plantation, all of those things seem to be always present in various combinations.
AT: I’ll just add briefly that the term plantation for me evokes the heritage of a particular set of histories involving what happened after the European invasion of the New World, particularly involving the capture of Africans as enslaved labor and the simplification of crops so as to allow enslaved laborers to be the agricultural workers. In many small, independent farming situations, dozens of crops are raised that need to be tended by farmers who are invested in attending to each one. In designing systems for coerced labor, ecological simplifications entered agriculture.
The plantation was precisely the conjuncture between ecological simplifications, the discipline of plants in particular, and the discipline of humans to work on those. That legacy, which I think is very much with us today, is so naturalized that many people believe that that is the meaning of the term agriculture; we forget that there are other ways to farm. The plantation takes us into that discipline-of-people/discipline-of-plants conjuncture.
Want more of their conversation? Edge Effects is excited to provide a full transcript of Gregg Mitman’s interview with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, in an accompanying booklet designed by Nicole Bennett with Addie Hopes and Laura Perry. Click here to read—and we hope you’ll share it, too.
Featured image: An oil palm plantation in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, operated by Sime Darby Plantation. Sime Darby is the world’s largest palm oil plantation company by planted area. It was granted a concession by the Liberian government in 2009 for a 63-year lease on up to 220,000 hectares to grow monoculture oil palm. Still from The Land Beneath Our Feet (2016). Photo by Sarita Siegel.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Donna Haraway is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Attending to the intersection of biology with culture and politics, Haraway’s work explores the string figures composed by science fact, science fiction, speculative feminism, speculative fabulation, science and technology studies, and multispecies worlding. Her recent books include Making Kin Not Population, co-edited with Adele Clarke and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Website. Contact.
Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His most recent work includes The Land Beneath Our Feet, a documentary co-directed and co-produced with Sarita Siegel on history, memory, and land rights in Liberia, and Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, co-edited with Marco Armiero and Robert S. Emmett. He is the founding director of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) and co-organizer of the multi-year John E. Sawyer Seminar, Interrogating the Plantationocene, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His previous contributions to Edge Effects include “Plantation Legacies” (January 2019) and “A History of the Anthropocene in Objects” (May 2018). Website. Twitter. Contact.
Anna Tsing is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Between 2013 and 2018, she was a Niels Bohr professor at Aarhus University where she led the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) group. She is the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins and a co-editor of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (with Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt). Her newest work is a digital project, in preparation, entitled Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include the podcast episode “The Best of End Times: A Conversation with Anna Tsing” (September 2017). Website. Contact.
EXCERPT> Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
Across the region, other, larger structures will also start to fail. Until 1974, the state of Oregon had no seismic code, and few places in the Pacific Northwest had one appropriate to a magnitude-9.0 earthquake until 1994. The vast majority of buildings in the region were constructed before then. Ian Madin, who directs the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (dogami), estimates that seventy-five per cent of all structures in the state are not designed to withstand a major Cascadia quake. fema calculates that, across the region, something on the order of a million buildings—more than three thousand of them schools—will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake. So will half of all highway bridges, fifteen of the seventeen bridges spanning Portland’s two rivers, and two-thirds of railways and airports; also, one-third of all fire stations, half of all police stations, and two-thirds of all hospitals.
Certain disasters stem from many small problems conspiring to cause one very large problem. For want of a nail, the war was lost; for fifteen independently insignificant errors, the jetliner was lost. Subduction-zone earthquakes operate on the opposite principle: one enormous problem causes many other enormous problems. The shaking from the Cascadia quake will set off landslides throughout the region—up to thirty thousand of them in Seattle alone, the city’s emergency-management office estimates. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it. Fifteen per cent of Seattle is built on liquefiable land, including seventeen day-care centers and the homes of some thirty-four thousand five hundred people. So is Oregon’s critical energy-infrastructure hub, a six-mile stretch of Portland through which flows ninety per cent of the state’s liquid fuel and which houses everything from electrical substations to natural-gas terminals. Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.
Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable. The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible. For the seventy-one thousand people who live in Cascadia’s inundation zone, that will mean evacuating in the narrow window after one disaster ends and before another begins. They will be notified to do so only by the earthquake itself—“a vibrate-alert system,” Kevin Cupples, the city planner for the town of Seaside, Oregon, jokes—and they are urged to leave on foot, since the earthquake will render roads impassable. Depending on location, they will have between ten and thirty minutes to get out. That time line does not allow for finding a flashlight, tending to an earthquake injury, hesitating amid the ruins of a home, searching for loved ones, or being a Good Samaritan. “When that tsunami is coming, you run,” Jay Wilson, the chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (osspac), says. “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”
A volcano has erupted on the Italian island of Stromboli, killing one person and sending frightened tourists fleeing.
The victim is a male hiker who was hit by a falling stone, while other people were injured.
The navy has been deployed for a possible mass evacuation, with 70 people already evacuated.
The volcano is one of the most active on the planet and has been under a regular state of eruption since 1932.
“Unfortunately one man is dead, there are a few injured, but none seriously,” emergency worker Calogero Foti told Italy’s Rai television.
The victim was a 35-year-old man from Sicily who was hiking when the volcano exploded twice. His Brazilian friend was discovered dehydrated and in a state of shock, the AGI news agency reported.
Firefighters are battling flames on the island.
“We saw the explosion from the hotel. There was a loud roar,” said Michela Favorito, who works in a hotel on the island.
“We plugged our ears and after this a cloud of ash swept over us. The whole sky is full of ash, a fairly large cloud,” she said.
Fiona Carter, a British tourist on the island of Panarea, some 17 miles from Stromboli, heard the eruption.
“We turned around to see a mushroom cloud coming from Stromboli. Everyone was in shock. Then red hot lava started running down the mountain towards the little village of Ginostra,” she told Reuters.
Holidaymakers were reported to have run into the sea after seeing ash rising from the volcano. The island is a popular location for holiday homes of the rich and famous.
Stromboli is known as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” and has a population of around 500. The last major eruption was in 2002, when a blast destroyed local buildings and piers, injuring six.
Oarfish: Geologist explains their ‘link’ to earthquakes
The fish, said to swim in shallow water ahead of an earthquake, comes as a warning to the residents. Measuring at 13.9 feet, the fish washed up in Barangay Poblacion in Compostela town in northern Cebu yesterday. The deep-sea fish died when locals tried to pull it from the rocks where it was hiding and ripped off its head.
The Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office shared a photo of the fish on Facebook.
The group said: “Those who found the fish said it suddenly appeared hiding on the rocks located near the dike.
“They caught it by the head and started to pull it hard not knowing that it had a soft body, the reason why its head was ripped off.”
One resident said it was the first time the fish had washed up on their shorelines, according to CDN.
Oarfish reportedly warn residents of an imminent earthquake
Oarfish are deep sea fish making it a rare occurence they are spotted in shallow waters
The fish are traditionally known as “Ryugu no tsukai” in Japanese, or the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace”.
Legend has associated the huge fish as an omen.
The myth gathered believers after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed more than 20,000 people.
The quake had a magnitude of nine and was one of the biggest recorded in a century.
Oarfish are considered an omen
A dozen oarfish had washed up onto Japan’s coastline in 2010 before the disaster.
But scientists dispute such claims.
Uozu Aquarium keeper Kazusa Saiba told CNN that global warming or subtle changes in the Earth’s crust could “cause the current to stir and push creatures at the bottom to the surface.
“There is no scientific evidence at all for the theory that oarfish appear around big quakes. But we cannot 100 percent deny the possibility.”
The debate over whether climate change will end life on Earth, explained.
Is climate change going to end human civilization for good, and so soon that we may as well not bother saving for retirement?
That’s the theory put forward in a recent viral Vice post: “New Report Warns ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Within 30 Years.’”
The Vice story summed up a new report from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, an Australian think tank, arguing that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysis of the impacts of climate change understates how much harm it’ll do, and that in reality we face something much worse, with runaway feedback effects amplifying the initial warming until the Earth is “largely uninhabitable.” It doesn’t actually argue that the world will end in 30 years, but it suggests we’ll reach the tipping point by then.
The story went up on Vice with an orange-tinged, haunting illustration of the Statue of Liberty submerged to the neck by rising seas. The post was shared more than 70,000 times on Facebook and left readers terrified, despairing, and sharing doubts about whether it’s ethical to have children.
The Breakthrough report — and the media coverage of it — frustrated many climate scientists. In a detailed response, six researchers argued that the report overstates the risks from climate change, and that subsequent reporting overstated it even further. The fact is that even the most pessimistic reports, evaluated responsibly, don’t suggest climate change will end human civilization, much less within our lifetimes. (Don’t stop saving for retirement.) Vice lateraltered the headline to “New Report Warns ‘High Likelihood Of Human Civilization Coming To An End’ Starting Within 30 Years’ — and even published a rebuttal.
But the Vice piece tapped into what’s actually been a long-running and sometimes contentious conversation about the climate crisis — specifically, about whether it’s merely just devastating or in fact an existential risk to humanity.
And it resonated with people in part because most mainstream research into climate change focuses on the most likely scenario, not on worst-case scenarios of climate disaster, leaving a lot of questions about those worst-case scenarios unanswered. How likely are they? How catastrophic would they be? Scientists don’t all agree, and that uncertainty creates room for the most shocking stories to go viral.
Beneath the disagreement over climate risks is a disagreement over worldviews. From one perspective, quibbling over whether climate change will kill millions or billions is a silly waste of time when, in either case, we urgently need to act. But from another perspective, the difference is deeply significant; for example, it changes whether potential solutions that carry significant risks, like some forms of solar geoengineering, are warranted.
Another broad disagreement is whether alarmism makes our prospects of tackling climate change better or worse. As some people see it, we’re not doing nearly enough to fight climate change, so we’d better focus in on the worst-case scenarios in case that will be what it takes to finally spur people to action. Others, though, worry that alarmism, far from motivating people, leads to paralysis — too much despair about the future to even bother working on it.
So, yes, the Vice story did hype up the threat from the climate crisis, and it likely won’t be the last of those stories we’ll see.
The argument that climate change will kill us all
They suggest the planet’s climate will change fast enough to cause widespread droughts and famines, the spread of insect-borne diseases, the displacement of populations, and a worsening of severe poverty.
But here’s one thing they don’t predict: mass civilizational collapse.
Most models warn that as a result of climate change, the incredibly rapid progress humanity has been making in life expectancies and in ending extreme poverty will stall; we could even lose decades of the progress we’ve made. If extreme poverty gets as bad as it was in 1980 due to climate change, that will be an immeasurable humanitarian failure, and hundreds of millions of people will die. But the 1980s definitely did have human civilization, and the future in this version would too.
Another way of looking at it is that the predicted effects of climate change are very bad, but not in a cinematic way. Sea levels will rise, but not up to the Statue of Liberty’s neck (if all the ice in the world melted, sea levels would rise to approximately the statue’s waist). Lots of people will die, most of them low-income. It’s not surprising that this gets less viral attention than extreme, extinction-focused scenarios.
But that isn’t to say extreme scenarios are made up from nothing. Where do some people conclude that climate change might swallow up civilization itself?
Well, for one thing, lots of climate policy analysts agree that the IPCC is too optimistic. In particular, the IPCC has kept insisting that it’s still possible to keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius when at this point, that’s really unrealistic. As my colleague David Roberts put it:
Models have often included unrealistically low estimates of current and future emissions growth, unrealistically early peaks in global emissions, and unequitable estimates of emission curves in developing countries (implicitly assuming stunted development). … Models routinely show 4 or even 6 percent annual reductions, a rate of emissions decline that has never been achieved by anyone, anywhere, ever, much less consistently over 50 years.
So it’s not surprising that some people got interested in more pessimistic models. What if we assume that we don’t get our emissions under control? What if we assume that there are severe “feedback cycles” where warming causes the release of carbon dioxide currently contained in the land and in the oceans, fueling further warming? And what if, instead of trying to model the most likely outcome, we look at outcomes that may only have a 10 percent chance of occurring but would be particularly disastrous if they did?
The Breakthrough report, authored by former fossil fuel executive Ian Dunlop and author David Spratt, for the most part summarizes cases for pessimism that have been raised in other papers and public statements.
It says, for example, “attention has been given to a ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario, in which system feedbacks and their mutual interaction could drive the Earth System climate to a point of no return, whereby further warming would become self-sustaining. This ‘hothouse Earth’ planetary threshold could exist at a temperature rise as low as 2°C, possibly even lower.”
“Our argument is in essence that on the present path, including the commitments in Paris, warming will be three or three and a bit degrees,” Spratt told me. “If you include climate cycle feedbacks, which are not included in the IPCC analysis, it’ll be effectively higher.” For both those claims, there’s significant published science backing him. Then he gets to the controversial bit: “Three degrees may end our civilization.”
For that claim, he cites climate scientist John Schellnhuber, who said in an interview early this year, “if we get it wrong, do the wrong things … then I think there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation,” and UN Secretary General António Guterres, who has said “The problem is that the status quo is a suicide.”
It’s hard to know how to interpret remarks like those in an interview, but Spratt’s take is that the end of human civilization is not just a possibility but a likely outcome if we continue down our current path. Many people had no trouble believing it.
Scientists objected. Here’s what they said.
Six climate scientists reviewed the accuracy of the report and Vice’s write-up at Climate Feedback, a nonprofit that works to improve climate reporting by getting comments from scientists on striking claims in the press. Their responses were scathing.
“This is a classic case of a media article over-stating the conclusions and significance of a non-peer reviewed report that itself had already overstated (and indeed misrepresented) peer-reviewed science,” wrote Richard Betts, who chairs the department for climate impact research at the University of Exeter and leads the European Union project that studies the impacts of extreme global warming.
The Breakthrough report does indeed gather claims from other papers, climate leaders, and thinkers. But it selected many of the scariest and most speculative papers and presented them without being clear about how plausible they are.
And some of its most outrageous claims are just wrong. The report argues that if temperatures continue to rise, “fifty-five percent of the global population are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions beyond that which humans can survive.” That’d be terrifying. But Betts points out that this is based on the definition of a “deadly heat wave” from a paper that defined a deadly heat wave as one above a threshold where at least one person is expected to die (based on historical data). And some of the temperatures identified as deadly are as low as 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) with high humidity — hot, but not what comes to mind from the phrase “lethal heat conditions beyond what humans can survive.”
“The report’s authors have merely read (or possibly seen without actually reading) a few of the scariest papers they could find, misunderstood (or not read properly) at least one of them, and presented unjustified statements,” Betts added.
“The scenario constructed in this report does not have a ‘high likelihood’ of occurring,” wrote Andrew King, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Spratt says that it needn’t be likely to be an important focus. “Sensible risk management is to look at what are the worst feasible options and take actions to stop them occurring,” he told me. “In risk management, we ask what is the worst possible outcome and avoid it. We don’t assume that middle-of-the-road outcomes are the worst thing around, because that’d be disastrous.” That said, he agreed that much of the media coverage, including the viral Vice article, was “over-the-top and often misleading.”
But the scientists who reviewed the article didn’t just object to the headlines. They felt that the core claim — that 3 or 4 degrees of warming could destroy civilization — was also deeply unlikely. “While there is plenty of scientific evidence that climate change will pose increasingly existential threats to the most vulnerable individuals in society and to key global ecosystems,” wrote UCLA researcher Daniel Swain, “even these dire outcomes aren’t equivalent to the ‘annihilation of intelligent life,’ as is claimed in the report.”
One important thing here is that “suicide,” “catastrophic,” and “end of civilization” are all nontechnical terms, and people may have very different things in mind when they use them — especially if we’re looking at interviews rather than at papers.
I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).
Halstead looks into the models of potential temperature increases that Breakthrough’s report highlights. The models show a surprisingly large chance of extreme degrees of warming. Halstead points out that in many papers, this is the result of the simplistic form of statistical modeling used. Other papers have made a convincing case that this form of statistical modeling is an irresponsible way to reason about climate change, and that the dire projections rest on a statistical method that is widely understood to be a bad approach for that question.
Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much worse than expected in every respect — “and looking at it, even 10 degrees would not really cause the collapse of industrial civilization,” though the effects would still be pretty horrifying. (On the question of whether an increase of 10 degrees would be survivable, there is much debate.)
Does it matter if climate change is an existential risk or just a really bad one?
That last distinction Halstead draws — of climate change as being awful but not quite an existential threat — is a controversial one.
That’s where a difference in worldviews looms large: Existential risk researchers are extremely concerned with the difference between the annihilation of humanity and mass casualties that humanity can survive. To everyone else, those two outcomes seem pretty similar.
To academics in philosophy and public policy who study the future of humankind, an existential risk is a very specific thing: a disaster that destroys all future human potential and ensures that no generations of humans will ever leave Earth and explore our universe. The death of 7 billion people is, of course, an unimaginable tragedy. But researchers who study existential risks argue that the annihilation of humanity is actually much, much worse than that. Not only do we lose existing people, but we lose all the people who could otherwise have had the chance to exist.
In this worldview, 7 billion humans dying is not just seven times as bad as 1 billion humans dying, it’s much worse. This style of thinking seems plausible enough when you think about past tragedies; the Black Death, which killed a quarter to a third of all humans alive at the time, was not one-third as bad as a hypothetical plague that wiped us all out.
Most people don’t think about existential risks much. Many analyses of climate change — including the report Vice based its article on — treat the deaths of a billion people and the extinction of humanity as pretty similar outcomes, interchangeably using descriptions of catastrophes that would kill hundreds of millions and catastrophes that’d kill us all. And the existential risk conversation can come across as tone-deaf and off-puttingly academic, as if it’s no big deal if merely hundreds of millions of people will die due to climate change.
Obviously, and this needs to be stressed, climate change is a big deal either way. But there aredifferences between catastrophe and extinction. If the models tell us that all humans are going to die, then extreme solutions — which might save us, or might have unprecedented, catastrophic negative consequences — might be worth trying. Think of plans to release aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet back down in the manner that volcanic explosions do. It’d be an enormous endeavor with significant potential downsides (we don’t even yet know all the risks it might pose), but if the alternative is extinction then those risks would be worth taking.
But if the models tell us that climate change is devastating but survivable, as most models show, then those last-ditch solutions should perhaps stay in the toolkit for now.
Then there’s the morale argument. Defenders of overstating the risks of climate change point out that, well, understating them isn’t working. The IPCC may have chosen to maintain optimism about containing warming to 2 degrees Celsius in the hopes that it’d spur people to action, but if so, it hasn’t really worked. Maybe alarmism will achieve what optimism couldn’t.
That’s how Spratt sees it. “Alarmism?” he said to me. “Should we be alarmed about where we’re going? Of course we should be.”
Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has taken an arguably alarmist bent in her advocacy for climate solutions in the EU, saying, “Our house is on fire. I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic.” She’s gotten strong reactions from politicians, suggesting that at least sometimes a relentless focus on the severity of the emergency can get results.
So where does this all leave us? It’s worthwhile to look into the worst-case scenarios, and even to highlight and emphasize them. But it’s important to accurately represent current climate consensus along the way. It’s hard to see how we solve a problem we have widespread misapprehensions about in either direction, and when a warning is overstated or inaccurate, it may sow more confusion than inspiration.
Climate change won’t kill us all. That matters. Yet it’s one of the biggest challenges ahead of us, and the results of our failure to act will be devastating. That message — the most accurate message we’ve got — will have to stand on its own.
So much art about climate change is bad. It’s preachy, literal, unimaginative, and hung up on aerial shots of floods or topographical maps. By contrast, Lithuania’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, titled Sun & Sea (Marina), is a revelation. It is a chilling work about climate change that is also an opera about a day at the beach.
From a balcony on the second floor of a warehouse in Venice, viewers look down at a sandy tableau, where performers of all ages and sizes splay out on towels under beach umbrellas, scrolling through their iPhones and thumbing through magazines. The sounds of seagulls and ice cream trucks echo in the distance. One by one, the vacationers sing about a world very similar to our own, full of minor inconveniences.
The project—floated as one of the leading contenders for the Golden Lion, awarded to the biennale’s best national pavilion—is the work of theater director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė. It first debuted at Vilnius’s National Gallery of Arts in 2017 in Lithuanian and was adapted into English for the biennale. (“It’s like a new piece because you have to rewrite the score in a new language—it was a challenge,” Grainytė told artnet News.) The Venice version has been organized by Lucia Pietroiusti, the curator of public programs at London’s Serpentine Galleries.
Unlike most works about climate change, which attempt to scare you into action but often simply paralyze you with the vastness of the problem, this performance sinks in by focusing on the mundane. “It’s about nothingness—nothing is happening,”Grainytė said. A cranky woman complains in song that nobody cleans up their trash or their dogs’ poop; a wealthy mother brags about seeing the “bleached, pallid whiteness” of the Great Barrier Reef and how excited she is for her eight-year-old to see it; a young man complains that it did not snow on Christmas, and instead “felt like it could be Easter.”
“The piece has to do with ecological issues and the Anthropocene,” Grainytė said. “But I didn’t want to be didactic because it’s such a big topic and it was important to find a subtle, romantic language.”
It’s delightful to watch and listen to these performers sing in this sunny space and novel configuration. It’s only after sitting there for a while that you realize this is how the world actually ends. Not with a bang, but with something much more human: resignation, self-absorption, laziness. As the pavilions’ organizers note, “contemporary crises unfold easily, softly—like a pop song on the very last day on Earth.”
If you’d like to be implicated even more literally, you have the chance to participate in the production, which runs every Saturday after the opening week’s festivities. The organizers are inviting the public to lay on the beach alongside the performers. All you need to do is fill out a registration form, select a three-hour time window, and show up with a bathing suit and towel. “We will provide free WiFi and good reading light,” the website advises. “You are welcome to bring your kids and pets along.”
See a clip from the performance below.
Additional reporting by Sarah Cascone.
The performance runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until May 12 and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until October 26.
A colleague recently described how fish would swim into her clothing when she was a child bathing in the ocean off the coast of Vietnam, but today the fish are gone and her children find the story far-fetched.
Another recalled his experiences just last year in Cape Town – one of the world’s most attractive tourism and leisure destinations – when more than 2 million people faced the nightmare prospect of all taps, in every home and business, running dry.
These instances, on opposite sides of the world, are two faces of the same problem; the relentless pressure we are putting on biodiversity and the contributions that nature makes to our wellbeing, and the way we humans are changing the Earth’s climate.
The rich variety of nature provides us with the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, and countless moments of personal inspiration spent in forests and mountains, exploring beaches and rivers, or even listening to a simple birdsong in a quiet moment.
We have all assumed that nature would always be here for us and our children. However, our boundless consumption, shortsighted reliance on fossil fuels and our unsustainable use of nature now seriously threaten our future.
Environmentalists, scientists and indigenous peoples have been sounding the alarm for decades. Our understanding of the overexploitation of the planet has advanced with grim, sharp clarity over that time.
We have entered an era of rapidly accelerating species extinction, and are facing the irreversible loss of plant and animal species, habitats and vital crops, while coming face to face with the horrific impacts of global climate change.
In 2018 alone, there were deadly heatwaves across Europe and south-east Asia, while the US experienced floods and wildfires. Insurance companies went under, unable to bear the costs of rebuilding after extreme weather events.
There is a rising wave of collective anger and anxiety. The spectre of such environmental damage has caused grave concern, especially among global youth, about our inability to sustain our health, productivity, security and wellbeing. New realities have pulled back the curtain and exposed initiatives such as the banning of plastic straws as the drop in the ocean they truly are when it comes to protecting the future for ourselves, our children and all the species with which we share our planet.
We must now consider the animals, insects, plants and all the places in which they live.
Despite the profound threat of biodiversity loss, it is climate change that has long been considered the most pressing environmental concern. That changed this week in Paris, when representatives from 130 nations approved the most comprehensive assessment of global biodiversity ever undertaken.
The report, spearheaded by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history.
One million species are currently threatened with extinction and we are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends.
Nature powers human endeavours – underpinning productivity, culture and even our beliefs and identities. But our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide are under threat. We are exploiting nature faster than it can replenish itself.
The IPBES assessment has shown the strong interrelationship between climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human wellbeing. Climate change has been identified as a primary driver of biodiversity loss, already altering every part of nature. Likewise, the loss of biodiversity contributes to climate change, for example when we destroy forests we emit carbon dioxide, the major “human-produced” greenhouse gas.
We cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.
The IPBES report shows that governments and businesses are nowhere close to doing enough. The world is on track to miss the targets of the Paris agreement, the Aichi biodiversity targets and 80% of the UN sustainable development goals (food, water and energy security), because of our poor stewardship of the natural world.
However, the good news is that there are many policies and technologies that will limit global temperature rise and address the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. These will also offer our last, best chance to limit human-induced climate change and preserve the greatest amount of biodiversity possible. The way we produce and use energy, and farm, use our soils, protect coastal ecosystems and treat our forests will make or break our future, but it can also help us have a better quality of life.
We still have time – though very limited – to turn things around. It won’t be easy. It requires massive changes, from removing subsidies that lead to the destruction of nature and future warming of the Earth, to enacting laws that encourage the protection of nature; from reducing our growing addiction to fossil-fuel energy and natural resource consumption, to rethinking the definition of a rewarding life.
Our current agricultural system is broken. If we keep producing food using current unsustainable agricultural practices, we will undermine future food production. But we already have more than enough food to go around. Today 815 million people go to bed hungry, 38 million more than in 2015. Yet, if food waste were a country, its emissions would rank third in the world, after China and the US, producing 8% of manmade emissions.
We need to redirect government subsidies towards more sustainable and regenerative farming. This will not only contribute towards absorbing carbon and reducing the emissions of other greenhouse gases, it can also halt a frightening trajectory where farmland is so overloaded that eventually it just stops growing crops.
We simply cannot afford the cost of inaction. Change of the magnitude required will mean a different life for everyone, but the costs of doing nothing will be much higher.
The G7 environment ministers, currently meeting in France, have the opportunity to return to their capitals with the freshly approved IPBES report. The world needs them to reflect our current level of crisis at the heads of state meeting later this year.
The UK parliament has endorsed a motion to declare a formal climate and environment emergency, which is a start, but action and budgets from governments and business will need to follow.
As policymakers around the world grapple with the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, it is essential that they understand the linkages between the two so that their decisions and actions address both.
The world needs to recognise that loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change are not only environmental issues, but development, economic, social, security, equity and moral issues as well. The future of humanity depends on action now. If we do not act, our children and all future generations will never forgive us.
• Sir Robert Watson is chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)