Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) returns to this term so much that Doc Brown, circa 1955, responds:
"There's that word again, 'heavy.' Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth's gravitational pull?"
The interplay of the past, present, and future in a single timeline makes for a good movie. However, when it comes to the world we live in, we struggle to take the future seriously.
In his 2013 book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery diagnoses the problem, "people have a hard time linking their actions to costs far in the future." He calls it "presentism," and it works like this:
"The cognitive error that may have more influence than any other on the shape of our cities is known as presentism: we let what we see and feel today bias our views of the past and future. This commonly expresses itself as a tendency to assume that the ways we think and act will not change as time passes."
We are blind to change even as it happens in front of us. We can't see future costs, so we discount them. Montgomery says this adds up to "a perfect calm of inaction."
And yet, these changes creep closer and closer, in time and space.
When I Googled "climate change near me" today, I found the climate projections my city government uses for planning and a 2019 headline announcing, "Austin Makes Top 10 List of U.S. Cities with the Greatest Increase in Hot Days.". The concern motivating that report was "Extreme Heat: When Outdoor Sports Become Risky.". Sports, y'all. We're not talking about hurricanes hitting island nations an ocean away. Texas has a total of five cities on the list that also includes—Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Miami, and Savannah.
The future has found us. If that list of cities still feels comfortably distant from you, the Environmental Protection Agency has a one-pager on the impacts for each state available here.
In Elizabeth Kolbert's book Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, she tells the stories of people working today to shape the future. They work to improve the odds, species by species, and shape better outcomes for all of us.
Ruth Gates, a marine biologist, plays a leading role in the book once Kolbert turns her attention to understanding the threat coral reefs face. Leading the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in 2016, Gates also pointed to our inability to see change over time and its consequences:
"I'm a realist... I cannot continue to hope that our planet is not going to change radically. It already is changed. A lot of people want to go back to something. They think, if we just stop doing things, maybe the reef will come back to what it was."
The other scientists Kolbert talked to who hoped to preserve the Great Barrier Reef understood that their success would be, "at best, a diminishing thing—a kind of Okay Barrier Reef."
There is no going back. In another passaged, Kolbert adds that Gates eventually described herself as a futurist:
Really what I am is a futurist. Our project is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural."
The nature of the future, what the natural world and daily life will look like, changes each day, whether you see yourself as a realist or a futurist. We engage the problems we have created when we think like a futurist and ask, "what can we do to shape the future so that it is better for our having been here instead of worse?"
When we call for climate action, approaches that emphasize shame, fear, and sacrifice will never work. On this point, Montgomery wrote, "Not even a world-class guilt trip will move us." Instead, he recommended solutions that emphasize self-interest.
The most viable solutions will serve us and slow the pace of climate change. We're all looking for a win-win.
The good news is that these solutions are easier to find and more affordable than ever. During the pandemic, we subbed in several of the Zero Waste items listed at Full Circle Home for the paper products that became hard to find.
Fewer trips to the grocery store? There's nothing heavy about that, and we're not going back.
"I was struck, and not for the first time, by how much easier it is to ruin an ecosystem than to run one."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
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On Tuesday this week, President Biden used the word "genocide," which made all kinds of news. It was reported as a gaffe in some circles and evidence that he was "getting out ahead of his own government" again. The remarks prompted a response from other world leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron said he wasn't sure that this "escalation of words serves the cause."
So, what's at stake when world leaders use the word "genocide?" How is that different from the broad agreement about "war crimes?"
Start with the definition and the response it requires. "As leaders debate 'genocide,' a growing focus on atrocities in Ukraine" (The Washington Post) tells us that:
"Genocide is defined as the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular ethnic group or country with the aim of destroying that community."
A UN convention would require signers to "prevent and punish" genocide. Created in 1948, the Genocide Convention has now been ratified by 152 Member States (Map of ratifying members available at the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect)
Try to see the difference between ordinary acts of violence against civilians and acts of genocide. Yeah, this one is tough, but it's central to understanding why the use of this word has so much weight. Vox starts with the definition but then looks at the work of "independent genocide watchdogs" and at least one Ukrainian-born scholar of the Holocaust who was skeptical about using the term.
Read "Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine?" by Zack Beauchamp. He lends insight into why this question is unlikely to be answered anytime soon:
"In the post-Holocaust world, people committing genocide rarely provide 'smoking gun' proof of their thinking — a written-down order or meeting record detailing a plan to exterminate the target group. Instead, scholars and war crimes prosecutors pore over a repository of data — ranging from interviews with victims and perpetrators to satellite photos of the killings — to make their most educated guesses. Even with the benefit of hindsight, these methods can be frustratingly inconclusive: There are still tremendous debates over historical cases of mass killing, and even the adequacy of the Genocide Convention definition itself."
Other stories to watch as they continue to develop include reports that Russia is using forced deportation and operating "filtration camps." Read "Russia or die" from CNN.
Writing for BBC News, Laurence Peter tells us, "It is an internationally-recognized abuse of human rights for a warring party to deport civilians to its territory. His article, "Russia transfers thousands of Mariupol civilians to its territory", includes maps and satellite images of a possible camp.
For Believing in Democracy
Scientists are doing their best to get the world's attention. They are calling the effort "Scientist Rebellion," and described their effort this month as the "largest scientist-led act of civil disobedience."
Over 1,000 scientists took part in demonstrations across 25 different countries. There were lab coats, oversized scientific papers, arrests, and emotional appeals.
A model for living well and sparking a climate revolution. NASA scientist Peter Kalmus made one of those emotional appeals that went viral. Standing next to a sign that reads, "We are nature defending itself," Kalmus said, "We're not lying. We're not exaggerating. This is so bad that we're willing to take this risk." His op-ed ran in The Guardian the day after his arrest. In that essay, he refers to a book he wrote to share how he reduced his own emissions by 90% and that his effort "turned out to be satisfying, fun, and connecting."
The title of Kalmus's book: Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. Greta Thunberg also has a book in progress, an "Ultimate Guide to Climate Change" that will include contributions from novelists, scientists, and activists.