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This blog is cross-posted at The Spiral Staircase. Feel free to comment here or there.


To orient oneself in life, a person chooses from among myriad narratives, typically assembling a hodgepodge worldview out of diverse parts. According to Oswald Spengler, cultural artifacts (e.g., the arts, humanities, and sciences) arise “needing the guidance of inspiration and … developing under great conventions of form.” The very same can be said of our origin and orientation stories, ancient or contemporary. Narratives intertwine and need not necessarily be discrete, mutually exclusive, or competing, even though that’s what’s often implied by time-worn tensions underlying science vs. religion, sometimes understood more philosophically as logos vs. mythos. Indeed, they cohere despite conflicts of logic and their being ahistorical. The power of subscription and consensus overcomes all objections.

If a master narrative exists, it ought to be simply reality obtained, though that is probably visible to only a small percentage of people able to apprehend the world clearly. For the rest, scales not yet having fallen from the eyes, the considerable benefit of hindsight can help clarify the view, but only if one has sufficient nerve to behold it honestly. Instead, our dominant inspirational narratives promulgate a wide variety of incompletely fulfilled hopes and desires. Few such promises bear much resemblance to reality, those of economists, politicians, and clerics demonstrating the most striking discontinuities from the actuality experienced by ordinary folks. A Chris Hedges article at TruthDig.com called “The Folly of Empire” discusses this departure from reality in his characteristically erudite style (apologies for the long nested quote):

… absurd promises of hope and glory are endlessly served up by the entertainment industry, the political and economic elite, the class of courtiers who pose as journalists, self-help gurus like Oprah and religious belief systems that assure followers that God will always protect them. It is collective self-delusion, a retreat into magical thinking. “The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than the original,” Daniel J. Boorstin wrote in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. “We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories in the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

I don’t usually lump into the mix entertainers, sports figures, gurus hawking self-help books and programs, or media pundits offering half-baked analyses because only idiots expect truth from them, but perhaps I should include them considering their stranglehold on the public’s wasted attention. Most of today’s media-driven narratives rely on conventions, gestures, and rhetoric that are notoriously predigested and therefore immediately swallowed by the guffawing crowd, disinviting additional analysis or careful consideration. This bears a curious family resemblance with intellectual conditions that sparked the Reformation. Further, because such mediated (or should I say medieval?) content is composed largely of fiction, pageantry, and untethered conjecture, no time is needed for the narrative to actualize. Hope functions in the present tense and requires no closure.

Perhaps the quintessential inspirational narrative was trotted out by the Obama campaign back in 2008, which relied on promises (empty, we later found out) to fulfill everyone’s desire for a better life, calling on hope and change to achieve those promises. Another religious hope narrative promises to enhance one’s afterlife, earned in earthly realms through achievements in social justice and the judgment of posterity. Both adopt time-honored conventions and are part of what is described in Morris Berman’s book Wandering God as the ascent tradition. Significant among those conventions is orientation along a vertical axis as seen, for instance, in easy acceptance of the legitimacy of hierarchy (and therefore egregious power, wealth, and class stratification and imbalance) and a longing for transfiguration, transcendence, and communion with god (or the gods) above.

Looking back across history, evidence of “progress” and growth is legion. However, most of those achievements are demographic, material, and technological, each having their unique and unintended blowback. What’s notably lacking as we sally forth into the 21st century is the ability to transcend our own base nature, which is characterized by corruption, violence, stupidity, short-term gratification, and inability to achieve the utopian dreams that populate the minds of many despots. So that same history is marked by downturns and setbacks. One might even say that the overall upward trend of history is pockmarked by periodic scars. Still, nothing just yet has stalled the hubris of history rising (unless domestic peak oil in the 1970s and global peak oil a few years back prove to have been among the first of a series of turning points). And judging from blog traffic and commentary, the steady stream of negative assessments in scientific literature, and news reports telling of weather and ecological calamities with increasing frequency and severity, awareness is beginning to dawn on even the most congenital optimists (plus some fools and the average ignoramus) that what goes up must eventually come down. Since history has gone vertical, hard limits must eventually assert themselves.

The plethora of charts, tables, graphs, and infographics that evidence not just rising trends but verticality is frankly astonishing. Sometimes a gradually ascending slope is observable within a short timeframe, such as receding glacial ice documented in Chasing Ice. Other times it takes long traces of historical, evolutionary, or even geological time to observe. Even short timeframes often conceal effects that lie handily beyond normal perception, but we luckily have scientists trained to recognize short- and long-term trends. Too bad they’re uniformly ignored and/or pilloried by a public spoon fed the blandishments of corporate marketing and political propaganda. Typically, ascending curves (whether geometric, logarithmic, or exponential) don’t appear to be walls (limits) when viewed from the far left or from within a narrow time band, meaning microscopically close. Zoom out or to the right, however, and the trend pointed into the stratosphere is readily apparent, such as in the following video (animation) of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere:

Similar x-y coordinate graphs showing, for instance, energy use per capita and human population growth demonstrate the same trajectory but at much briefer durations. Trendlines are mathematical abstractions, like fiat currency being printed into existence. At some point, gravity takes hold and drags everything back to earth (reality), though that eventuality can be forestalled for a surprisingly long time. The return trip down various vertical trends is approaching ever more quickly as lift skyward fizzles like an Icarus nightmare. Or in the case of atmospheric carbon, we can’t stop the rising trend we unwittingly initiated from blowing through the roof and rendering the earth uninhabitable.

It’s often said there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. Presented with the likelihood or certainty of battlefield death, holdouts succumb and cash the eternal-life insurance card of a last-minute profession of faith. Same as death-bed conversions. Thousands of years of philosophy and religion might prepare us to face our inevitable demise if we bothered to learn anything worthwhile besides how to make money, and yet in all our frailty, many of us cannot accept that our final departure is merely a fact of life, not a gateway or journey to somewhere else. (Um, opinions vary on this, obviously.) The final departure of Homo sapiens sapiens is even harder to contemplate.

So what foxhole moment awaits us? Here’s one: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in late September 2013 a publication by Working Group I of the Fifth Assessment Report, which presents the underlying physical science behind climate change (used to be called global warming). The IPCC website states that “The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is being released in four parts between September 2013 and November 2014. It will be the most comprehensive assessment of scientific knowledge on climate change since 2007 when Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was released.” Preparation of these reports has been ongoing for decades already, and the difficulty of their assemblage assures that they’re already out of date at the time they’re released. Being the work of governments, AR5 is also reputed to be remarkably conservative in its conclusions, as contrasted with prophesying near-term human extinction (NTE or NTHE) as those of us unconstrained by geopolitics have begun to do (mostly taking our cues from Guy McPherson of Nature Bats Last). That’s not a gambit for attention, BTW. It’s about a soul-destroying a realization as there is, and no one comes to admit it easily.

The likelihood of anyone plunging into the 2216 pages of this first of four parts of AR5 is, well, dismal. One could easily level the accusation that the IPCC is burying its findings behind pages and pages (and pages) of prefatory material; acknowledgements; missing or incomplete figures, tables, and citations (to be inserted when?); technical and executive summaries; glossaries; references; and dry obfuscation. That’s not really the case, though; the data and discussion are abundant and available for anyone capable of deciphering it. Technical and scientific analysis and discussion is exactly what Working Group I delivers in these chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Observations: Atmosphere and Surface
  3. Observations: Ocean
  4. Observations: Cryosphere
  5. Information from Paleoclimate Archives
  6. Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles
  7. Clouds and Aerosols
  8. Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
  9. Evaluation of Climate Models
  10. Detection and Attribution of Climate Change: from Global to Regional
  11. Near-term Climate Change: Projections and Predictability
  12. Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility
  13. Sea Level Change
  14. Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change

I downloaded the report and sought something succinct to quote, such as an answer to the question “Just how fucked are we, anyway?” but the technical summaries proceed with this sort of dry, useless, blank, uninformative text:

The primary purpose of this Technical Summary is to provide the link between the complete assessment of the multiple lines of independent evidence presented in the 14 chapters of the main report and the highly condensed summary prepared as the WGI Summary for Policymakers. The Technical Summary thus serves as a starting point for those readers who seek the full information on more specific topics covered by this assessment. This purpose is facilitated by including pointers to the chapters and sections where the full assessment can be found. Policy-relevant topics, which cut across many chapters and involve many interlinked processes in the climate system, are presented here as Thematic Focus Elements, allowing rapid access of this information.

The WGI Summary for Policymakers is not contained within the larger report but both can be found at this link. It’s unclear how much of the report was used in preparation of this story at National Geographic, but the story provides five takeaways from WGI:

    • On the extreme weather front, the report concludes it is “very likely” that cold days and nights have decreased, while warm days and nights have increased, since 1950 …
    • The oceans have warmed with “virtual certainty,” the report concludes, at a rate of about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit (0.11 Celsius) per decade since 1970 in the upper 246 feet (75 meters) of surface water …
    • What about those polar bears? Sea ice (as well as glaciers and ice sheets) has declined overall since 1970 …
    • Sea level rise has happened, and will happen in the future, as a result of global warming, the report finds …
    • More than half of the global warming observed since 1950 has a human cause, largely from the greenhouse gas effects of gases such as carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels ….

The ellipses indicate brief discussion behind each takeaway. The conclusions are hedged, of course, relying on observations of what’s happened so far and omitting extrapolation of trends that go vertical. Even the three levels of confidence communicate not certainty of our fate (exact details TBD) but hope that projections are subject to change or we can do something to reverse things or at least forestall the worst. Like IPCC, National Geographic is yet to have its foxhole moment even though the evidence is staring them ghoulishly in the face. If one is at all engaged in this subject, I suppose it makes sense to stay hunched in the hole chain-smoking cigarettes and making do with what meager rations and sleep are available. My sneaking suspicion is that the go order will come quickly enough to catch lots of shivering, quivering, wavering souls before they get to their last eternal hope. In the meantime, the fat lady is singing, the coal-mine canary has expired, pigs are flying, and hell has frozen over. We’re vertical against the wall, facing the firing squad, and what’s left to do, though no one knows just quite when, is to get horizontal.