It is truly unnerving to try and write about climate change. For months, I have been deeply absorbed in the writings of James Lovelock, who, after a decade of the most authoritative and frightening pronouncements about the climate situation, written in vivid flame-throwing prose that fairly leaps and crackles off every page (beginning with The Revenge of Gaia in 2006 and ending with Rough Ride to the Future, 2016), has recently suggested that the situation is more complex than even he is presently capable of handling anymore.
Still vigorous at 97, after four children and a long and respected career as one of our most productive and venerable scientists, he has given up trying to predict exactly when and where the tipping point happens, when everything really falls apart. He worries that he can no longer be consistently accurate in dispensing forecasts about our climate future from his small independent laboratory in Cornwall.
So, he has moved with his long-time wife Sandy, to an old lifeguard’s cottage by the beach in Dorset, leaving most of his books, notebooks and scientific equipment to London’s Science Museum. If anyone asks, he asserts that he does not know with absolute certainty what will happen to the climate but he is 100% confident global warming is now irreversible and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet from becoming too hot to inhabit.
Although he firmly believes in the self-correcting omnipotence of the earth, he finds all talk of sustainable development, geo-engineering, renewable energy, indeed, the entire big green movement “meaningless drivel.” Politicians, bureaucrats, and most climate scientists, (apparently now including himself), are “dumbos”, overly reliant on computer models. “Besides, the inertia of humans is so huge that you really can’t do anything meaningful anyway.” Thus, he cheerfully expounds in typically British fashion, ending up with the fact he is not afraid of living so close to the sea now as he approaches 98 because he doesn’t think its projected rise will happen in his lifetime.
The fact that evolution never gave her a chance to compete with the demigod species that is changing the surface of the planet beyond recognition has never bothered her. She and her kind have always accepted their harmlessness. What else is there to do? Their surprising meekness is determined by the composition of their blood which is not red with hemoglobin like that of mammals, like that of humans. They carry blue-green blood with more copper than oxygen and no iron in its composition.
Thus, she is often breathless upon exertion and tends to seem a bit lazy and easily tired. Despite her advanced nervous system and extraordinary intelligence, she will never be Queen of the Sea, much less of the land, because frankly, she does not live long enough. She does possess enough energy to be a limited predator on the ocean floor and she is 90 percent muscle. But, without that mad fanatical energy to fight endless wars, hurt everyone, and destroy everything, without that savage anger, alas, she will never be the warlord of an empire, which is why previous portraits of giant octopus being monsters have been wildly off the mark.
Instead, here is a real one: deaf and mute, benign and curious, inside the narrow doorway of her home in shallow water off the coast of Seattle, a fastidious housekeeper who has just finished sweeping sand and debris and empty shells out the door. Surreptitiously watching the comings and goings of her peaceful neighbors who live nearby under various flat stones buried in the sand, she looms large at 125 pounds, an especially heavy weight for an invertebrate. Her long seven foot arms move slowly as befits an elderly matron. At eight years, she has already managed to live longer than most Pacific Giant Octopus whose life span is generally three to five years.
Very few people have ever seen this dignified agreeable individual, so adept at hiding and camouflage. She disappears easily under massive leaves of kelp forests anchored to the sea floor, changing her appearance and color and protean shape at a moment’s notice. In a flash, she is indistinguishable from a blob of algae, or drifting brown sargassum weeds. Settling on a green lawn of seagrass on the flat sandy bottom of her cove, she immediately takes on its color so perfectly as to be invisible.
Despite intimidating prehensile arms and huge expressive eyes, she lives simply, a contented homebody who does not want to be disturbed. Upon finding a suitable depression under a large stone, or an old clay pot that she can plop into, she happily contemplates her surroundings in great peace for long periods, only gliding into deeper water when she senses a storm approaching.
She usually sleeps late and then cleans up, arranging discarded shells around her doorway in various pretty patterns each day. During the afternoon, she takes solitary and cautious walks on the sea floor by sucking water into the muscular sac surrounding her body and forcefully expelling it out, moving like flowing water. She is always cautiously looking out for the moray eel and the grouper, her natural enemies.
At night, she dines on crabs and lobster as she does not care for fish. Also, she has lost her taste for smaller octopus even though many of her kind find them a delicacy. She favors crustaceans, who have a high protein content and not much fat which she cannot digest so well. Respected and left alone by her neighbors, her daily routine skillfully avoids most snorkelers and other annoying human intruders.
This careful discipline is necessary. Ironically, an octopus of her size and weight is very fragile. The nervous system of a giant octopus is so highly developed and so sensitive that if treated roughly it can easily succumb to emotional shock, even death from a violent or unexpected event. Indeed, her occasional fits of fatigue, lassitude or anxiety resemble somewhat the human condition of neurasthenia, a disease once particularly prone to the best educated most cultured Americans.
Fortunately, she has never been captured, tagged, studied, or dragged up to the surface in a net, all of which would cause her terrible stress. Her soft body with its lack of any internal skeleton could be easily hurt. And, of course, she has never belonged to the hectic fast-paced city life that many of us have endured, or suffered the relentless adrenaline burnout of normal terrestrial creatures. Cortisol is not in her blood. In fact, the DNA of the octopus is unlike that of any other creature on the planet.
She seems, in fact, to have somehow evolved further than the rest of her kind living along this coastline. Less sedentary than her smaller neighbors, she is obviously more accustomed to the open water, always appearing calm, unhurried and unworried. She has little need to squirt her jet of protective ink, a sort of undersea cloud or fog to scare off and distract pursuing interlopers. All these particular qualities have been noticed and admired by the one lone female diver who often swims in these waters and who shyly appreciates the benign and serene temperament of her hidden watchful companion.
One of Mr. Lovelock’s good friends is the prescient James Hansen, sometimes called “the father of climate science”. Mr. Hansen’s prose also has a flair for operatic drama but strangely he is also famous for the most somber realism. A former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space, he told Congress in 2012 that if Canada succeeded in selling us its tar sands oil, “the dirtiest fuel on earth”, containing twice the amount of carbon dioxide ever emitted by global oil use in our entire history, it would be “game over for the climate”. The Canadian oil minister condemned Hansen’s “exaggerated rhetoric” at the White House. But, it was largely because of this distinguished scientist’s unrelenting public denouncements and horrified contempt for the tar sands pipeline that finally persuaded President Obama to deny TransCanada’s permit application to finish the Keystone oil pipeline in the U.S., although recently a tar sands oil leak of 17,000 gallons has poisoned a large part of North Dakota’s aquifer.
Mr. Hansen has called the recent Paris climate talks a fraud. “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.”
Because of a reputation for careful science behind his work, his research becomes instantly newsworthy. In words almost breathless with urgency, he warns that even stabilizing global climate increase at 2°C (3.6 F) which the Paris accords recently agreed upon, will lead to such devastating storms, such massive ice-melt of Greenland, that major coastal cities all over the world will be submerged probably before the end of the century. “We are handing young people a situation that will be out of their control.” Hansen envisions half of humanity forced to move to higher ground, leaving Manhattan, London, Miami, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Shanghai abandoned.
Frustrated with politicians whom he has called irrational and worse, Mr. Hansen retired from NASA in 2013 to become a political activist, feeling a moral obligation to his grandchildren. His one faint hope is China, he says, whose leaders are at least engineers who seem to realize the horrific threat facing human civilization and who even now are rushing to shut down their coal industry. Look for him on the front lines in front of the White House wearing his familiar wide brimmed brown hat.
It usually happens that when the luck of one species fails, another rises. As the glacial-melt waters finally spill over our coastal cities in the decades ahead, submerging thousands of avenues and alleys and playgrounds, as cars and school buses and unshackled fire-escapes drift down aimlessly among dark and deep currents, extraordinary housing opportunities will open up for the mild-mannered benevolent species of octopus.
The Giant Pacific Octopus has a worldwide distribution in tropical, subtropical and temperate waters. These invertebrates live from coastlines to the outer edge of the continental shelf – a space that will eventually, according to Mr. Hansen, be filled with all manner of hiding places: narrow grates, potholes and tangled canopies of uprooted gingko trees, gutters and drain spouts, ATM slots, truly a thousand and one crannies and cubicles and hidden alcoves, all living quarters suitable for these protean creatures with no bones, these exquisite liquid persons floating with the current like beautiful scarves, idling and enjoying the inundated streets and submerged shops of once-great centers of human commerce. Surely, these creatures, who by the way, have no striking mental disorders except perhaps a lack of ambition due to enervating languor, will flourish with this new-found world and take advantage of its perfection.
Both Mr. Lovelock and Mr. Hansen read and admire the esteemed evolutionary biologist and Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, who for decades has been pleading with us to “understand ourselves as a species”. Mr. Lovelock even took all the professor’s books to his new seaside cottage.
At 86, it seems somehow appropriate that Professor Wilson is the only person alive to have worked with Rachael Carson. Today, sitting by a sunny window in the assisted living residence he shares with his wife Irene, near Harvard University, his papers all around him, the professor wants to know why young people are not protesting in the streets since by the end of the century we’ll be down to half the existing species of our planet’s plants and animals.
Professor Wilson suggests that the extinction rate our behavior is now imposing on the rest of life (which seems destined to continue), should be viewed as the equivalent of a gigantic asteroid strike on earth played out over several human generations. He wonders why so very few people are paying attention. Like his frustrated and dismayed colleagues, his words betray an astonishment beyond measure. The only hope for the species still living, he says, is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.
“We are entering a new world, but we’re entering it as Paleolithic brains. We are a Star Wars civilization but we have Stone Age emotions. We are in a state of cosmic or global denial about climate change, but the radical reduction in the world’s biodiversity is a folly our descendants will never forgive us for.”
Climate change, he fears, is pointing so much scientific attention toward the planet’s physical world, that the wonderfully diverse biological world is being forgotten.
His own answer to the present disaster of human intrusion into, and indifference toward, and destruction of, every habitat on the planet, is for humanity to retreat to areas comprising only half of the earth’s landmass, leaving one half of the surface of the land and one half of the sea for remaining plants and animals. Give this gift to the ten million species left, a kind of immense national park, using the Amazon jungle and forests of Guinea and Mozambique, the redwoods of California and our own Gulf of Mexico, as well as other pristine areas, stepping stones for a permanent preserve.
In human-free zones, many endangered species would recover and their extinction might be averted. He is deadly serious. We have become so inured to habitat destruction that we think this idea is radical. But, no miraculous technology from Silicon Valley, he warns, will be able to reverse the mass extinction of life here. He believes that what is truly radical is our profound indifference to the health of our planet and the continued devastation of its irreplaceable life forms. Wilson was once asked: why isn’t it OK to lose a couple of species out of millions of species that exist?
He responded: “Each species is a masterpiece of evolution. For every species we lose, at least 20 other species of animals, especially insects, go down with it. So when we lose a species, we don’t know what else we are losing with it. Do no further harm to the rest of life, he concludes. Start with all trees. If we agree on that, he says, everything else will follow.
I only learned of her through the generous sharing of the lone female diver. Who knows what kind of self-assessment she has made about her beautiful life at home under her rock, or in the cracked clay pot further away in the kelp forest?
Does such an elegant graceful creature entertain our same existential questions and doubt? Perhaps she is melancholy. The diver thinks her huge beautiful eyes reflect a faintly aggrieved resignation. She is sure those remarkable eyes indicate great emotional intelligence, a very large and complex brain, and unusual understanding. Many fishermen agree, valuing these creatures for their humor and mischievous personalities.
But a mystery still remains about her. Why did she evolve to be such a short-lived solitary creature and yet acquire so many of the cognitive and emotional features of long-lived social vertebrates?
She is always alone. Reproduction for this species causes death, which is perhaps why she has so far put it off. Females die shortly after their eggs hatch because they neglect to eat during the one month period they must spend taking care of them.
Eventually, of course, the same scorching heat waves that will continue to roll across the planet and melt the remaining ice sheets, will also cause tragic havoc to the innocent octopus communities living so secretly and quietly off the North American coastlines and beyond. There is just so much they can dodge and escape after all. The crustaceans, the lobsters, shrimp, and crabs, they so enjoy and which are their main food source, will be the first to be destroyed, their shells dissolving in the warmer acidic ocean waters, just as the world’s coral reefs are dissolving and dying now. Because this octopus is non-migratory, she has to adapt to her environment. Eventually, inevitable starvation looms on the horizon. But, for now, this harmless female has no reason to be worried. Her sense of well-being, her languid lifestyle, her flowing dance upon the Pacific currents will continue, which is a blessing. Worry seems to be our job, the job of the dominating aggressive tribal primate trying to be in control of everything.
In the end, I wonder if it is a kind of unexpected opportunity that humanity’s great coastal cities, with their aspirations, their extraordinary cultures, art, frenzy, vitality, their crime and tragedy, racial hatreds, excitement and risk, craving and ambition, obsessive buying and selling – that these unnatural places finally sink out of sight, covered by the soothing silence and finality of water, so that we who survive might find rest and meditate upon their brief history and our own.
More than six in ten Americans (63%) are represented by a congress-person who denies the reality of climate change. Florida’s own Governor Scott has forbidden any members of his cabinet from even uttering the words “climate change”. Yet, scientists have released reports for February, 2016 describing temperatures as “astronomical”, “staggering”, and “strange”, the most above-normal month since temperatures starting being recorded in 1880.
©2016 Linda Clarke