Astra Taylor in Lapham’s Quarterly:
Twelve years, or so the scientists told us in 2018, which means now we are down to eleven. That’s how long we have to pull back from the brink of climate catastrophe by constraining global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Eleven years to prevent the annihilation of coral reefs, greater melting of the permafrost, and species apocalypse, along with the most dire consequences for human civilization as we know it. Food shortages, forest fires, droughts and monsoons, intensified war and conflict, billions of refugees—we have barely begun to conceive of the range of dystopian futures looming on the horizon.
One person who looks squarely and prophetically at the potential ramifications of climate change and insists on a response is Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmentalist who launched a global wave of youth climate strikes. In April 2019 she gave a tour de force address in the British Parliament, invoking not just her peers who were regularly missing class to protest government inaction but those yet to be born. “I speak on behalf of future generations,” Thunberg said. “Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”
Thunberg accepts what many influential adults seem unable to face: the inevitability of change. Change is coming, either in the form of adaptation or annihilation; we can respond proactively or reactively to this discomfiting fact. Perhaps she can accept this because she is so young. Eleven years, a little over a decade, is the time for a human infant to become a preteen and for a preteen to become a young adult. For Thunberg, eleven years is more than two-thirds of her life, a veritable expanse that, projected forward, will involve crossing the threshold from adolescence to the first stage of maturity. Yet for a relatively contented middle-aged or elderly adult, eleven years isn’t as substantial—not quite the blink of an eye but a continuation of the present, a deeper dive into one’s golden years. At a certain point, stasis is the goal, to ward off decline. But decline awaits us all—as the economist John Maynard Keynes bluntly put it, “In the long run we are all dead.” Everyone’s time on earth must come to an end. The question is, What do we do with such knowledge?