Peering through smoke as the planet burns

In the Shadow of Decline and Collapse: Part 2

Publication front cover
Publication front cover

When authour, environmentalist, and columnist for The Guardian, George Monbiot wrote Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, his question long preceded the recent catastrophic climate events witnessed over the past number of years. Within the book, he predicted the inevitable spate of wild fires—both Australia and Alberta in 2020, last year in British Columbia, and those currently raging throughout Europe—with haunting prescience by more than a decade. [1] These catastrophic events erupted without precedent in magnitude and ferocity. Firefighting teams laboured throughout those scorching summer months with little gain to show. The reportage of the events was hair-raising. The scale and destructive power of the conflagrations asserted their place in history; catastrophic events to which all subsequent would be compared. The devastation to wildlife, scientists would later report, would translate into a death toll upwards of a billion animals. These were the estimates projected by Australian scientists based on their domestic findings.

Read about Energy Reserves: How do we articulate the right story? In the Shadow of Decline and Collapse: Part 1

The book also interrogates our complicity in creating the conditions for large-scale, destructive climate events. The ways in which humans, throughout their everyday activities, contribute to the consistent, insidious degradation of life support systems on the planet, are beginning to stack up. The book is asking us to stop for a minute to consider, through all of the ways in which we take part in contemporary life, the magnitude of hidden costs concealed within our actions. Monbiot identifies that we understand the major sources of harmful climate warming gases being produced. He also points out insidious points of release that, for whatever reason, escape our scrutiny.

This is all simply to state that our understanding of the effects of continuing life as we know it through our everyday actions of showing up professionally to our jobs, and living out our lives as we’ve been brought up to accept might, in fact, be what’s killing off the biosphere. Journalist and New York Times Magazine editor David Wallace-Wells discusses his initial downplayed reaction to climate change: “Ten years ago, I thought climate change was an important thing to worry about, but it didn’t dominate my view of the future because I trusted—first of all I just didn’t think it was that significant a threat, but also I trusted our leaders would be responsible enough to address it responsibly. And the thing that shook me from that complacency was fear, was being terrified about what was possible […] I know now activists who are on the brink of despair, but when I look around the world there are so many more people like me who are too complacent than there are people who are too fatalistic about this.” [2]

Over the past number of years, certainly since the United Nations IPCC reports have taken on a decidedly more serious tone, the rhetoric responding to climate change has shifted. Largely, climate change denial has withered. Politicians have predominantly ceased recalcitrant, polemical attacks on the global climate science community, choosing rather to include these concerns within their platforms (at least in the form of talking points). The conversation around climate change in journalistic circles largely view this issue as the grand narrative of our time. The manner in which this climate change story is now being told has radically taken on new forms of language. The conventionally-held wisdom historically practiced through climate science writing—that of communicating in positive, optimistic tones—has been displaced in favour of much more direct language. The conventionally-held wisdom of previously articulated climate science writing no longer adequately describes the events witnessed surrounding us. The story has changed. How, then, will this most important of stories be most effectively told?

Publication inside cover and title page

Ground Zero

“The soil is the place in which all plant matter gets its nutrients, and if you keep sucking the nutrients out, the soil is useless. For all of history the way that the soil was replenished—the nutrients were returned to the soil in some measure—was that plant matter was allowed to decay, to compost, to restock the soil. That’s why crop rotation is so important. You may have one crop of celery which will suck certain chemicals out of the soil, another crop of wheat or something else may return those same chemicals to the soil, so the soil maintains a balance.” [3] — Michael Ruppert

For as long as humans have been farming (roughly 10,000–15,000 years) the soil has more or less been able to maintain healthful levels of nutrients. The seasons—in which birth, growth, maturity, and ultimately death—consistently cycled these life-giving building blocks from, and back to, the soil. Forest fires would occasionally rejuvenate the soil, burning down plant matter into ash to fertilize and propagate new life. Eventually, human beings began to understand these cycles, and through experience, became better able to anticipate the oncoming seasons. Each season prompted certain tasks within each stage of the life cycle: preparing the soil and planting in spring; maintaining the soil and protecting the oncoming crop throughout the summer; harvesting the produce and returning plant matter to the soil over autumn; letting rest over the winter months. Over the centuries, these stages became familiar, and the processes were honed for ever better results. But for much of that time, working with the earth and producing food from the soil, little was understood about the mechanisms within—the composition of the earth and the creatures working away in the realm of the microscopic. In conversation with Talia Schlanger, guest host of CBC The Sunday Magazine George Monbiot discusses soil health from his latest book Regenisis.

“Well, we thought it was pretty simple. The more we understand about it, the more we discover what a fantastically complex system it is. And it’s only recently that we’ve begun to work out what it is. That sounds ridiculous, isn’t it? We all know what soil is—it’s that stuff beneath our feet which plants grow in. But it turns out to be a biological structure. It’s like a coral reef. It’s created by the organisms that live in it. And, in fact, if it weren’t for those creatures—all the way from bacteria to earth worms with lots in between—there would be no soil. It simply wouldn’t exist.” [4] — George Monbiot

The language that is used referring to the earth has shifted over the past few decades. Soil and earth is not dirt. Dirt suggests something filthy, something worthless. Soil and earth suggest life, the locus where something takes hold and develops, the starting point. These words are often used interchangeably; the perception they imbue is radically different. The words used in describing or naming are important, as they bend our understanding in subtle ways. The words used affect our relationship with the thing of focus. They can inspire respect and awe, or disdain and disgust. Or, perhaps the most harmful of all, ambivalence. “It is amazing, isn’t it? How we… You know, we don’t exactly treat coral reefs and rainforests very well, but at least we recognize that they are ecosystems and that they need looking after. And, I think it’s partly because we don’t recognize that soil is an ecosystem, even though it is, as you say, as abundant and diverse as any other ecosystem, including coral reefs and rainforests. We’ve taken it for granted for so long because, we assume it’s always been there and always will be there. But the trouble is, because it’s an ecosystem—in other words a complex system—it has tipping points, as all complex systems do. And what that means is that if you keep abusing it and abusing it and abusing it, by plowing it the wrong way, or putting too many fertilizers on it, or indeed too many pesticides, over-irrigating it for instance, it will slowly degrade, and you won’t notice very much happening until a big shock hits it from the outside, such as, for instance, a major drought.” [5]

Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawing
Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawing

That ambivalence has brought us is to the point where we no longer (if we ever did) treat the soil with respect and care. While there is a resurgence towards removing harmful pesticide and chemical fertilizer use toward more regenerative agricultural practices, the vast majority of soil maintenance continues under harmful industrial conditions. “First of all the topsoil on which food is grown now is nothing more than a sponge onto which we pour chemicals that we get from oil and natural gas, and without those chemicals the soil has been turned into a junkie—the soil is worthless.” [6]

This outcome has propelled the visionaries to dig deeper, to rethink our relationship with the Earth and its soils. This exploration of the soil for new meaning and for new processes of maintaining its health has inspired radical new practices within the food production industry. Regenerative agriculture aims to rehabilitate the systems of food growth through conservation, increasing biodiversity, and improving the soil vitality. As Charles Eisenstein mentions, burgeoning practices that focus on mending and revitalizing natural systems, force us to admit that we have been wrong; that we have misunderstood how best to steward the earth, and that we have not held the correct answers in our relationship with the Earth. [7]

“We’re seeing a very rapid degradation of the world’s soils. They’re basically collapsing. And 99 percent of our calories come from the soil. And because of this profound lack of respect, we are losing our most fundamental resource. Everything we love and value, everything in our entire society, everything we’ve built our civilization on, comes from the soil.” [8] — George Monbiot

Monbiot is very clear and direct on the environmental effects farming has made. His concern is composed of how farming has been practiced as well as the effects it has had, as an industry, on supporting natural systems such as water and land use.

“Farming is the worst thing we’ve ever done to the planet. Now obviously we depend on farming, we need to eat, but it has inflicted unbelievable harm—it’s the greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of wildlife loss, greatest cause of extinction, greatest cause of soil loss, greatest cause of freshwater use, and above all, the greatest cause of land use. And land use is this hugely-neglected topic. It should be top of our list of environmental concerns, because every hectare of land you use for an extractive industry, is a hectare of land that can’t be used for wild ecosystems, such as forests, or wetlands, or savannahs, or natural grasslands, and the vast majority of the world’s species depend on wild ecosystems. And if we don’t have enough of them to sustain those species, planetary systems then start to collapse, and that’s game over—that’s everything finished.” [9] — George Monbiot

Publication interior spreads of drawings and essay

The land now devoted to animal farming is shocking in scale. Roughly 28 percent of worldwide land use comprises grazing territory, with an additional 19 percent used to grow crops fed to livestock. Considering that urban spaces collectively comprise roughly one percent of all land on the planet, the live stock industries’ use of land is vastly larger in scale, representing a sizeable footprint of nature cut off from the majority of species. Monbiot reminds us that this land has severely reduced forest cover, and in many cases reduced important environments such as savannahs, wetlands, and natural grasslands so vital for supporting and promoting life for all creatures. “The helpful thing here, is that a vast proportion of the world’s livestock farms would not exist at all if it were not for public money. They’re simply kept afloat by farm subsidies, and the world spends half a trillion dollars a year on farm subsidies, almost all of which are highly damaging environmentally, which tend to go to the biggest and richest farmers, and are overwhelmingly (or, well, the majority of them) goes to livestock farming.… First of all, stop propping up the old industries. We’ve got to change what farm subsidies are given for, because at the moment they are a phenomenally powerful form of destruction. They’re also highly regressive, because tax-payers of all stations are paying some of the most richest people in the world. We’ve got massively to reformulate that.” [10]

Environmental Assessment

When David Wallace-Wells wrote The Uninhabitable Earth – Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak—sooner than you think, it became his most widely-read article at New York Magazine. It also received heavy scrutiny from the climate science community. The backlash to his article largely focussed on the tone in which the piece was written. Prior to the publishing of his article, the strategy employed by the climate science publishing community was to maintain an optimistic outlook. As dire as the predictions were for increasingly warmer weather patterns, the writing strategy dictated that the underlying tone of optimism be maintained. The rationale suggested that an optimistic outlook was the best way to mobilize people around the issue, preventing audiences from freaking out over the bleakness of the situation. Wallace-Wells chose to take his article in a different direction. He perceived fundamental issues with the optimistic angle, and for him it was personal.

In an interview with Max Linsky at the Longform Podcast he explained his reasoning for adopting a divergent angle on the story:

“I’m just sort of temperamentally, and a little bit in my professional career, sort of been interested in the near future, and so I’ve been always keeping an eye on academic research, and the corners of the internet that speculate a little more wildly—a lot of the time irresponsibly—about what’s going to happen ten, twenty years from now. And starting in 2016 I just was seeing a tonne more climate coverage in those places that I hadn’t seen before, and I also felt it was way scarier than it was being written about in places like the Times and the Washington Post, and the magazines that we consider competitors, and the TV programs that pretend to do serious news. I sort of had a mercenary, journalistic impulse which was just—this is an incredible story, like the story is so big, it’s so dramatic, and no one is telling it adequately. No one is telling it in its cinematic dimensions, by which I mean, sort of, its horrifying dimensions.” [11] — David Wallace-Wells

The data that Wallace-Wells began to uncover was concerning. Nowhere before had he found the kind of statistics and numbers he was beginning to see recorded in the science. They were coming from credible leading climate science sources, and they were jarring. They were also voluminous. Much of his strategy for keeping up on the science was through the use of Twitter. His experience of this striking data, through the app, came to him as if sprayed through a firehose. Facts, statistics, references, and research came tumbling out, and this constituted Wallace-Wells’ experience of the information. So much so that upon reading his article and subsequent book of the same title, the writing assumes a form of quasi Twitter feed composed of real time data production. “I had a few different models in mind when I was writing the article and editing the book. But for the chunk of the book that was most deeply scientific […] the model for that really was Twitter for me. I mean my experience of just seeing a stream of facts and the emotional impact that that has on me as a reader was so… Any time that I had read an analysis about climate change or any big-picture assessment of the story, I felt like it was removed, and cold, and almost inhuman, even though it was often talking about human impacts. And the most visceral experience I had was just like being drowned in the data. And, personally I looked at the storytelling that was done elsewhere on climate and I just thought that was not being done by anyone else, that everyone was so worried about boring readers, and about being geeky and wonky that they, sort of, didn’t lead with the facts.” [12]

Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawings
Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawings

Wallace-Wells’ stack-of-facts model of writing about climate change exhibits a velocity on the page (or screen) upon reading. His stack speeds the reader through the content from which numbers and degrees and multiplications of such horrifying summations, drawn from the scientific data, propel the reader into the immediacy of the demanding story he needs to tell. And it is compelling. As taxing as the text is in its intruding intensity, he retains a command over the data, wielding the figures in all of their weighty might without coming off sounding hyperbolic.

“Between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming, just that extra half degree of warming, is going to kill 150 million people from air pollution alone. That’s 25 times the death toll of the Holocaust. And when I say that to people, their eyes open. They’re like ‘Oh my God, this is suffering on such an unconscionable scale.’ And it is. But 9 million people are dying already every year from air pollution. That’s a Holocaust every year, right now. And our lives aren’t meaningfully oriented around those people and those deaths. And very few people we know have their lives meaningfully oriented around those people and those deaths.” [13] — David Wallace-Wells

The research is confirmed unanimously in the climate science community, as well as within other disciplines. The data according to Todd Dufresne, Canadian professor of Philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, corroborates the findings. Dufresne, like Wallace-Wells, is careful to point out his propensity to push beyond the conservative estimates that all too often fill the pages of international climate reports. Not one to mince words, Dufresne’s incisiveness dictates his chosen form of storytelling. “The science is pretty clear. We should try to keep our carbon emissions under 350 parts per million. Right now they’re around 410 parts per million, so that’s quite a bit higher. But people don’t understand that the air pollution itself is probably accounting for a 0.5 to 1 degree reduction. So in fact already in 2007 our emissions were probably thought to be around 465, it’s just that our pollution is protecting us from the heat. So, let’s imagine that we get our act together over the next ten to fifteen years and really cut our emissions, we’ve got another degree increase anyway. That brings us to two. One and a half is catastrophic, two is very catastrophic. But probably what’s baked into the environment is more like three. That’s even if we do stuff, so no matter what people are going to die.” [14]

The story that Wallace-Wells and Dufresne are telling adheres to a truth conveying immediacy. There is a kind of freedom in radical forms of making. For one thing, they allow words, numbers, and facts to function like a sledgehammer. Their writing does not whisper. There isn’t much subtlety in their work. The through line is that our time is limited. The decision for Wallace-Wells to write a more hair-raising kind of story on the state of climate science was personal, based on the gravity in the numbers he was finding.“They [climate science journalists] led with broad strokes depictions, and I found those broad strokes depictions too abstract to wrap my head around. And when I came upon a single paper that says, ‘Between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming, just that extra half degree of warming—just through the impact of air pollution—there will be 153 million additional deaths’. I don’t need someone to rhapsodize for me about what that will mean. That number alone has all the poetry that you need in it, especially if you realize that’s like 25 holocausts that you’re dealing with. And because we’re not likely to avoid two degrees of warming, that means that’s sort of our best case scenario—death from air pollution at the scale of 25 holocausts. And, I just felt that the science itself was that compelling, that the most narratively-exciting thing to do was to give it an unfiltered platform.… I really feel like it’s not me that’s doing the alarming, it’s the science. If you’re terrified by these facts, you should be.” [15]

Much of Wallace-Wells’ decision to write an article based on the terrifying raw data was fuelled by the moral of truth-telling. The priority of his profession as a journalist is to tell the truth. His findings led him to a story where the truth had been typically communicated in a wobbly, understated manner. Data published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports typically skew to conservative estimates in order to get international science research teams on board. The IPCC is an international organization. It is essential that all participants be included in the publication; international representation within the report bolsters its credibility.

Publication interior spreads of essay and drawings

However this strategy has tended to omit outlying research on both highly pessimistic and optimistic ends of the data spectrum, leading to overly conservative reports. The latest IPCC report was noticeably more dire in tone, reflecting the decision to move beyond the conventional wisdom, held by the climate science community to mobilize support through optimism. For Wallace-Wells, this is a right story that needs to be told.

“Like anyone who spends time in climate science, it’s hard not to feel some pull of advocacy and activism, but fundamentally I come to this subject as a journalist and I really do feel like if the best papers that are being published in Science and Nature, like our best academic journals, are saying that there are going to be places in the world that are hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once; if the UN is saying that by 2050 we’ll have 250 million climate refugees at least—and possibly a billion, which is as many people living in North and South America combined—then the obligation of journalists is to tell that story.” [16] — David Wallace-Wells

He remains firm in his conviction that fear and alarm have their place. When writing for scientific and academic journals, language eliciting fear and alarm are removed in favour of balanced, unbiased, and unemotional tones. Academic writing purposely removes emotion, as balance—the ultimate goal—best communicates unbiased data collection and its dissemination. However, within the domain of climate writing for public audiences from a journalistic perspective, Wallace-Wells sees no issue with incorporating more direct, heavier language. In fact, much of the writing that made progressive gains towards a global climate consciousness was accomplished through tactics directly involving fear and alarm. “When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring it was called hyperbolic and alarmist. It lead to the ban on DDT, basically led to the creation of the EPA. The anti-nuclear energy movement, which I’m not so happy with, but that would be majorly powered by fear and alarm against nuclear proliferation at the military level. Against drunk driving, against cigarette smoking. These are all public campaigns that really drew on fear, and really effectively.” [17]

This suggests that when telling a story, the author is required to follow their own instincts on how that story is delivered. Facts, of course, are required to lead the narrative. There is enough irresponsible writing and punditry already; journalists and writers don’t need to be adding to the enormous amounts of junk currently in circulation. But in terms of method, delivery, rhetoric, and tone, everything is on the table. It is uncertain as to what type of writing style will connect with a reader. Some readers will gravitate towards the staggeringly powerful numbers which we are facing, others will need more hand-holding to walk through the content. For David Wallace-Wells, his story is one of laying it all out in plain sight for the reader to absorb. “The scientists also pointed to the social science, and in fact in the aftermath of my article there was a piece published in Nature that did a literature review and found that hope and optimism work on some people, and alarm and fear work on other people. There’s no way of knowing going in what’s going to work on whom, and so you should just tell whatever your story is. And my story was I’m freaking out.” [18]

Wallace-Wells is an author rooted in the present. He is looking head-on at the issues we face today, and is responding to them in his own distinct way. Contemplating where we are in time and space can be an emotionally grating practice. We live in a world where it is much more comforting to look—even live—in the past. This could be interpreted as engaging in practices blindly. The absence of questioning or critiquing one’s habits and decisions is essentially a reliance on previous—potentially out-dated—insight that justifies one’s actions. Writers can decide to look backwards for comforting, historical narratives. They can also choose to critically survey the present and follow a difficult, lonely path by thinking for themselves, based on the data they are finding. The creative, fearless thinkers found in any era are the makers of change and the architects of progressive movements:

Publication interior spreads of essay and drawings

“The reason I went back to Plato and I talk about Kant and people like Nietzsche is that these people were actually interested in their own time—they’re interested in the issues of their own time. Plato’s interested in cosmopolitan Athens. He’s interested in the problems of his time as opposed to looking backwards. He’s looking at the problems of his time and what we can do to think about things differently or how we can organize ourselves differently.… Plato and Kant are examining their time and looking toward the future. Kant’s looking at what is enlightenment, and what is enfolding in his own time, and he becomes an influential person for the American and French Revolutions. Revolutions are not nothing. This is something that changes the world through ideas.” [19] — Todd Dufresne

New ways of thinking, communicating, and image-making are vital towards making change. Large-scale change. New modes of making can be powerful. They can break through the expected. New modes of storytelling respond more effectively to present circumstances. They are not weighted down with worn out, historical baggage. The language that new modes of storytelling put into service is fresh and vital. The immediacy they permeate better influence and entice. They may also face resistance when released into the world. They may encounter reluctance, or refusal in accepting the ideas and facts contained within. No doubt, facts hold weight, and can land with a direct impact. They can also land without a sound and be hidden away, as Wallace-Wells knows. “At the level of our media culture where in our news rooms, any journalist that you ask would tell you—really say like 80 percent of journalists would tell you—climate change is the story of our time. I think that’s now a quite conventional perspective among people who are seriously engaged in the news. But it’s not on the front page of the New York Times everyday, it’s not on the nightly news every night. When the news programs cover weather disasters they rarely connect it to climate change.” [20]

Facts are systematically left out of news coverage. The kind that can lead to massive, impending, large scale change. Belief in the facts is one stage of human evolution. The human ability to comprehend these facts, to psychologically consider the ramifications of these facts, and to internalize these facts in order to form meaningful responses, are also crucial stages our human family must progress through. Jeremy Rifkin is familiar with the human inability to understand the magnitude of the present circumstances. An economic and social theorist, public speaker, political advisor, activist, and authour of 21 books on energy, socio-economics, technology, and environmental sustainability, his perspective on the trajectory of the human project is well informed.

“Our scientists now tell us that we are in the sixth extinction event of life on earth. It doesn’t even make the headlines. This is the most dramatic story the human family has ever faced.…We just are not grasping the enormity of this moment. We might acknowledge climate change, but we’re going on as business as usual, with a little green-washing. 99.5% of all the species that have ever been on this planet have come and gone. Those are not good odds.” [21] — Jeremy Rifkin

In his latest work titled The Third Industrial Revolution: A Radical New Sharing Economy outlines his long-term economic sustainability plan of the same name. In the film he addresses this talk to young people currently engaged in entrepreneurship within the fields of tech, sustainability, water rights advocacy, and social rights domains, to name a few. And he addresses the audience through the cold, hard facts of climate change and the collapse of the fossil fuel industry.

Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawings
Interior page spread featuring “Stars Explode” drawings

Commercial Entrenchment

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the extent to which our commercial sectors are entrenched, adhering to outdated practices and ideas. The pandemic revealed a window of time for course-correcting businesses and markets toward more sustainable practices. Little action was taken. The majority of stories published in the press during the pandemic presented more of the same we have come to expect. News agency interviews with business owners and employees uncovered deep-seated desires to get back to work and back to our “normal lives”. This desire to revert back into our linear, extractive, wasteful, and highly polluting lives and practices that delivered us to this point in the first place is revealing. Business as usual, for the past 100 years, has physically imprinted onto the world signs of our existence. That imprint has been cast so deeply onto the world that it has formed a crucial component of Todd Dufresne’s research and geological assessment of human behaviours on the planet. “The Anthropocene comes out of geological discourse, and geologists propose that really what it’s describing is a situation where the impact of human beings can be felt around the world at the geological level. So that’s from plastics and micro-plastics—which are everywhere in the world including in the Arctic ice for example, of course throughout the oceans—but also things like radiation and other evidence of human beings existing. The idea is that we’ve so stamped the Earth itself with these human products, these artifacts of human civilization, that at some point in the future someone will look back and see it in the sediment itself.… The kind of general thesis that I have is a very basic and simple idea; it is that the Anthropocene allows us to see in a way our natural world in a more obvious, striking fashion, and it means that we have to reassess not only the recent past but the kind of people and the kind of world that we are about to inherit, which is a world that is completely different than the world we knew, which is defined by the Holocene.” [22]

The world has been changed significantly over the course of the modernist experiment. Since the industrial age beginning in the early 1700’s, ramped up manufacturing processes, increased rates of production, and rapid transportation and logistics infrastructures (to name a few) have steadily transformed us as a species, our relationship to the world, and our perception of the planet’s scale. We relate to the world differently now. We see it through a different lens. We have lightning fast access to everything, and yet the nature that powers so much of our present civilization is eroding away right before us. There is something within the organization of our civilization that is incompatible with natural systems. Todd Dufresne would affirm that capitalism is the driving force behind so much of the degradation. An engine and dogma of growth, the constant expansion of capitalism that increased the health and wealth of so many people, now seems to be overpowering vital biosphere systems required for the continuation of life on this planet.

Publication interior spreads of essay and drawings

In 2003, Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan made a documentary that remains as relevant today as when it was released (with a few exceptions of course). The film interrogates the relationship between the company as designed edifice and natural systems of planet Earth. The Corporation explores the dynamic rise of business, its organization and composition, and its effects on people, on society, and on the environment. The film is replete with interviews of intellectuals, activists, academics, and business leaders. The critique delivers a resounding and fully-researched investigation into an institutional structure capable of doing such good in the world, but so often causing destruction and suffering. In a poignant interview with Ray Anderson, then CEO of Interface, a global commercial flooring company, he articulates what he considers to be the crux of our current distress with climate change.

“I’m drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly. The man going off of a very high cliff in his aeroplane with the wings flapping, and the guy is flapping the wings, and the wind is in his face. And this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but in fact he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet because the ground is so far away. But of course the craft is doomed to crash. That’s the way our civilization is—the very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seemed to have when we began this journey. The craft isn’t flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics, and it’s subject to the law of gravity. Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And of course, the ground is still a long way away, but some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have—the visionaries have seen it and have told us, it’s coming. There’s not a single, scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario. Every living system of earth is in decline. Every life support system of earth is in decline. And these together constitute the biosphere. The biosphere that supports and nurtures all of life, and not just our life but perhaps 30 million other species that share this planet with us. The typical company of the 20th century: extractive, wasteful, abusive, linear in all of its processes; taking from the earth, making, wasting; sending its products back to the biosphere, waste to landfill.” [23] — Ray Anderson

What I believe Anderson is getting at here is that we as a species simply do not understand our place in the world. Progressing through the Enlightenment into the industrial era of Modernity, our world began to look ever increasingly mechanistic in its composition. Over time, nature began to take on the form of inert stuff that could simply be moved around as little pieces removed from the whole. It was stupid stuff, simply composed of molecules operating through laws God-given to us as custodians, and therefore arbitrators of this domain fully under our control. And we exercised that control, to its fullest degree. Entire periods of literature were written with narratives underscoring the human struggle against nature as something to be conquered, not lived in interdependence with. Charles Eisenstein, authour of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition among many titles, shares provocative, fresh ideas around concepts of natural systems, sustainable tech, and monetary systems. In a compelling conversation with Russell Brand, he discusses his ideas on Earth systems, healthy narratives around climate change, and sacred economics.

“I feel a little suspicious of the dominant climate change narrative because the powerful are so willing to accept it. I think it’s a lot less disruptive than the alternative narrative that I like to work with which is “the living Earth” narrative, which says that Earth is alive, that its health depends on the health of its organs and tissues, and what are those? Those are the forests, the wetlands, the seagrass meadows, the mangroves, the elephants, the whales, the fish, the corrals—everything that is destroyed by development is necessary. If you are in the carbon mind frame, then even if you value a forest for its carbon storage sequestration, once you’ve reduced it to that number, you could cut it down if there is, say, gold to mine underneath it, or oil, and plant another forest somewhere else to make up for it. Because, it’s just the numbers, right? Or you could cut it down but install lots of solar panels to offset that carbon. We’re not treating Earth as alive, and precious, and sacred, by operating in that quantitative mindset. And I don’t think that’s a big-enough revolution. We are being initiated into a new kind of relationship to Earth, not initiated into ‘let’s be a little more clever in working the numbers’.” [24] — Charles Eisenstein

Interior page spread featuring body of work and preliminary sketches
Interior page spread featuring body of work and preliminary sketches

Prerequisites for what comes next

How might we reorient ourselves within a world that is new to us? What do the cosmonauts do upon landing on this world so strange, so inconceivably different from their every experience? In a world becoming ever more hostile, how do our priorities change? What do our priorities become? The ever-growing confusion surrounding our everyday encounters with a world so hostile—once law-bound, now sporadic in every sense—leaves us even more confused of our place in this world we never really felt at home in anyway.

“I think much of the confusion that is happening with us today is that much of the resistance to climate change and the notion of the Anthropocene is to realize that we are newly-created, the world is different to us, and how we navigate ourselves in this world is a totally new matter for us to think through the problems of that.” [25] — Todd Dufresne

Todd Dufresne places much stock in the power of new stories. One of them is the images produced upon the first landing upon our moon. The images that the team of astronauts produced recorded a small, tiny water-laden ball floating in an unimaginably massive vacuum of darkness. These images still resonate, reminding those who are focused and in the present, that our best chances for quality life is here. Even though at times it might not seem so—it is here.

Interior page spread featuring drawing development
Interior page spread featuring drawing development

One of the roles of writers, artists, and critical designers is to offer up to the world new ideas. New ideas, images, and stories uncover the potential to envision better ways of doing things. Better ways of doing things lead to potentially better lives. The outcome of creative practices envision a world of better potential. Part of creative practice involves paying critical attention to the surrounding world. Creative people—artists, designers, writers, makers—are not simply extensions of business. Designers do not blindly aid in the production process; they are highly skilled, delivering critical responses through their work. As are artists and writers. Part of establishing the right story is discrediting old, outdated stories. Stories not longer containing the truth of this life, no longer useful to us. Canadian authour and associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, Andrew Potter is comfortable delivering critical reflection through his work, confidently pointing out areas requiring reassessment. In a conversation with Nahlah Ayed on CBC Ideas, he reflects on how we have arrived at this point.

“The Enlightenment story is that we figured things out: we figured out how to run ourselves properly, we figured out how to build institutions, and we achieved a certain level of reason that we were applying to the problems that we faced. And we had every reason to expect that that would keep going indefinitely. It was almost like a ladder we’d climbed as a civilization and kicked it away. And the metaphor I vary that with is that it wasn’t a ladder we’d climbed. It was almost like we’d stumbled onto a buffet, ate up all the food, and after a few hundred years looked around and went ‘Hey, where did all the food go?’ I think that’s where we’re at right now. We’re looking around thinking that someone’s eaten all of the food and we haven’t really made any preparations for what’s going to come next.” [26] — Andrew Potter

As a closing statement, journalist and host of the BBC HARDtalk podcast Stephen Sackur replayed an episode originally broadcast in 2021 interviewing legendary environmentalist James Lovelock. Lovelock, who at the age of 103, died recently in July 2022. Lovelock consistently described himself as an “engineer”, equating himself with those driven for solving issues surrounding humanity through practical, obtainable solutions. Always a voice of reason, Lovelock candidly reconfirms what he has spent a lifetime striving to prove to the world through his research: “If the Earth were just proceeding as it was before humans appeared… It’s what we’re doing that’s what is doing the damage, not anything else. The Earth naturally would go through its warm periods and ice ages and things like that for a good long time yet — we’re talking millions of years probably.” [27]

Interior page spread featuring drawing development
Interior page spread featuring drawing development


We are all involved in writing the story that articulates what comes next. Our every action, whether collectively or individually mediated, will affect our futures. And the futures of those very young, and those yet unborn. To those who will grow up in a world of diminishment, a form of taxation without representation. Some of us will find the correct story to write, and write it in a way that fuels change and reassessment. Others will write the same narrative that got us to this present set of circumstances, writing with a slow, plodding drumbeat fuelled by outdated conceptions of the world. In a future that accounts for our place here, much critical reflection, honest review, willingness to accept that we do not have all the answers, and devotion to learn new ways of being will no doubt serve as prerequisites into what comes next.

See full body of work here.


Jayson designs, draws, writes, and documents his world at He can be reached at [email protected].


1. Monbiot, George. Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. (Penguin Group, London, 2006).

2. Linsky, Max (Host). (2019, May 1). #341: David Wallace-Wells [Audio podcast episode]. In Longform Podcast.

3. Smith, Chris. 2009. Collapse. Bluemark Productions.

4. Schlanger, Talia (Guest host). (2022, July 31). George Monbiot reimagines the future of food [Audio podcast episode]. In The Sunday Magazine for July 31, 2022. CBC Radio.

5. Ibid.

6. Smith, Chris. 2009. Collapse. Bluemark Productions.

7. Brand, Russell (Host). (2018, October 9). 050 Systems Of The Damned (with Charles Eisenstein) [Audio podcast episode]. In Under The Skin with Russell Brand. Luminary.

8. Schlanger, Talia (Guest host). (2022, July 31). George Monbiot reimagines the future of food [Audio podcast episode]. In The Sunday Magazine for July 31, 2022. CBC Radio.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Linsky, Max (Host). (2019, May 1). #341: David Wallace-Wells [Audio podcast episode]. In Longform Podcast.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ayed, Nahlah (Host). (2020, October 9). The Democracy of Suffering: Todd Dufresne [Audio podcast episode]. In Ideas. CBC Radio.

15. Linsky, Max (Host). (2019, May 1). #341: David Wallace-Wells [Audio podcast episode]. In Longform Podcast.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ayed, Nahlah (Host). (2020, October 9). The Democracy of Suffering: Todd Dufresne [Audio podcast episode]. In Ideas. CBC Radio.

20. Linsky, Max (Host). (2019, May 1). #341: David Wallace-Wells [Audio podcast episode]. In Longform Podcast.

21. Moretti, Eddy. 2017. The Third Industrial Revolution. Vice Films.

22. Ayed, Nahlah (Host). (2020, October 9). The Democracy of Suffering: Todd Dufresne [Audio podcast episode]. In Ideas. CBC Radio.

23. Achbar, Mark & Abbott, Jennifer. The Corporation, (Big Picture Media Corporation, 2004), DVD.

24. Brand, Russell (Host). (2018, October 9). 050 Systems Of The Damned (with Charles Eisenstein) [Audio podcast episode]. In Under The Skin with Russell Brand. Luminary.

25. Ayed, Nahlah (Host). (2020, October 9). The Democracy of Suffering: Todd Dufresne [Audio podcast episode]. In Ideas. CBC Radio.

26. Ayed, Nahlah (Host). (2022, June 7). On Decline: Revisiting Andrew Potter’s Prognosis [Audio podcast episode]. In Ideas. CBC Radio.

27. Sackur, Stephen (Host). (2021, July 12). James Lovelock: The future of life on Earth [Audio podcast episode]. In HARDtalk. BBC News.

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