Do you find the ordinary act of reading the daily news depressing? I do. Every article, it seems, is about some crisis, tragedy, war, death, torture and destruction. My friends will say, don’t be so sensitive, it’s always been that way. News people have an old saying: If it bleeds, it leads. I know all that, but I seem to remember a time—and I don’t think it’s a false Pollyanna memory—when the news wasn’t this bad, when there were also stories of uplift, inspiration, and heroic upstanding behavior. I have read that some psychologists who study these things say that the sense that things are getting steadily worse and that there was some golden age in the past when things were better is a kind of mental illusion. I don’t buy it. I think things really are getting worse, and that we are headed for some kind of tipping point or catastrophe, particularly regarding climate.
So I tell myself: all right, I will take a break and for a few days I won’t read the news, or I will only read news and news sites that are illuminating, not depressing. But that’s hard for me. I’m a news junkie. I want to know what’s happening, I want to know what experts wiser than me think about what is going on. So I compromise and say, I’ll just read the mainstream news, the New York Times or Associated Press. But mainstream often lacks a certain perspective and point of view. I also like reading the Guardian and Buzzfeed, and even more offbeat sources, because they have interesting investigative pieces and inject a certain urgency which I appreciate. The reality is that a day never goes by that I don’t read the news. I’ve tried “news fasting” but by evening I usually break down and consume. The one “fast” I keep to is no TV. We have a TV but it’s been a year or more since we’ve turned it on. TV news is pictorial, high-energy and emotional. I don’t need emotion to understand the news. I have my own emotions, which are enough for me.
Part of the exhaustion of reading the news is that so much of it makes you feel helpless. When I was young I was an activist. Civil rights, feminism, and the Vietnam war were issues my generation could get excited about and have an impact on. I’d like to think—and there is some truth to this—that back then, young peoples’ activism against the Vietnam war, in which I was seriously engaged, helped shorten that war and save some lives. But how do you mobilize, for example, against climate change? Would marching in the streets—as we did against the war—really change anything? That issue is planetary, and even if every government in the world suddenly turned on a dime and went to net zero carbon emissions, so much damage has already been done. It may be too late to slow the juggernaut. Recent research has determined that 400,000 years ago Greenland was ice-free and warm-weather plants grew there. It’s probably going to be ice-free again, and the seas will rise 20 to 40 feet when it is. The coastal cities of the world will vanish. This is not science fiction. It will happen.
That’s the texture of today’s news, and I think it is driving people a little crazy—or in some cases, quite crazy. The planet’s climate is fragile, we have learned that, but the social fabric of human civilization is just as fragile, and each of us need a purpose and meaningful human connection to feel that life is worth living. If we don’t have that, we will self-destruct in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Even a precocious and powerful presence like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has captured the whole world’s attention with her Cassandra-like messaging against the so-called grownups who have created this situation, is in the end just another media voice, another influencer with a point of view.
It seems in the topsy turvy world we are living in, it is the children who are becoming responsible grownups and it is the grownups who preen and party like spoiled, irresponsible children. And what will happen when all the permafrost in Siberia melts and sends methane skyward—methane which is far more harmful to the planet even than carbon dioxide. That is one example of a climate “tipping point”—a sudden shift to a new paradigm. As F. D. Flam, writer for Bloomberg opinion, points out, tipping points have happened many times in the past—causing sudden warming or an ice age—and he specifically mentions methane and the melting of Greenland and Antarctica ice as examples. Another tipping story just hit today, this one about “A crucial system of ocean currents heading for a collapse that ‘would affect every person on the planet’.” That study is deemed by some to be controversial, but we’ll see. There are probably myriad tipping point crises coming our way we don’t even know about.
James Lovelock, the progenitor of the Gaia hypothesis–which posits that the whole planet is a single sentient organism—commented 20 years ago that much of Europe could be like the Sahara desert in 30 to 40 years hence. If he is right that means very soon. He was known in his lifetime for his accurate predictions. This summer, the summer of 2023, is the hottest on record. At a temperature of 115 degrees human beings can barely survive, and that has been the daily reading in Phoenix for the last 30 some days, and in some Mediterranean countries too. I wonder what will happen in the countries of the Middle East or Southern India, where temperatures already sometimes reach 125 degrees. When it reaches 135 will they build caves and live underground? Will that be the eventual fate of all of us, to become troglodytes on planet Gaia?
Moving to caves: now that’s a news story I haven’t seen yet, but since I am doomed or destined to check the news every day, it probably won’t be too long before I do see that story. I won’t live to see the day that Greenland becomes ice-free, warm, and perhaps the new epicenter of human civilization, but our grandchildren may. If I were a bit younger I might consider buying farmland in the Yukon Territories, which may be growing much of the world’s food before long. And Nuuk, Greenland might in due time become the New York or London of a boiling earth.
Science fiction? Read the news.