I learned a new term recently—maybe you too saw the headline—“zombie ice.” Zombie ice is glacier ice in Greenland that scientists have determined is 100% certain to melt into the ocean at some point in the reasonably near future. The water under the glaciers has warmed to the point that the ice—like a cube of ice dropped into boiling water—is irrevocably doomed to melt, probably by 2050 or sooner. At this point, nothing can stop this process, hence the term “zombie ice.”
I don’t know who invented this term, but never say that scientists don’t have a sense of humor. For some reason the term “zombie ice” caught my attention, in a way that a mere scientific description of the physical process would not have. “Zombie ice” is a now new phrase, a meme. Of course it’s not just the ice that is “zombie,” it is us. Climate change, which humans have caused, is doing this, and although the world’s populace is slowly becoming conscious of impending catastrophe (or not so slowly: talk to a Pakistani about recent floods there that have inundated 1/3 of the country), for the most part world decision-makers are still largely in semi-zombie mode—sleepwalking to Armageddon.
As for Pakistan, a noted Pakistani writer, Fatima Bhutto, recent wrote an essay in the New York Times about the utter catastrophe of the flooding there. She begins her article with a legend or folk tale. She says, “We heard the story all the time, told as a warning: When man first set foot on Earth, all the winged animals flew high into the sky and the fish dived deeper into the sea, scattering in fear, because they knew the destroyer of the world had arrived.” Striking that even in ancient times there was an awareness that we humans have the capacity to be “destroyers of the world.” As civilizations have advanced and technology has burgeoned, as a species we have grown into the truth of this epithet. We are indeed destroyers of the world. Birds and fishes would do well to fear us; already many thousands of bird and fish species have become extinct due to our presence on the planet.
“Zombie ice” makes me think of the Buddhist doctrine of karma, which is somewhat different than the much older Hindu concept of karma. For Buddhists, karma simply means “action”—more specifically, an action you take in the present. It doesn’t mean fate or that you are a prisoner of your past, but that you are the master and creator of your future, based on what you are doing now. The traditional Buddhist teaching says, “What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.” To put it in more modern terms, karma as Buddhism sees it is free will. The actions you take now can change who you have been. There is always the opportunity to make things anew. This doctrine finds echoes, I think, in modern existential philosophy, which emphasized existence (i.e. the actions you take that create who you are).
So “zombie ice” is, in Buddhist terms, what we have been. Or as the saying goes, “what’s done is done.” A sea rise of 10 inches is major; it could flood low-lying cities and plains all over the world. But there is plenty of ice left in Greenland, or for that matter, in Anarctica. If all that ice melted the seas could rise a couple of hundred feet; say goodbye to low lying areas and every coastal city in the world.
Buddhism goes further in parsing the varieties of karma. It says that there are three kinds: karma (or action) that has immediate result, karma whose result you will reap in your lifetime, and karma whose result will not arise until a future lifetime. As I write, in California just north of San Francisco, it is currently 110 degrees—about 20 degrees above normal. That’s the first kind of karma; we are experiencing it now. The zombie ice will, they say, melt by the end of this century—within the lifetime of today’s young children. The sea rise of 200 feet is several lifetimes away—karmic result that will come to pass in a future lifetime.
It doesn’t matter what religion, faith, belief system or philosophy you follow: this karma is coming. There will be more zombie ice unless we wake up from being zombies. They say that other great civilizations of the past have been brought down by climate change—the Incas of Mesoamerica and the fertile crescent civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates valley are two examples. I wonder if the denizens of those societies saw their demise coming, and tried to plan ahead or do something about it. They probably just prayed to their weather gods and sacrificed animals and people to stave off disaster. Human beings tend to panic under extreme stress; most creatures do.
Our problem, in contrast, is not that we are panicking, but that we are not panicking—at least not yet. Sometimes panic is appropriate to a situation. I don’t wish panic on anyone, and the choices people make when they are panicked are usually not good—they tend to blame someone or some group, anyone other than themselves. I have not watched the movies and TV shows about zombies, although I hear that they are very popular. Did the populace panic when the zombies came? Zombie ice has already come, but up to now only scientists, it seems, are truly alarmed. I can say that the folks in California—where some cities will see a high of 120 today—people are very, very concerned. But then Fall will come, and with it cool weather, and people will forget.
There was a U.S. senator who, in the midst of winter, brought a snowball into the Senate chamber to prove that “global warming” wasn’t real. Note to politicans and decision makers everywhere: at 126 degrees, a human being cannot survive; places like Iraq are not far from that point today. And at that temperature can you guess how fast a snowball melts?