The 30-year what if

Ruminating on The New York Times Magazine's rumination.

Hello, and welcome to the first official edition of This Anthropogenic Life. I’m so excited to have you here. Are you comfortable? Should we put on some music? Shall I do that newsletter-y thing and act as your calendar? It’s Sunday, August 5.

My latest:

The New York Times Magazine published its longest story ever, a 31,000-word meditation on the missed opportunity of a decade this week, 1979-1989, when the scientific consensus on climate change aligned with partisan politics.

But if the story is a rumination on regret, what was lost? The global temperature has already risen by 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial levels ― halfway to the limit the Paris Agreement aimed to enforce. It’s worth considering what the world would be like today had policymakers enacted legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the 1990s.

I asked six scientists exactly that. Here’s a sampling of what they told me:

Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, said: “Maybe surprisingly, it would not look much different in 2018. That's because all the CO2 emitted up until the 70s and 80s remains in the atmosphere for over a century. We're now feeling the impacts of accumulated greenhouse gases we've dumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.”

Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said: “The infrastructure takes over a decade to change ― more like two decades, in major ways ― so even if a policy were put in place, its effects would not be realized until after 2010 or so. So the emissions in 1990 would likely continue and even increase as they have for a bit.”

Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said: “If we had acted decades ago, we could have steadily adjusted our energy systems to ramp down emissions gradually. Instead, we’ve allowed emissions to grow for another three decades, which means we’ll need to push down emissions incredibly quickly to have any chance of meeting the Paris goals.”

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and founder of ATMOS Research & Consulting, said: “In terms of our energy choices, though, the world would look very different. Imagine if no new coal plants had been built over the last 20 years. What would Beijing look like? How many millions of people would not have died from air pollution every year? Imagine if all our cars were already electric, and if public transportation was vastly improved, and if near shore wind farms and solar roads and house shingles were the norm. If meat were much more expensive, reflecting its actual carbon footprint, and fresh local produce much more accessible and affordable. If the majority of the richest corporations in the world were no longer companies that depended on fossil fuels for their bottom line (currently, 7 out of 10 of them do, and that’s not counting Berkshire Hathaway). And, if we lived in that world, who’d be president of the U.S.”

For more, read the story here at HuffPost.

More good stories:

  • Kate Aronoff wrote an excellent response to the NYT piece in The Nation, examining the side of American climate action history that includes people other than white dudes.

  • Chris D’Angelo, my buddy and HuffPost colleague, uncovered Islamophobic remarks one of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s spokeswomen made while working for white-supremacist Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

  • Brendan James, of Chapo Trap House fame, reviewed “Sorry To Bother You” for Jewish Currents, and kind of made me want to see it a third time.

  • Emily Atkin, whose ability to zoom out and nail the 10,000-foot angle I’m perennially jealous, looked at the Trump administration’s proposed rollback of fuel economy standards, and the scare tactics used to sell it, for The New Republic.

  • Zach Carter, my unfortunate desk mate here at HuffPost, has a banger with a headline that speaks for itself: “Relax, Boomers: Socialism Is Good Now.

Interview with Maria Berrio

Sometimes, scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, you find something good. A few weeks ago, I was in the airport in Tampa, waiting for a flight home to New York, and I discovered Maria Berrio’s work. She’s a Brooklyn-based artist, born in Colombia, who uses Japanese, Thai, and Nepalese decorative papers to make pieces that aim to tell “stories that blur biographical memory with lush paradises and beings found in South American folklore.” Her series, In a Time of Drought, really struck me. So I caught up with her to ask a few questions. I edited this down for length and clarity:

Something about this one really struck me. Can you describe what's going on in the piece and what you hope to communicate with it?

This is the work In a Time of Drought. Two mountain goats look down upon two women, one of the women supine on rocks while another holds two young mountain goats, a kid dangling by its legs from each of her hands. I tried to make the work beautiful, but to counterbalance the beauty with something vaguely darker. The apparent innocence of the young women depicted in the work cannot belie the fact that the idea of a sacrifice comes to mind---but who is being sacrificed, and to whom? Is it a feminist nod to the story of Abraham and Isaac, perhaps one seen through the eyes of the ram? Or has the girl safely returned the kids to their parents, restoring nature to its rightful place----a gesture of peace, or of contrition, on behalf of the human world?  Ultimately, the piece is an exploration of the uncomfortable ambiguity between our species and nature.

Was there ever an epiphany moment for you with climate change? Can you describe it?

I spent much of my childhood on a farm outside of Bogota, Colombia. When I later moved to New York City, where nature seems to have been thoroughly confined, I began to reflect on what nature had meant to me as a youth, and what it meant to meant to me as an adult. It wasn’t so much nostalgic romanticization as a developing awareness of some essential connection I had lost. And looking around at my fellow denizens of NYC, I realized that they, and our entire species, have become largely detached from the wider world our smaller worlds inhabit. There was no satori moment of sudden enlightenment. But there was a growing awareness of the fragility of our environs and, as a result, the fragility of our own civilizations so intimately connected to these environs.

What role should art play in communicating the seriousness of our looming ecological crisis?

Art should never be confined to a clear purpose or simply become a medium to get some sort of message or public service announcement out. It can, however, make issues more real or more felt by the audience. Novels, movies, paintings, etc can be better forms of communication than stats and figures or the pontifications of historians, scientists, and talking heads because they often engage people in a primal way. Picasso’s “Guernica,” for example, is more memorable than any photographs or news accounts that emerged from the Spanish Civil War. The fiction of art can convey a larger truth.

And with that, the inaugural This Anthropogenic Life is done. If you liked it, forward it to others. I’m always looking for good ways to tweak it, so shoot me an email with suggestions: alexanderckaufman@gmail.com. Thank you so much for reading.