A two-step plan to save the world…or not.
words :: Feet Banks
header image: US Dept of Energy/Wikicommons
Plan A: Come Together, Right Now
The first thing you need to know about the end of the world is that it’s happening.
The second thing you need to know is that it’s not really the end of the world, it’s the end of humanity. Or as they call it in climate crisis circles, “the sixth extinction.”
And the last thing you need to know is that the first step in staving off that extinction is in your hands, and it might start with the gilded palace of narcissism itself—social media.
But first the bad news: yes, climate “change” has officially evolved into “crisis” status now—the planet is warming up, the ice is melting, weather is going apeshit, natural cycles are being affected, and it’s all happening faster than anyone expected. Historical temperature/warming records pulled from polar ice cores, ancient trees, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rock show a current warming trend unlike anything seen in the past 10,000 years, with the 10 hottest years ever measured (in the 172 years we’ve been keeping track globally) occurring since 2010.
But wait, it get’s worse. Even if melting icecaps, rising sea levels, droughts, wildfires, and extreme weather patterns of late are not directly related to human activity (although nearly every actual scientist studying it believes this is the case), the flood of plastics in the ocean, the deforestation, and animal/plant/insect extinction rate that’s estimated to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than normal certainly is. As a civilization, we are shitting the bed. Case in point: In 2018, Bloomberg recently reported that the City of New Orleans shovelled 93,000 pounds of plastic beads from just five blocks of storm drains after Mardi Gras 2018. (Though recycling/reduction efforts have been made since.)
Ready for the good news? Humanity has a pretty decent history of rising to the occasion in times of dire need, both on a massive level, (See also: World War I & II, or the cooperation and response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami), or by an individual (Jonas Salk opted to not patent his polio vaccine in order to make it more accessible/affordable for all). Indeed, scientists continue to discover evidence that cooperation is not only an underlying principle of humanity, but a biological building block of life itself–right down to the cellular level–and found throughout the natural world.
So if birds, fish, ants and even the microbes in our gut can work together for a common good, why isn’t everyone on earth taking action to help prevent “the sixth extinction” this current climate crisis might very well bring?
The problem, ironically, might be our human proliferation to focus on the problem. And the solution, or at least the first step to saving humanity, could be as simple as reprogramming your Social Media algorithms.
“Negativity biases are pre-programmed into human behaviour,” says disruptive designer Emma Segal. “We notice and remember negative things more than positive ones because it is an evolved protective instinct. These berries will kill you, don’t try to pet that sabre toothed tiger.”
In the past 25 years, the Internet has ramped up human connection and communication at an exponential rate. Yet for all the free instant knowledge (remember $1000 encyclopaedia sets??), innovation, online shopping, and clever cat videos now available, human beings are still genetically pre-disposed to notice, remember, click on, and argue about bad news. It’s what got us this far.
“Bad news sells,” says Segal, who has spent the past eight years focusing on sustainability as a designer, educator and independent contractor for the UN. “And if you are only being fed the same thing over and over you end up in a silo. It’s a loop that reinforces a state of distress and prevents you from taking on new information—you can learn it, but you won’t believe it.” And that causes us to lose hope.
This endless barrage of bad news, from either the mainstream media or your ranting Facebook buddies, is leading to more and more cases of what mental health experts are referring to as climate change anxiety. Or as American Psychologist Dr. Renee Lertzman calls it, “environmental melancholia.”
“We are really good at denying and avoiding input that arouses any kind of cognitive dissonance, guilt, shame, confusion, fear,” Lertzman asserts in an interview with thecut.com. “That’s climate change in a nutshell.” Letzman adds that many climate crisis outcomes are so dire or unthinkable that they exceed our cultural imagination. To be able to solve them, we need to understand them. And that requires a “cultural, social imagination to allow us to go there.”
And that’s where your social media algorithms come in—to create that cultural and social imagination. There is a tonne of good news out there, as well as potential environmental solutions that may get us out of the climate crisis yet—the trick is finding them, clicking them, and sharing them. Science Journals contain a lot of under-reported progress while TED Talk videos package some of the planet’s top thinkers into easily consumable snippets. There’s even a Good News Network site, started in 1997, that compiles and distributes daily doses of “news to enthuse.”
“People have been manipulating the media since the very beginning,” Segal says. “Often for someone’s political, religious or financial gain. I think nowadays, with algorithms we can take a more active role and engage it to our benefit. Like and share positive things and force your friends to do it as well. Highlight positive ideas and individual actions. And then do the things you talk about. Action is important.”
Once you hack the algorithms controlling what information you (and your friends) are exposed to, there is plenty of good news to be found—everything from mass re-forestation in Nigeria, to a microbe that can eat plastic and change it back to oil, to the fact that world poverty and child mortality numbers are declining every year.
“Everyone knows the problems,” Segal says. “But what they are not aware of is all the people working on solutions. These climate problems haven’t been around that long, if we can quickly and effectively act on these issues and that action, en masse, can change things in a short time frame.”
To save humanity, we first need to change the way humanity thinks. And the deciding action will be cooperation.
“I am surprised on a daily basis,” Segal says, after hacking her feed to bring only good news. “People need to realize just how much global momentum there is behind solving the problems associated with climate crisis. We are in a transitional period, and every action makes a difference. The more good we put out there, the more there will be.”
Until there’s enough to save the world.
Plan B: Prepare to Die
Because there is no planet b.
“What will destroy society,” says Bruce Beach. “Is the breakdown that occurs when there is no more food in the grocery store.”
(Note: This story was written in 2019. Sadly, Mr. Beach passed in 2021 of a heart attack. He was 87.)
And Beach, a retired college professor in his mid-eighties, believes that breakdown will come after a nuclear event, not a series of climate ones. But whenever and however the end arrives, he is among Canada’s most-prepared.
Beach has been building nuclear fallout shelters since 1959. His latest is Ark Two, a 10,000 square foot underground bunker in rural Ontario, 30+ years in the making. Built from 42 school buses buried under a concrete slab covered with up to 14 feet of soil, the facility has two full kitchens, full plumbing, diesel generators, a radio communications centre and even a dentist’s chair. Because the end of the world is bad enough without an abscessed tooth root.
Nuclear, climate, or otherwise, Beach has little faith in humanity’s ability to solve any of its current problems. “I don’t think there will be a shift in consciousness to save us,” he says. “The world is run by sociopaths and under the current power structure the sociopath will always win because he has no rules except to win. People always have a perspective based on their short lives, ‘What am I gonna do?’… What you are gonna do is die. There’s no hope in the present situation. Humanity is about to blow itself apart and 80 percent of us will die and those that are left will have to rebuild society. I hope they don’t put it back together the way it was, but I hope they will at least want to put it back together.”
While Beach’s views may be on the more extreme end of the spectrum, there are many who share his pessimism. Jocelyn Durston admits to experiencing enough climate anxiety that she even started caching food on the small Nova Scotia farm she owns and works with her partner.
“I swing back and forth on the pessimism/optimism pendulum,” Durston says. “I see incredible movements and inspirational things but I also feel like we are probably still screwed. Food security is a realistic risk and one that I think is increasing. A lot of Canada relies on imported food. And as climate change decimates orchards around the globe, are we going to be able to support ourselves if we can’t get the food we are used to?”
Growing mixed vegetables and producing their own fermentable products for sale, Durston and her partner have “a decent amount” of stored food on hand.
“Here in Nova Scotia we are connected to New Brunswick by a large, low lying piece of land,” Durston explains. “Rising sea levels could cut us off from the rest of Canada and if it happened right now, the grocery stores would have food for three days. I think this is something more people need to think about. I’ve studied food scarcity on other continents and I think in Canada we could really benefit from more small, mixed use farms to create a great local food web across the country.”
And while Canadians coast to coast are building seed libraries, stocking emergency preparedness kits, and supporting local farmers markets, the true secret to doomsday preparedness might not be what you have on hand, but who.
“Cooperation will be really important I think,” Durston says. “Skills sharing will become a bigger thing, cooperation. Right now we are able to exist really independently but that is going to have to change. Building community is the key to being resilient enough to survive the coming challenges.”
In the digital era, however, cooperation is on the decline. Studies show that contemporary neighbours are far are less likely to interact, to borrow sugar or a tool for instance, than prior generations. In her book The Village Effect, psychologist Susan Pinker links an increase in social contact to everything from lower blood pressure and dementia rates to increases immune system functions to longer lifespans. Indeed, many communities across Canada have set aside funding for neighbourhood “block parties” to promote community and interaction. From a climate crisis perspective, the neighbour that parties together will hopefully band together when the power and water is shut off and the bandits are at the gates.
Joclyn Durston agrees that most of our hope lies on the local scale. Prior to taking up farming, she spent a few years in Ottawa with a non-profit organization that worked alongside the Federal government and says that experience only adds to her pessimism and anxiety. “Getting them to focus on anything other than winning the next election seemed very difficult,” she says, adding that she’s seen much more success exacting change with provincial, and especially municipal governments by joining with like-minded people and organizing their thoughts and voices.
“We have some energy projects underway and the local counsellors here are excited to work with residents.” Steps in the right direction for sure, but is grass-roots collaboration enough? Or is it is foolish, in the face of corporate greed, online narcissism and crippling environmental melancholia, to hang the future of humanity on a population that can’t reach consensus on anything from basic human rights to whether or not the earth is actually flat?
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, didn’t think so, famously stating: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Even Bruce Beach, who’s dedicated his life to the idea that very few of us will ever get out alive, agrees that connection and cooperation present out only hope for survival. He built Ark Two out of a sense of civic duty. “We need to remember and know that we are all here to help each other. That is what we are supposed to be doing.”
So, the last thing you need to know about the end of the world is that however the shit goes down, our path to salvation is the same—get together with the people around you… and start making things happen.
Store food. Save seeds. Hoard weapons if you like, but the more strategic move might be to amass good will. Your current friends and neighbours will be your first allies (or enemies) when the food supply suddenly dries up (plus it’s good to know who has working chainsaws if the zombie hoards come a calling.)
I wrote this story in 2019 for a new magazine some friends were starting called Zissou. Maybe it was the pandemic or just life in general but Zissou never saw the light of day so i’m putting this piece out here, now. I just learned that Bruce Beach, end-of-days visionary, passed away in 2021 so I wanted to give a bit more space to him here. He was very kind and funny during our interview, and it would have been incredible to reconnect during or after the COVID pandemic for his thoughts. The video below gives a good look at the man, and his creation, and this Global News piece offers more insight into his life. As well, Bruce had his own Youtube Channel full of awesome videos on stuff like how to set up water supplies in shelters, make DIY radiation detectors, recommended reading lists, and more. Rest easy Bruce Beach, you were ready and willing to share your space with anyone who would pitch in. You were an inspiration in that way and many more.
Also, is your Emergency Survival Kit truly apocalypse-ready? We have helpful tips to beat those end of days blues.