On January 13, one week before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth president of the United States and seven long days after the storming of the Capitol by an armed right-wing mob, it was easy enough to miss an article published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, despite its eye-catching title: “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” The headline was itself a train wreck: six dully innocuous words piling up in front of a modifier more suitable to a 1950s horror comic than a sober, academic journal. But there it was: The 17 scientists who co-wrote the article, the experts who peer-reviewed it, and the journal’s editors did not consider the word “ghastly” too sensational, subjective, or value-laden to describe the future toward which our society is advancing with all the prudence and caution of a runaway locomotive. The article’s message was simple: Everything must change.
On its current track, the authors wrote, “humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life.” As many as a million animal species—and 20 percent of all species—are facing near-term extinction. Humans have altered 70 percent of the planet’s land surface and “compromised” or otherwise despoiled two-thirds of its oceans, and the climate has only begun to warm. Humanity—or some of us, anyway—“is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society”—or some sectors of it—“robs nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes in the short term.” Only a radical transformation of the systems that govern our relations to one another and to the myriad forms of life with which we share the planet, the authors concurred, could deliver any hope of a “less-ravaged future.”
One week later, Joe Biden took the oath of office and quickly signed sweeping executive orders declaring it the explicit policy of his administration “to listen to the science.” He didn’t use the word “ghastly,” but he did mention “a cry for survival … from the planet itself,” one that “can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” This was strangely comforting to hear. He rejoined the Paris accord, revoked a slew of Trump-era executive orders, and restored, albeit temporarily, the moratorium on drilling in the Arctic that President Barack Obama had issued on his way out the door. However slow Biden had been to catch on to the true magnitude of the climate crisis during the primaries, he had, after months of sustained movement pressure, apparently begun to come around. [Continue reading…]