Where we are now: stuck

The SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson has an interesting essay (paywalled) in the weekend edition of the Financial Times

Each moment in history has its own “structure of feeling”, as the cultural theorist Raymond Williams put it, which changes as new things happen. When I write stories set in the next few decades, I try to imagine that shift in feeling, but it’s very hard to do because the present structure shapes even those kinds of speculations.

Right now things feel massively entrenched, but also fragile. We can’t go on but we can’t change. Even though we are one species on one planet, there seems no chance of general agreement or global solidarity. The best that can be hoped for is a working political majority, reconstituted daily in the attempt to do the necessary things for ourselves and the generations to come. It’s a tough challenge that will never go away. It’s easy to despair.

That point about the “structure of feeling” is very perceptive. Most of us feel it every day now. And what it tells us is that we’re stuck.

I’m reading Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future at the moment, and heartily recommend it. In the essay, he says,

I wrote my novel The Ministry for the Future in 2019. That time surely torqued my vision because several important developments — ones I described in my novel as happening in the 2030s — I see now are already well begun. My timeline was completely off; events have accelerated yet again.

One of the things we have learned this year is something that is vividly illustrated in the opening chapter of the novel. It is that human beings cannot survive long exposure to high combinations of heat and humidity. This fact completely undermines the proposition that, sure the global temperature will rise, but people will learn to adapt to those new circumstances. After all, humans can adapt to everything.

Actually, we can’t. AS KSR puts it:

Human beings can’t live in conditions above the heat-index number called wet-bulb 35C, a measure of air temperature plus humidity. We didn’t evolve for such conditions and, when they occur, we quickly overheat and die of hyperthermia. And in July this year, wet-bulb 35s were briefly reached in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

(For explanation of the web-bulb hazard see here.)

Robinson also has an interest historical analogy: the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting emissions reminds him of the 1930s League of Nations. Not a comforting comparison, alas.