As this decade dawns, we are confronted with the reality of climate crisis—both in the image of uncontainable fires raging across the Australian bush, and in the voices of young people speaking truth to power and calling out for their future and the living Earth. This man-made crisis, caused by carbon emissions and our treating the Earth as an endless resource to be exploited, is no longer an image of a potentially dangerous future, but is our present reality.
And as this future has arrived with smoke-filled air, its vocabulary has evolved: from the innocuous sounding “climate change,” to “climate crisis,” and now “climate collapse,” gradually awakening us to an accelerating disaster. Our seas polluted with plastic, air toxic, trees burning whether in the Amazon or Australia, we are also including other words to describe the nature of this crisis: ecocide, our deliberate destruction of the natural environment; and most recently: omnicide. Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology at the University of Sydney specializing in human rights, explains omnicide as invoking a crime “we have previously been unable to witness because we have never imagined it.” Across Australia—with billions of dead animals and birds, and millions of people suffering ill health effects—we are witnessing what the world will look like with three or more degrees warming, “the killing of everything.”
Until now, for most of us, two or three degrees of warming was academic. We may have heard Bill McKibben and others stress the importance of keeping the warming of our Earth at 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the exponential impact of rising to 2 degrees. We understood that cutting carbon emissions to keep within this level is essential to the future of humanity and the living biosphere of the planet. But this belonged to a future we could not see, or touch, or feel, could not even really imagine. Until now. Until we saw and felt the Earth burning, and witnessed the vastness of this destruction, this omnicide.
I was touched more directly last autumn, as the fires raged a short distance from where I live in Northern California. With almost a hundred homes destroyed, we waited in the smoke-filled air, just out of the mandatory evacuation zone, with our go-bags ready, for nearly a week without electricity. Even the dawn air was strangely quiet, with the sun unnaturally red from the endless smoke in the atmosphere. Yes, we were the lucky ones—after a week our power returned, the shops opened, the wind shifted blowing away the smoke, “normal life returned.” But we know this year it may come again. Climate change has entered our lives, creating a primal insecurity, and it is only beginning.
This insecurity, anxiety, is especially affecting young people, who rightly fear for their future, fear that the current system is pushing the Earth beyond its ecological limits. More awake than their parents, they feel that something essential to life is being destroyed, that possibly they won’t die from old age but from climate change. We cannot imagine their future—what it means when the fires continue to burn, the sea levels rise, a world becoming increasingly toxic. Those who counter these dystopian feelings with visions of a green economy, a carbon-neutral world full of new possibilities, do not understand the depths of their fear, of a 20-year-old who finds herself crying during the day and awakening at night in panic. Omnicide points to the end of a way of life—both for humanity and the web of life that supports us.
Understandably we try to place the future of climate crisis within the images of our present conditions—that this way of life will continue, saved by technological solutions or planting millions of trees. Our supermarket shelves will still be stocked by produce from around the world, we will still watch our movies, play with our iPhones. We imagine we will still continue our energy-intensive way of life, though maybe this energy will be green rather than from fossil fuels. Tragically many of us are too insulated, alienated from the natural world to feel the scale of this dying or its implications. But young people sense a very different reality: that this way of life may be over, along with the soil we have poisoned with pesticide, and the species made extinct. This is the truth of omnicide, this killing we are inflicting upon the planet and ourselves, reflected for example in the revelation of the “insect apocalypse” in which flying insects have decreased by three-quarters in the past 25 years, which is vitally significant as insects are essential to food webs and the existence of life on Earth, a killing that is at the root of the panic felt by those awake to the future. It is too painful for us to imagine.
While this vast devastation unfolds across Australia, its politicians—paid by climate deniers—are in the process of developing a huge new open coal mine helped by Siemens, which also profited from the Holocaust as a leading corporate participant in Hitler’s “death through work program,” despite the protests of Fridays for Future activists; once again revealing the emptiness of so many climate-change policies. And at the same time Japan races to build 22 new coal-burning power plants, which would emit almost as much carbon dioxide annually as all the passenger cars sold each year in the United States.
This is the blinkered pathological hypocrisy we are witnessing across the world, and which the Australian bush fires, together with the vocal protests of young people, have brought even more clearly into focus. And yet, even as we come to know in more detail the science of climate change, climate crisis, climate collapse, and how this next decade is pivotal to at least diminish its negative effects, our governments continue with their “empty words and promises, which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.” But as Greta Thunberg stated recently at Davos, “global emissions of CO2 have not reduced.” Instead the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels have reached their highest in 3 million years, and are still increasing, trapping the Earth’s heat. Symbolically and literally, our future and the Earth is burning—our home is on fire, and the fossil fuel industry, supported by vast subsidies and tax breaks, is ensuring that temperatures will continue to rise.
To list the level of neglect, shortsighted concern, misplaced focus on profit and power, and outright greed and corruption shown by corporations and politicians is too painful, too distressing. To sell our shared sustainability and life’s multihued diversity, beauty, and wonder—created over millennia—in just a few short years, is too heartbreaking, too vast a crime. “Earth Justice” is a phrase that speaks to this crime, that the Earth itself has rights and needs to be protected.
But as images of raging fires and burning bush fill our screens, it is important to remember that omnicide has already arrived in poor parts of the world. It is vital that we bring racial justice into our understanding of climate collapse, that we recognize what is happening in war-torn Somalia as much as in New South Wales. In a country described as a “failed state,” home to warlords and al-Shabab, climate emergency has already arrived, with the rains and crops failing—extreme weather a direct result of our global climate imbalance.
For Somalis, climate change doesn’t just threaten fire to their homes, but brings famine and disease, causing people to flee, displaced. And when rain did come, it was an unrelenting downpour that destroyed homes, creating the worst floods in memory. Two-thirds of the population live in rural areas and are dependent upon the rains for crops and livestock, and as their crops fail they have no seed for the next year, and the number of cattle fall below the minimum threshold to continue raising livestock. Losing everything, many become climate refugees in their own country.
With droughts and floods increasing in frequency and intensity, climate breakdown is no longer an image of the future, but a present reality. And, as Somalia shows, it is the poorest that are bearing the brunt of climate change, suffering from the carbon excesses of the rich. For example, the U.S., with only 4% of the world’s population, is the biggest carbon polluter in history, responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon heating the planet. And while industrialized nations pledged in 2009 to contribute $100 billion a year to help the poorest countries deal with the effects of climate change, only a fraction of that money has arrived.
We are all complicit in this great dying—our cars and energy-intensive lifestyle creating the carbon emissions that can so easily take us from ecocide to omnicide. What matters is whether we have the courage to be awake to what is happening, rather than remain in the safety of denial or false hopes.
What will our world look like two, or three degrees warmer? We can already see signs of a future few of us want to imagine. The fears of young people are real, as is the plight of poor farmers. In the rich, industrialized world we may remain safe for a few decades longer than those in the poorest countries, though the fires in Australia and California tell a different story. Despite the forces of nationalism, climate breakdown does not belong within borders but is our shared destiny. How can we really respond if we do not acknowledge the degree of the present crisis: that our home is on fire, that climate change can so easily become omnicide?
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., is a Sufi teacher and author. He has recently released a podcast, Stories for a Living Future. You can listen to it here and wherever podcasts are found.