All of recorded history has occurred within the latter half of the Holocene epoch. The first written records appear around 5,000 years ago, and the first cities just over 4,000 years before that. They are all contained in a sliver smaller than 4 percent of Homo sapiens’ full history. This is because the Holocene, beginning about 11,700 years ago, brought more hospitable weather patterns, allowing humans to store large-scale agricultural surpluses, which in turn enabled the construction of the world we know today. Those conditions have come to an end. In the 1950s, human population, greenhouse gas emissions, chemical production, and infrastructure development began shooting upward, with biodiversity, cultural diversity, and wild habitat mirroring them downward. Nuclear fallout from bomb testing and ash from fossil fuel combustion spread around the world, leaving a thin layer of human-caused sediment in the geological record. As a result of all this, geologists recently took one step closer to designating a new epoch, the Anthropocene.
This development coincided with extreme weather around the globe, including deadly floods, record-breaking heat, and fatal landslides. Climatic instability is the direct result of just 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming caused by fossil fuels and habitat destruction. These impacts are “nonlinear” and “compounding,” meaning each fraction of a degree warmer produces more extreme consequences than the previous one. The increase from 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees Celsius will be more deadly than the increase from 1 degree to 1.5 degrees Celsius. More than 2 degrees of warming is very likely if we do not make fundamental changes, like removing fossil fuels from economies. Yet governments are still allowing fossil fuel use to increase and habitats to be destroyed.
What does this extreme weather mean for society? On the material side, fossil fuel power plants, power lines and transformers, and oil and gas drilling are vulnerable to the effects of floods, storms, and heat. Their efficacy will decrease as these natural events become more intense. Nuclear energy is vulnerable to floods and hurricanes, and heat can shut down nuclear plants indefinitely. Renewables are more resilient, but they are far from invulnerable. Turbine siting is difficult to do given unpredictable wind patterns; solar panels are susceptible to precipitation, heat, and storms. Weather shocks and biodiversity destruction put mass agriculture at great risk as well. On top of food and energy poverty, we can expect weather that kills people directly, like extreme heat and storms, and we can also expect more deadly disease-carrying parasites.
Instability and scarcity shape the kinds of societies humans create. There may be sporadic positive outcomes: Global capitalism, with its networks of extraction and exploitation, may be harder to maintain. Some biodiversity may bounce back in lucky patches. The anxious camaraderie of “disaster communism” may bring people purpose and solidarity in moments of emergency.
We cannot know how humans will respond in the future. But there are already indications that instability and scarcity have begun to tip the scales in favor of life-destroying political responses, such as the rise of far-right, ethnonationalist parties in Europe in response to mass migrations. Resource shocks, like this century’s consecutive recessions and Covid-19, have entrenched existing hierarchies of property, wealth, and opportunity: The rich get richer, the poor poorer. Repeated extreme weather events have begun to wear on people psychologically, contributing to anxiety and despair. Under such stress, otherwise reasonable minds may turn to dictators who make false promises of security. As reality has grown harsher, some turn away from it, succumbing to apocalyptic mysticism in online echo chambers, focusing their ire on scapegoats—trans people, “wokeness,” Jews, the UN—because the real culprits are too powerful or inaccessible. Meanwhile, states of turmoil could expand the numbers of anti-intellectual death cults, fueling misplaced hatreds. Where climate denial was once spoken in the jargon of phony empiricism, now it is spoken in the religious register of paranoid delusion. Such conditions make the already difficult task of finding the solidarity and resilience necessary for long-term change nearly impossible.
This grim reality must shape every political program deployed to secure values like equality, liberty, dignity, and healthy, diverse life. The left as we understand it today arose with industrialization, still in the midst of Holocene stability. In this new epoch, it must adapt or die. It will look very different from the labor and justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries; we may not recognize it in the 21st and beyond. Whatever shape it takes, champions for wildlife, fairness, and freedom must strategize based on the facts of the Anthropocene above all else, and not on some imagined future, but today, now.