I didn’t vote in the pivotal American election of 2016. Thirty-five years ago, in that unseasonably warm month of November, I was in Antarctica’s Allan Hills taking ice-core samples with a hand auger. The pictures I have from that time show my team drilling deep into the blue ice, but what we were actually doing was digging a million years into the planetary past to gaze upon the panorama of climate change. The election was a bad soap opera playing out far beyond my field of vision.
At the time, I lived in Washington, DC. So my vote, I told myself for years afterward, wouldn’t have made any difference in that overwhelmingly Democratic city. And of course, I never had a doubt about the result, nor did my family and friends, nor did the pollsters, the media, and the entertainment industry, nor the members of the political and economic elite of both major parties. Ours was a confidence composed in equal parts of ignorance and arrogance. We underestimated the legitimate anger and despair of large sections of the country—as well as the other darker motivations much discussed in the years since.
“Remember, Rachel,” my ex-husband used to say, “Homo homini lupus: Man is wolf to man.” I criticized him for slandering the poor wolf, but he was right. Beastliness has always lain just beneath the surface of our world.
My ex-husband, the author Julian West, is a man who cared little about ice or nature. We couldn’t have been more ill-suited in that regard. He was always focused on politics. At that moment, he was less worried about Donald Trump winning the presidency than a far slicker populist coming along to galvanize the same anti-establishment constituency four years after a Trump defeat. In 2016, Julian was still a relatively conventional political scientist. The election would change all that, setting in motion the events that ultimately inspired his seminal bestseller, Splinterlands, which, as you no doubt remember, was published in 2020 and predicted—with considerable accuracy—the broke-down, shattered world all of us now live in.
I used to think geologically, which transformed the grand sweep of human history into a mere sliver in the planet’s 4.6 billion-year timeline. The Earth had repeatedly warmed and cooled in a set of protracted mood swings that encompassed the epochs. Don’t imagine, though, that just because I thought in million-year intervals I was entirely above the fray. By examining those columns of ice we were extracting from Antarctica, I hoped to understand far more about our own era of global warming.
What I’d learned by 2016 was not encouraging.
In every previous cycle, the Earth had regulated itself. Then we humans came along and started fiddling with the global thermostat. The era of climate change that began in the 19th century with our concerted use of fossil fuels would prove unprecedented. Scientists began to speak of our 11,700-year epoch, the Holocene, as the Anthropocene, the first period in which the actions of a particular species, our very own anthropos, changed the planet. (I used to half-jokingly call our era the Anthro-obscene.)