2020, the year we normalized terrible and acclimatized to the apocalypse

Sean Lee
6 min readNov 27, 2020

Grazing through the morning news yesterday I, like many others, shook my head in disbelief at the 130 million Americans crowding together this Thanksgiving during the height of the pandemic. A sci-fi villain couldn’t have planned a better super-spreader event, I thought.

Phoenix airport before Thanksgiving 2020 ©KTVK
Collapsing ice front from Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. © Nature press/ Nicolaj Krog Larsen

Just as I was being thankful for not being in the middle of such mass recklessness, not to mention the coming tsunami of infections, hospitalizations and death, a friend sent me a link about the other, larger and longer term apocalypse.

It was a link to a recently published Nature study on global sea level rise from Greenland’s melting glaciers. Knowing my friend, I knew it must be yet another milestone along the world’s drive down highway RCP8.5.

RCP8.5 stands for a Representative Concentration Pathway of 8.5 Watts of extra heating per square meter of Earth’s surface by century’s end. Across the whole planet, that’s 4.2 million Gigawatt power plants’ worth of anthropogenic greenhouse effect if the world continues as it has been.

Of the four climate scenarios modeled by the IPCC, RCP8.5 is the currently called the “worst case”. But that may yet turn out to be a misnomer. The data of the new Nature study actually show worse than worst, with the abstract concluding: “We infer that projections forced by RCP8.5 underestimate glacier mass loss which could exceed this worst-case scenario.”

In other words, our most pessimistic climate assessment is not pessimistic enough.

But apart from briefly shaking my head, my own reaction to the morning’s news was frankly a slow yawn and lumber to the kitchen to refresh my coffee. After a few sips and blank stares out the window, I went back to my desk, yawned again and remembered something really important. I had to check ESPN for the latest college football news. The pandemic has been constantly messing up game schedules this season, so all this week I’m checking daily that the Iron Bowl (Alabama v. Auburn) is still on[1].

That task completed, I leaned back and looked over to José, my prickly pear window cactus. I wondered if he needed more water.

José did not need more water

Somewhere within that bubble of absurdly privileged normalcy, my inner meta-me wondered when I had become so blasé about the end of the world.

And surely it wasn’t just me. I began to wonder if we’re all acclimatizing ourselves to the various apocalypses of our times.

From TV interviews with some Thanksgiving travelers, it would seem so. Indeed, most expressed acute awareness of the risks to themselves and to loved ones. Seeing family was just more valued in their risk-benefit calculus. That brought to mind the earlier comments of one mask-refusing gentleman in the middle of a hot-zone somewhere in the US. He also claimed to understand the risks but valued what he saw as his freedom more. When asked “What if you die from Covid?”, he shrugged calmly that his gravestone would then say something to the effect of “should have worn a mask.”

To be clear, I’m also outraged at the mindless, selfish and deadly ignorance of refusing to wear a mask. It’s like refusing to stop for red lights in traffic because that would infringe upon freedom of movement. And much blame here belongs with a hyper-partisan, anti-science, conspiracy wingnut ecosystem fueled by you-know-who in the White House. But disinformation and chest-thumping bravado are not the only drivers of this behavior.

Even here in famously disciplined German society, people are getting lax. During the first wave this spring, even a small family birthday meant waving from the balcony. Today that would be considered paranoid, even as hospitals fill and infections rates are almost four times higher than they were then.

Die Zeit online — www.zeit.de/thema/coronavirus fromNov. 27, 2020

The typical explanation given for this collective (and objectively irrational) shoulder shrug is “Covid-fatigue”. People here frequently say they’re just tired of the whole thing. But perhaps another psychological mechanism is kicking in. To an extent, it seems we’re also normalizing the risk until it just becomes so much background noise.

In some ways, that’s what happened with climate change. As Nathaniel Rich has written in Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, the 1980s saw the halls of global power galvanized and ready to act on greenhouse emissions. That is, until they weren’t.

“… we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”

Of course decisive blame here is to be heaped on global corporate interests and their climate-denier cronies. But the larger point is that we the people still allowed it to happen. That includes me. Even if today two thirds of Americans want more action on climate change, that’s meaningless when the terrible has been normalized down to just more background noise.

This normalization dynamic apparently holds in many arenas these days. After the shock of the 2016 Presidential election, I was determined not to fall into “outrage fatigue” over the daily assaults against democracy and basic human decency. In the end, my close interest didn’t even make it as far as the impeachment hearings. Apart from voting, occasionally donating and emailing, here too, my daily outrage had turned into simply more yawning and more coffee.

Our brains are, after all, just prediction engines. Their job is to foresee and act on the future. In principle that should give us some comfort that we’ll do the right thing before it’s too late. Hardly. The short-cuts, biases and kludges our brains use for that task were only great in the Paleolithic. Today they keep up sleep-walking towards collective calamity.

In particular we pay more attention to the immediate future and discount the long term. We also focus on change and normalize the things that stay the same or change slowly. Again, that’s perfectly adapted to a small-band hunter-gatherer lifestyle when environmental conditions are relatively stable. That the brain is in a constant “Yeah (X) — so what else is new?” mode is exactly how it ate and avoided being eaten in such a world.

When the pandemic first hit our modern civilization it was an immediate and radical change in daily risk calculus. For anyone paying attention, it changed everything. Yet, eleven months later, the brain’s attitude for even those paying attention has shifted ever so slightly in the direction of “Yeah (it’s contagious and I may die) — so what else is new?”

And it’s the same for most of us with climate change. “Yeah, (the world is going to burn to a crisp) — so what else is new?” This isn’t the stuff of stiff-upper lip “Keep Calm and Carry On”. It’s the apocryphal frog mindlessly trapped in a slowly heating pot of water, acclimatizing to the apocalypse [2].

Indeed, as soon as I hit the “publish” button here, this frog has a dining room table to set. Our mixed-American family is celebrating Thanksgiving together after all (a “covidized”-version one day later because it’s not a holiday here). So my disbelieving head-shaking from yesterday is also directed at the guy in the mirror.

FOOTNOTES

[1] As of this writing, Alabama coach Nick Saban has tested positive and will miss the game.

[2] Postscript note: 2020 has turned out to be a record year for natural disasters of all sorts that have been linked to climate change. That fact, too, seems to have completely fallen off our collective radar.

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Sean Lee

Another drifter lost in hyper-nerd space. Obsessed with big questions in science, art, philosophy, humans, and the dark future. My dark past has a physics Ph.D