An Anti-Colonial Call to Action: Eric Holthaus’s Manual for Becoming an Activist

Eric Holthaus is an optimist.

Optimism is a tough take these days. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C suggested that allowing the world to warm more than 1.5° degrees would threaten human civilization. The best international tool we currently have to limit warming — a tool to which the United States is not currently a signatory — would still allow the world to warm a catastrophic 3.5°C, and even that could only be achieved if countries actually started meeting their commitments (we’re not even close). In short — the outlook is grim.

But Eric is an optimist who’s spent the last few years reporting on extreme weather, the potential for catastrophic near-term sea level rise, and other civilization-destabilizing impacts of our self-made climate crisis and ecological collapse. So when he published “the first hopeful book about climate change,” The Future Earth, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The book’s first section makes it clear that his optimism is not some kind of cognitive dissonance or deliberate misinterpretation of the status quo. It reads like an 83 page version of David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, but with the addition of the exploitative, colonial context of the climate crisis. From a vivid account of extreme weather events around the world to a rapid fire laundry list of devastating global impacts like coastal flooding, heat waves, agricultural collapse, and biodiversity loss, each on their own enough to upend life as we know it, it is far from optimistic.

Like Wallace-Wells, Eric paints a picture of a world in crisis, grounded in the latest, most terrifying climate science and presented with a global lens. He also paints a picture of how unequal that crisis is: how the Global South, who are effectively blameless when it comes to climate change, are bearing the brunt of the impact and will continue to as it proceeds. This is a short but succinct overview of the status quo and it is devastating.

But without that overview, it’d be hard to take the rest of the book, a vision for a future that is not a dystopian hellscape of climate disaster and war, seriously. If you’re out to write a hopeful story about the future, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that you have a realistic understanding of the possible scope of future scenarios given where we are today. Hopeful scenarios occupy a very small and ever-shrinking portion of that space, and Eric makes it clear he’s painfully aware of this with the book’s first section, which makes it all the more powerful as he spends the rest of the book writing out a possible future story of radical change, pluralism, and care, one that accepts that large-scale human suffering is inevitable at this point, but that the scale and duration of that suffering, and the “ultimate outcome,” to the degree that term has meaning, is up to us, today.

Before wrapping up the “here’s the situation and it’s bad” section of the book, Eric takes a bigger picture look at where we are, zooming out from the nitty gritty of climate forecasting and disaster impacts to the complex systems of human civilization and the larger complex system in which we’re embedded: the Earth. He interviews Johann Rockström, creator of the planetary boundaries framework, explaining that ecological collapse isn’t just about carbon emissions, and leverages this perspective into a broader discussion of how human civilization came to cause these crises in the first place. In the final pages of this section, he bounces back and forth between conversations with experts and activists like Greta Thunberg and an explanation of what he believes the IPCC’s call for “transformational change” really means.

Eric reaches some broad conclusions that are similar to those I and many others have reached, though they may seem extreme if you’re not well versed in climate science and advocacy: first, our economic system is causing climate change, and we can’t fix it without fundamental changes in the way we organize society. And second — and these aren’t necessarily separate, of course — ecological collapse is largely driven by an underlying cultural narrative of “dominion over nature,” baked into Western and Eurocentric culture over the last 2500 years. We have a decade to begin to make fundamental, paradigmatic changes in the way we organize human life, or the very existence of humans — let alone our complex civilization — could be threatened.

It’s easy to see climate change as a disaster. But I think the biggest disaster is how we treat one another. Only in an unjust and unequal world can a civilizational-scale threat like climate change fester as it has without so much as a careful thought by those in power. The task of our time is to re-create our world with new power structures that make systemic problems like climate change much less likely. (p. 67)

For Holthaus — and I’m inclined to agree — the myriad disasters, both human and non-human, that we’re facing and that will become existentially threatening over the coming decades: they’re caused by colonialism and capitalism, and by a culturally reinforced division between humanity and nature. In many ways, it’s an ontological crisis that’s manifesting as an ecological one, and as a crisis of inequality and injustice.

His answer to that? Solve the climate crisis through a radical reimagining of society that prioritizes equality, prioritizes justice, and perhaps most of all, prioritizes the voices of people from outside the traditional white, male Eurocentrism that fills the global halls of power.

The rest of the book — and, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this was actually the majority of the book — is a visioning exercise. We can’t achieve radical change if we can’t even imagine what it might look like, so Eric set out to paint a picture of a possible “success story” — one where we still face the already inevitable (as we’ve seen throughout this year) climate disasters of the coming decades, where drought and starvation still causes war and political instability…but one where, over time, the world comes around and things get better.

Holthaus delineates his vision in decades, laying out a gradual path that winds through some incredibly difficult times as the Earth continues to warm until we manage to sharply reduce emissions beginning in 2035.

The 2020–2030 decade looks the most familiar, though you should know that Eric wrote about it without having yet lived through most of 2020. The decade begins with a catastrophic series of disasters that combined with social and economic disasters driven by never-before-seen wealth inequality to cause major unrest in the Global North. Sound familiar? The Global South is similarly devastated, and flooding and droughts cause a global food shortage. International tensions rise, stock markets crash, and the neoliberal world order begins to fall apart. But out of this devastation, the environmental and climate movements join forces with democratic socialist movements around the world to fight austerity, to fight capitalism, to fight global imperialism and war, and through all that, to fight the ecological crisis.

In The Future Earth, this mass protest movement grows into a global event and drives us into a radical new period of equitable democracy both between nations and within nations, with the Global South leading efforts to decarbonize and adapt, funded by climate and colonial reparations paid by the Global North.

It’s January, 2021, and we’ve already lived through the majority of what Eric wrote. But whether we will rally a global movement to fight for radical change remains to be seen — we might, or we might just incrementally become used to the way things are. To 4000 Americans dying daily from a virus, to devastating wildfires and flooding, to having to protest in the streets just to ensure a fair election. I’m worried about that — a phenomenon known as “shifting baseline syndrome” — and I’m sure Eric is too, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to have a vision like the one he’s written here, to prove to us that a better future is possible.

As Holthaus traverses the rest of the semi-century, his vision travels further away from what we can imagine, and I struggled a bit with how quickly he glossed over transformative technical and cultural change. This isn’t to say he’s wrong: we can’t really know. The nature of the visioning process, especially given an end goal of a society that is ontologically distinct from our own, means that there’s no real value in an attempt at deterministic prediction. This book isn’t intended as a prediction, but rather as proof: proof that we can move past a global socio-political and economic system that’s built around a centuries-long tradition of extractive colonialism; that we’re not doomed to go functionally extinct as the last of us fight over our bunkers in New Zealand while Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos escape to space. We know what we have doesn’t work, and we know what the first steps towards change are. We don’t know what a successful future civilization will look like: but that’s ok.

Perhaps the most powerful portion of the book comes in the epilogue. It’s not about climate science, it’s not about political economy. It’s not a vision for the future. Instead, it’s a manual. As Eric says at the beginning of the book,

…you were born at exactly the right time to help change everything. (p. 8)

The epilogue is a manual to becoming an activist, but not in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a guide to embracing the fact that the future is up to us; to building an ecological consciousness; and to helping readers further propagate these messages. Eric has been living this guide himself as he’s dedicated his career to helping build a world his children can thrive in and this book is his invitation to all of us to join him in the most important human endeavor yet.

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Writer. Adventure photographer. Web developer. Working to communicate global crises like climate change and to catalyze cultural evolution.