George Dillard

Writing about history, politics, and climate

Life on the Ledge is Over

What happens when we wreck the platform on which civilization is built?

Take a look at the right half of the chart below, which shows the estimated average temperatures on earth from one million years ago to the present. The rightmost box shows the temperatures during the last 20,000 years; the box to its left shows the period from one million years before the present until 20,000 years before the present.

Image by Glen Fergus from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

What do you notice?

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Here’s what I notice about the last million years. The average global temperature has bounced around pretty wildly. It has only rarely been as warm on our planet as it is now, and usually not for very long. It also seems that the global temperature stopped fluctuating so much about 12,000 years ago, at the beginning of what we call the Holocene period.

The earth’s climate has been unusually stable for the entirety of the Holocene period. As scientist James Hansen wrote, we’ve become used to strange conditions: “it’s our relatively static experience of climate that is actually exceptional.”

I like to think of the last 12,000 years of the graph as a ledge — a nice, flat surface upon which we’ve built, well, everything.

During the last 12,000 years, humans — a species that had already been around for about 200,000 years — started to thrive like never before. We created an entirely new way of living. We populated every corner of the earth during this period, invented agriculture, established cities, created governments, and built monuments. Eventually we split the atom, cracked the code of DNA, and learned how to leave the planet.

In short, the entire history of human civilization is perched on that ledge of relatively stable temperatures. The ledge provided the conditions in which we and our companion species — wheat, cows, corn, rice, sheep, horses, soybeans, etc. — could thrive. The only world we’ve known since we left behind our hunter-gatherer origins has been on the ledge.

Imagine everything that humans have built sitting on that flat, stable surface.

Within that 12,000 years of stability, there were some small fluctuations that showed us how significant climate change could be for human societies. Can you see on the graph above the changes about 400 years ago, where the temperature declined a bit?

Maybe not. Here’s a more zoomed-in view:

Image by Rcraig09, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

This small fluctuation is what we now call the “Little Ice Age,” a period of several hundred years during which the global temperature declined a bit but temperatures in some regions declined more significantly. In Europe, the Little Ice Age was been linked with social disorder (increased anti-Semitism, witch hunts), famine, and war. There was civil war in China and Japan, and there were awful winters in North America that starved some of the first European colonists. You can read about it all in this terrifying book.

You can probably see where this is going. We built human civilization on this ledge, in conditions that happened to be perfect for the civilization we’ve built. Even small fluctuations in the climate caused massive disruptions in society.

Now, what we built on the ledge is breaking the ledge.

Now look again at the right side of the zoomed-in graph.

Image by Rcraig09, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

The line explodes upward, especially steeply since 1950. This is, of course, man-made climate change, zooming up toward and past one degree of added heat from the fossil fuels we’ve burnt.

We’ve already shot out of the range that humanity has enjoyed over the last 12 millennia. We are almost certain to hit 1.5 degrees; we’re quite likely to add another degree after that.

The universe gifted humanity with an uncommonly stable and hospitable climate on which we could build our civilization. The ways in which we chose to build that civilization are destroying the hospitable climate on which civilization has always counted.

This doesn’t mean that human civilization is over. We seem to be doing enough to avoid the most catastrophic outcomes of climate change. But it probably means that maintaining a comfortable civilization is going to get harder, in some parts of the world a lot harder.

We’ll need to prepare. There’s no time to bury our heads in the sand or blame each other. The ledge is crumbling. We’ll need to construct a new platform on which we can build a civilization.

We’ll need to be ready for more chaos, more uncertainty, and more tragedy. These are probably unavoidable. Life off the ledge will be messier, and we’ll have to devote lots of resources to cleaning up those messes. Getting well-off people in less-messy parts of the world to share their resources with people in messier parts of the world will be one of the great social-justice challenges of the next century.

We’ll need to get creative. In many ways, our species’ cleverness has gotten us into this mess. After all, we’re the only animals who figured out how to burn fossil fuels, turning them into light and strength and speed. The biggest technological advances for most of our history — the light bulb, the automobile, the radio, etc. — made life measurably better for people. Maybe the most important technologies of the near future will just keep life from getting too much worse.

We’ll have to rethink the way that we interact with the other life on our planet. Even if we stopped warming the climate today (and we won’t), we have made the planet inhospitable for many of our fellow residents. We’ll need to learn how to share with other species, and explore how to live within our limits. This will be difficult — we, like all species, are programmed to take as much as we can for ourselves. It may be that our future and the future of our companions on the earth depend on whether we can transcend this drive.

Basically, living off of the ledge will mean that we’ll have to do a lot of things differently. It will be scary and uncertain and painful, but it may also be an opportunity for humans to figure out better ways to live. Only time will tell.

Dutch player Wim Lagendaal misses a shot, 1932. Having missed the first World Cup in 1930 (travel to Uruguay was too expensive), the Dutch (with Lagendaal as a striker) went to the second World Cup in 1934 (held in Mussolini’s Italy). They lost in the first round.

A Phoenician bowl with a hunting scene, 700s BCE. In the center of the bowl, a man battles a lion. In outer rings, we can see ducks, horses, and finally armed men, perhaps hunters. The artistic style combines the two main influences on the Phoenicians, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Once Again, America Does Just Enough

We never really solve our problems — we do the minimum necessary to muddle through

If America were a college student, it would be the kid who doesn’t start writing the term paper until eight hours before it’s due.

You know — the kid who plays chicken with the deadline, whose friends are asking him for days, “shouldn’t you really start that paper?” The kid who pulls an all-nighter, riddled with caffeine and stress, and manages to turn something in to his professor two minutes before the assignment is due. The paper doesn’t turn out to be particularly good, the writing of it was unnecessarily agonizing, and there were some moments at four in the morning when it looked like it wasn’t going to get done. But, in the end, the kid passes the class with a D because he did just enough.

We have a long history in this country of procrastinating on important issues until the last possible moment and then doing the bare minimum necessary to avoid disaster. We get things done, somehow, but it’s not pretty.

The 2022 midterms are America’s latest entry into this category. Democrats, and, more generally, people who think democracy is a good thing, are breathing a sigh of relief. This year, Democrats narrowly won enough races to keep our system of government relatively intact. Most of the worst election-denying candidates — especially the Secretary-of-State candidates who were promising to undermine future elections — lost to people who did not lie about voter fraud and the outcome of past elections.

Pundits have been telling us all year that voters didn’t care about preserving the democratic system as much as they cared about the price of gasoline. It was the conventional wisdom; I believed it. But it turns out that Americans did mostly reject candidates that were beyond the pale — January 6th participantsbald-faced liars about the electionskeevy fascist wanna-bes, etc.

I’ll take it. The outcome of the 2022 election is much better than the alternative. Had things gone the other way, we might have seen a number of states — especially swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — fall under the sway of leaders who were willing to undermine democracy. Instead, Americans stood up and, by a distressingly small margin, rejected a future in which the truth doesn’t matter and Republicans would have the power and the inclination to ignore the will of the voters whenever they felt like it.

It didn’t need to be this difficult! The glass-half-full version of 2022 is that truth and democracy won. The glass-half-empty version is equally valid: why did lies and authoritarianism even have a shot in the first place? Had Republican elites shown a shred of backbone over the last few years, had the media not allowed these lies to spread, had social media not amplified toxic ideologies, had many of our fellow Americans exhibited critical-thinking skills, we wouldn’t have needed a last-gasp push to preserve what’s left of our democratic norms.

This is part of an American tradition of muddling through in a barely adequate way. Our politics almost never demonstrates far-sighted preparedness. We generally let problems fester and multiply until it’s almost too late — then we pull a frantic all-nighter to avoid the worst.

This has been a worrying pattern in recent decades. We have so many mounting problems — guns, economic inequality, a casino-like economy, an overloaded immigration system — that we refuse to address until moments of crisis. Two of the most egregious examples of America doing just enough and no more are health care and the climate.

It’s long been clear that the American healthcare system is a mess — we pay far too much, the outcomes are bad, and the system is staggeringly unequal. Every year, many Americans go bankrupt because of their medical bills, while others die because they can’t afford to treat their illnesses. But we’ve never really wrestled with the core problems. Rather than undertake a systematic overhaul of our healthcare system, we’ve nibbled around the edges.

The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) did just enough at a late moment, creating a system in which people could access (somewhat) affordable insurance outside of employer benefits and preventing insurance companies from behaving in cartoonishly evil ways. It was enough to kick the healthcare can down the road for a few more years, but nothing more.

On another of our most crucial problems, climate change, we’ve done much the same. For decades, the United States was the world’s worst carbon polluter and breezily chose to ignore the mounting scientific warnings. We waited over 30 years after the first UN report on the dire effects of climate change to take any serious federal action. Finally, we passed the Inflation Reduction Act — just barely, after larding it with things that would please the deciding Senator, a guy who makes much more money from his coal business than he does from being a Senator.

Is the Inflation Reduction Act enough? Just barely. It might almost get us to our stated short-term climate goals (which could be inadequate anyway) in the short term, but much more remains to be done. Had we tackled climate change proactively — say, back in the 1990s — we’d be in a much better position. But we let the problem fester.

Thanks to American voters, this year’s elections mean that we get to enjoy a somewhat-functioning democracy for a while longer. It would be nice if we proactively addressed some of the system’s weaknesses or if political elites would directly disavow anti-democratic ideas. But it’s better than nothing. I guess the best thing to do is to get some rest before we have to pull an all-nighter to stave off the next disaster.

Dutch-Canadian World War II Parade

Canadian tanks take part in a World War II victory parade on June 28, 1945, processing before Queen Wilhelmina and other dignitaries.

Party’s over

A janitor sweeps the floor on the night of the stock market crash in 1929 that initiated the Great Depression.

Last glimpses of Carthage

One of the last coins from Carthage before it was destroyed by the Romans after the Third Punic War in 146 BCE. In defeating Carthage, the Romans destroyed much of its architecture and culture (although they likely did not salt the fields there); we don’t know very much about what was once a vibrant and powerful empire.

Japanese Constitution Memo

A page from a 1946 memo from a U.S. lawyer laying out the provisions of the Japanese Constitution. After World War II, Japan’s new constitution was mostly written by the American occupation authority. Though most of the constitution is pretty standard, the Americans did impose one unique provision — Article 9, which forbids Japan from ever fighting war or maintaining armed forces (this was later interpreted to mean that Japan couldn’t maintain an military capable of attacking others).

Soccer Time-Wasting Techniques, Ranked

It’s almost time for the World Cup, which means that tens of millions of Americans will briefly turn their attention to soccer, at least until the United States loses to both Wales and England and exits the competition.

There are lots of things to criticize about the World Cup — holding it in the middle of the club season, the dismal human-rights record of host country Qatar, and the brazen corruption of the tournament’s organizers come to mind — but many Americans will once again declare that the real problem is that soccer is too boring.

People who will happily spend three and a half hours watching an American football game — in which, famously, there are only 11 minutes of football, and the games often conclude with quarterbacks kneeling a bunch of times in a row, effectively tackling themselves — will whine, “There’s so much time wasting, and nothing happens!”

Here’s what these people don’t understand — soccer time-wasting is an art. Just standing around in a huddle while the clock winds down is child’s play. Soccer time-wasters have to find all sorts of creative ways to kill the clock. If you’re an aficionado, you can come to appreciate the artistry involved in squandering the final minutes of a game when your team leads by a goal.

So here are nine classic soccer time-wasting techniques, ranked from my least favorite to my favorite:

9. Rolling around on the ground and faking an injury. OK, this one drives me crazy, too. I do think fans are sometimes uncharitable with soccer players who are lying stricken on the ground — you try running at full speed, getting tripped, and then hitting the turf hard! If that happened to me even once, I’d be whining about it for a week! But there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of injury exaggeration and outright fakery in soccer.

Too many players have no shame about acting as if they’ve lost a limb and then, after receiving “treatment,” popping back up and sprinting 50 yards. The only thing that redeems this spectacle is the pantomime of the “helpful” player who comes over to assist the injured man in getting up when in reality the whole “Let me help you!” “No! I’ll never walk again!” conversation just prolongs the ordeal.

8. Passing the ball around the back. Oh, we’re just going to spend the last ten minutes moving the ball between the center-backs and the keeper? That’s brutal to watch and soccer is, after all, entertainment. Even if it’s my team doing it, I kind of root for a pressing striker to zip in and steal the ball.

7. Corner-flag shenanigans. I get why players head to the corner flag and just sit there with the ball until a defender knocks it out of bounds, at which point they just do it again. But it would be more fun if they tried to do, I don’t know, anything else. It’s as close as soccer comes to the quarterback kneeling in football. Boring.

6. A substituted player slowly coming off the field. This one is just a little basic, is all. We’re supposed to believe that an elite athlete who has spent the last 70 minutes bombing up and down the pitch is, as soon as his number appears on the substitution board, enfeebled to the point where he must weakly shuffle the 20 yards to the sideline? Not particularly creative. I do like the little clap they do as they come off, though.

5. Careful placement of the ball for a free or corner kick. It’s fun how detail-oriented players become when they’re killing time. “Ooh! Better get that blade of grass out of the way! And now, since the wind moved the ball one nanometer, I must place the ball again, spinning it several times so that the logo is facing the right way.”

4. The keeper acting like he’s going to play a goal kick short, then waving everybody upfield for the long kick. Now we’re getting to the part of the list where we can see some artistry, some performance. The whole thing is a fun little play that the goalie and his defenders put on. The keeper stands over the goal kick with his center backs to either side and looks around, thoughtfully judging whether he wants to put the ball in play right in front of his goal while nursing a 2–1 lead.

After careful deliberation, he shakes his head — it just won’t work this time, lads! — and waves the defenders forward. Then, after taking eons to assess the movement of the players upfield in order to precisely plot the trajectory of his kick, the keeper just boots the ball directionlessly into the melee. Extra points when, after all that, the keeper shanks it and the ball goes out of bounds.

3. A player pretending for a while like he’s going to take a free kick or free throw, only to hand it to another player. Again, an almost heartwarmingly predictable little pantomime drama. Will the team’s central striker take the free throw even though wide players almost always do so? He’s run over there and grabbed the ball! He’s holding it over his head like he’s really going to throw it in! He’s looking for a teammate to throw to but — darn! — they’re all covered. Disappointed, at the last minute, the striker hands it to the winger, who then spends forever searching in vain for a target.

2. Careful selection of the throw-in ball. This one is kind of fun, too. The player steadfastly ignores the ball kid who is literally three feet from him in search of just the right ball. Do you really expect him to throw in just any ball? Only he can select the ball with just the right sphericalness for his needs!

  1. Finally, my personal favorite: the player who comes off the field and makes sure to shake hands with everyone on his winding journey to the sideline. Who could possibly have a problem with such a gesture of genuine goodwill? The best part is when the departing player seeks out the referee to thank him for his service. The ref must accept the handshake — what monster wouldn’t? — but then shows the player off the field just after the handshake, helpfully demonstrating to him where the sidelines are. I also love it when opposing players try to helpfully hustle the substituted player off. It’s a delightful façade of fake bonhomie and sportsmanship. I love it!

So when you’re watching the World Cup this fall, don’t get angry about time-wasting in soccer. Get mad about inartful time-wasting. If they’re going to kill the clock, soccer players should at least give us a little entertainment while they do it.

Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour

An illustration from Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour [The story of a visit to the planet Mars], an early work of science fiction published in 1895 by Charles Dixon. The book purports to be a record of human adventures on Mars, recovered from a meteorite found in the desert.

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