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Living in the climate lag



Five years ago I woke in the middle of the night and wrote a letter to myself about climate change. I've never shared it with anyone. I didn't think other people would relate to how I was feeling. But now that articles about the end of civilisation are going viral, I can see I'm not the only one who's been up late at night, shuddering with this awful premonition.

Person silhouetted against a sky that is both bright and dark. By gaiamoments via Getty The letter I wrote to myself is called 'living in the lag', and it starts like this. 'The world around you right now no longer exists. The conditions that created it have already changed and the society you know remains the same only due to inertia. Recognise this lag. Plan according not to what you see around you today — a reality established by causes decades or centuries before — but according to the emerging conditions that will dictate the future.'

All abstract stuff, so let me draw out the lessons. Our current society's wealth is the product of centuries of burning fossil fuels. Our economic system is a carryover of 18th-century ideas that the environment is an abundant, endless resource for exploitation. None of this holds true anymore: we have to stop burning coal, gas and oil for energy if we are to have any hope of maintaining a stable climate, and we know there are hard limits to destroying the ecosystems that sustain us. 

The foundation of our way of life has already crumbled away, but most of us haven't noticed because the worst effects won't hit for decades, and we can only see the world through limited human timescales. The next five or ten or 20 years can't be predicted in precise detail, but the general trajectory of the next 200 years is pretty clear: the world will keep getting hotter, and our current civilisation will deplete the 'natural capital' that underpins it. Technology will mask the initial symptoms, but ultimately compound the problem. (Air-conditioning, for example, can provide temporary relief during heatwaves, but increases electricity use and therefore greenhouse gases, heating our planet even further.) We are facing a sudden collapse, a slow but terminal decline, or an evolution to a society that uses far less energy and resources.

Climate change isn't the only environmental crisis, but it's the best example of what I'm talking about. The current overheating of the planet is a slow-motion catastrophe. Once in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide can continue to affect the climate for thousands of years. Much of the extra heat is absorbed by the oceans, also over extremely long time scales. There is at least 0.5 degrees of warming currently masked by smog, which has a cooling effect. Even in the best-case scenario, with drastic cuts to global emissions, we are still looking at two or more degrees of warming. This could trigger natural tipping points, such as the melting of permafrost, releasing even more potent warming gases. Once underway, the climate could enter a runaway 'hothouse Earth' scenario over centuries or millennia.

The thing to keep in mind is that many of these changes are already locked in, either due to the scale and momentum of the forces involved, or because we can't possibly shift global society quickly enough to prevent some effects. So the climate we will face in another 50 or 100 years already exists, we just haven't arrived at it yet. The world around us now is an unsustainable society that hasn't caught up to future conditions. 

What do we do with this knowledge? In the dark hours of the early morning five years ago, I wrote some guidance to myself. 'You may grieve for the loss of the present, the role you wanted to have, the person you thought you would be. You will be desperate to refute this new information. You will want to pretend the world around you right now might continue on indefinitely.'


"So here I sit: participating in the society around me, acting as if it will continue indefinitely in its current form, while knowing deep down that the conditions underpinning it have already changed."


This has been true. I don't want to believe the foundations of our society have already shifted. I want to continue living the life of a cosmopolitan westerner, immersed in the cleverness of our media, the comfort of our conveniences, the wonder of our technology. I want to make a name for myself in my career, build up wealth, travel to exotic places, create beautiful works of art. While criticising my country and my culture for many of its cruel stupidities, I also love so much about this civilisation. Even more so than a physical place, western civilisation is my home, all I have ever known. I don't want to change.

So here I sit: participating in the society around me, acting as if it will continue indefinitely in its current form, while knowing deep down that the conditions underpinning it have already changed. I too am living in the lag.

Sometimes it feels like culture shock. I'm dislocated, my body in the present but my mind focused on the future. When I'm in one of these moods, I ask myself: what is our purpose as humans alive at this unique moment? Suddenly I'm overwhelmed by an enormous sense of responsibility. As an educated citizen in a wealthy country, I have the privilege of knowing about climate change, and the time to prepare.

When I answer this question for myself, I realise it's the same answer for our society. Along with fighting to reduce the pollution causing the climate crisis — because every bit matters — we also need to prepare for a hotter world. We have a few decades left to use the incredibly dense energy in fossil fuels to build a new, cleaner infrastructure that can allow us to retain the best aspects of the current civilisation (modern medicine comes to mind) while giving birth to a more sustainable culture. We are trying to save the planet's species, but we are also trying to save ourselves and the generations after us.

There's much more to this than just building renewable energy, switching to electric vehicles etc. As Clive Hamilton writes in Requiem for a Species, we need to 'democratise survivability' in a hotter climate. If the current inequality continues, then the ultra-wealthy will use their power to seize and monopolise essential natural resources. We'll end up with 'climate bunkers' in temperate islands and mass famines elsewhere.

We also need to re-learn the skills we outsourced during consumer capitalism: growing food at home, mending clothes, living simply and cooperating with our neighbours in a village. For many of us, this will involve making amends with our families and living in traditional multi-generation households. (A good guidebook for making these changes is David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia.)

The tricky part is finding the time to learn the essential skills of this new culture while being enmeshed in the current one. This is what I struggle with the most. It's hard changing the system when you're still plugged into it. But this is one of our difficult tasks while living in the lag: to use the extraordinary wealth of the present to prepare for the hotter climate we've already locked in.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image by gaiamoments via Getty 

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change



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Existing comments

"Goodness, Greg, you are writing like Clive Hamilton" I thought to myself as I got towards the end of your rivetting piece. And then I saw that you had referenced his name. Good on you both. I'm with you. I'm still trying to digest this devastating truth too. Inertia prevails. We find it so hard to comprehend.

John McKeon | 22 July 2019  

Yes, we need to be doing all that Greg suggests. The other essential is that we need to generate hope, while honestly acknowledging our only-too-wellgrounded fears. Greg’s article does this. The hope isn’t that something will save our world. It’s that we can prepare our children to live well in theirs.

Joan Seymour | 22 July 2019  

OH Dear! how destructive of the soul is fear!. There are things in life that we mortals cannot change. The world is like a travelator and we are all on it for a period of time. Best thing is to enjoy every day you have and perhaps join a collective somewhere in regional Australia, living sustainably?

Nicholas Chemonski | 22 July 2019  

Thank you, Greg. You have given voice to my daily reality, except I haven't so much gear-shifted to adapting to the inevitable future yet. I spend most of my energy trying to prevent the slow-burn catastrophe from going into full-tilt through the work of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. ARRCC gives avenues for action, starting with us each making commitments to live more simply (see livingthechange.net) through to promoting solar for faith communities, through to nonviolent direct action to stop new coal and gas projects. It remains important to fight for the sake of coming generations.

Thea Ormerod | 22 July 2019  

I woke last night at 2am and ended up having to take a sleeping pill. It's good to see that I'm not just someone on the lunatic fringe and there are other people genuinely worried about our trajectory. What was going on in my mind too was that in the face of all the evidence our politicians still waved through the immoral Adani coal mine. What sort of legacy are we leaving our children? Should we even be having children with this future? Thanks for putting into words what some of us are feeling. Another good book is Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth.

MARIE BELCREDI | 22 July 2019  

How did Greg get to be so wise, so young? and the image of his realisation is spot on. And how do we change the way we live, whilst living in the world as it is? thank you for the Clive Hamilton and Holmgren references, and it is good to be reminded that there is the possibility of action which will change the future. the trick is not to despair, and to pay attention, and act.

Helen Kane | 22 July 2019  

A sobering essay Greg. I completely agree with you. I watch over my grandchildren when they visit us and wonder to my self what future do they have? I have been observing, analysing and reporting on the weather each day for over half a century. Like the farmers, and I come from a farming background, whose livelihood depends on the weather being kind to them at the right time, my records show conclusively that our climate is becoming hotter, drier and that we experience more extreme weather events . My heart bleeds at the plight of our farmers and country towns in the current drought. I rage inwardly at the idiotic comments by city based weather presenters about the "lovely weather" the city people are having. I wonder what the pollies are thinking when they decide to throw billions of dollars at the drought- money will not bring drought breaking rains. All the dams in the world are useless if there is no rain to fill them. We must move away now from a consuming mind set if our civilization is to survive. The Church leadership were outraged over the same sex marriage fiasco-yet are remarkably quiet over the 'rape ' of the planet. They must speak up on "stewardship of God's creation" NOW!

Gavin O'Brien | 22 July 2019  

Insightful article. ‘Living in the lag’ - a great phrase. I tried to get into this ground in the last two chapters of my book on climate change , Crunch Time (Scribe 2009). A book written before its time, it was not successful and copies are now quite hard to locate or obtain. I kept aersobal store of 30 copies. The last two chapters sketched out a future scenario for Australia that is close to this author’s vision. We live in the prelude to catastrophe.

Tony Kevin | 22 July 2019  

Greg, I couldnt agree more. The apathy displayed by the LNP on climate change is unbelievable as they hasten to flog off our national infrastructure. As our biggest trading partner muscles in on the Australian Antarctic territory, what devestation will also be caused down there as well? New Zealand is planting one billion trees. No mention of that here. The Darling is sucked dry by our biggest trading partner's Cubbie station, any suggestions to link the Burdekin, Ross, Palmer overflows by channel to the Darling are swept under the LNP carpet. Global warming, politely scoffed at by the LNP, is way down the list on enviromental priorities. As POMS swept down the East Coast a couple of years ago, no one realised that Sydney's sewage discharge and human waste storage stockpiles could destroy the entire oyster farming industry in Tasmania. WA today reports Shanhai Zenith bulldozed a huge tract of sacred bush and as a result traditional owners were extremely distressed by the unauthorised destruction, with the area home to a threatened species of Bilby and iconic trees including the Boab. The area of land cleared spans about 16 kilometres by 50 to 100 metres wide. Where is Australia headed?

Francis Armstrong | 22 July 2019  

"We'll all be ruined". It seems the world is full of Hanrahanian doomsayers. Fortunately the young have hope and embrace the future - pity that so many conspire to deprive them of that. Responsibility for the children of the future is a double sided coin. The solution must be a blended compromise that accommodates both sides of the coin, not a dogmatic adherence to only one or the other.

john frawley | 22 July 2019  

We are too numerous , soon to be nine billion. Even if we are less greedy, fresh water is not infinite; desalination pollutes further. Heatwaves, cyclones, floods and droughts may allow insects and other shortlived creatures to adapt, but we are slow evolvers so will not adapt in time, perhaps. Realising this is indeed tragic. Wars will reduce our numbers, but what sort of planet will be left? Denialism: read George Marshall, 'Don't even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change' Bloomsbury 2014, for an accessible account.

Karis | 22 July 2019  

Oh Greg, you have picked up on exaggerations and have been infected by 'scaremongering syndrome'. Refer to the real expert climate scientists such as Meteorologist, Will Kininmonth, and Geologists, Ian Plimer and Bob Carter (paleo climate experts). Global warming (largely naturally caused) is moderate, not dangerous, and we as a species can adapt.

Gerard Tonks | 23 July 2019  

Interessante certo

Emanuela | 23 July 2019  

Greg I love reading your articles but please start to have the really uncomfortable conversation around population. I attended a party recently where a couple were lamenting the new Australian government. Not sure what to tell their numerous children about climate change and the possible impacts. Completely unable to take self responsibility for the effects as they continue to populate the planet with more souls. Unable to make the connection between population and resource ( energy ) use end and subsequent climate effects. I marvel at the denial and engage in the conversation as long as I can.

Patrick | 23 July 2019  

I do not know how the next 100 years will turn out and I will not be around to see it. All I can say is "DO WHAT WORKS!"; "Collaborate with the Enemy" to agree on some things and get them done. The ultra extremes yelling at each other will get us nowhere - and it is still going on. There are many of us in the middle who want farsightedness in our polity.

Peter Horan | 23 July 2019  

Greg, I am beginning to share your nightmare. I am studying "The Unlivable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells and he focuses on not just the science but the impact on human living. I appreciate your suggestions as we grope for ways to live responsibly now.

David Folkes | 23 July 2019  

Climate 'rights' are human rights, as Greg's 5-year prediction shows. In that short period of time UNESCO reports that population shifts from inexorably uninhabitable arid parts of the globe, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, have been and will continue to be the major drivers of refuge-seeking populations to the developed and comparatively comfortable developed world. Given that so much of our wealth in developed parts of the world has been built on widespread despoliation and exploitation of planetary resources, wouldn't one way to stop the merry-go-round be to adopt a foreign-aid policy with restorative justice as its hallmark, instead of constructing it as the pitifully inadequate philanthropic hand-out that it ain't? People would then stay where they are, climate change would be at least partially arrested by attending to age-old sensible farming practices, such as crop rotation, and high-cost investment infrastructure in dams and genetically-modified crop-development would be abandoned. Of course, to do this would be to abandon our Western madness about unlimited growth and learn to live with less. Since when did modesty and temperance in all things become constructed as a vice rather than a virtue? Thus would Greg's inevitable and catastrophic doomsday scenario be avoided and climate-change arrested.

Michael Furtado | 24 July 2019  

Great article, thanks Greg. I 100% echo Patrick's sentiments about overpopulation. It is a huge factor that so many (most?) seem unwilling to discuss. If we could make a big dent in the rate of population growth, it could have the power to actually turn our story around (as much as it can be turned around at this stage).

MGrey | 24 July 2019  

Patrick & MGrey, On the face of it your population point makes great sense. When you stop to think about it, however, it should also depend on who the consumers are. The evidence unerringly points to the developed world. By all means place restrictions on our already depleting demographic trends in the developed world, and you might see the flaw in your argument. Why punish the poor for a problem that's not of their making? Its not population growth but consumption in excess of our needs in the developed world that's the problem. Stop rehashing this neo-Malthusian shibboleth!

Michael Furtado | 24 July 2019  

I wonder what God the Creator thinks of man and woman breeding in increasing numbers. That's the way he made it allegedly and "he was happy with all that he created". Presumably he intended man and woman to use the instrument of creation responsibly. Perhaps the Church needs to revisit the place of contraception as a means of morally responsible use of the gift of human creation if human creation is indeed the destroyer of so much else that God has created.

john frawley | 25 July 2019  

Good theological questioning, John Frawley; except that if you follow the trail it just doesn't add up. India's population is increasing at a decreasing rate and China's population is actually falling. It would be wrong to place limitations on population growth in those parts of the globe where it is actually increasing simply because, racist and ahistorical judgment apart, it follows trends that were set by the developed (and White!) world. There is much evidence to show that when people attain the material needs to keep body and soul together, they limit the size of their families. This is a demographic axiom that knows no exceptions, including amongst Catholics, who demonstrate no difference in terms of family size in developed parts of the globe by comparison with non-Catholic cohorts.

Michael Furtado | 25 July 2019  

Thanks all for your insightful and supportive comments. What I didn't mention - and perhaps softens the sombre tone - is that most actions to prepare for a hotter planet also cut emissions. Growing food at home, cycling, exercise for a stronger body, retrofitting homes to use less energy - all these reduce pollution now and make our lives/communities more resilient to future shocks. So a call for adaptation is also a call for action. Likewise, consumption and population cannot be disentangled. As the old equation goes, population x affluence x technology = environmental impact. Yes we need to reduce population growth, but especially in wealthy countries. For developed countries it needs to be a positive approach, like women's education, not the West imposing punative measures on countries that strip people of their autonomy. This is very difficult social policy, and particularly hard when society has to vote to curtail its own reproduction because we live in a representative democracy. It's as difficult as the anti-consumerism argument because you are asking people to campaign against their own desires. The solution lies in clever positive policies, such as women's education or having fewer children (and giving this small brood better lives), not in draconian policies that will backfire in 10 or 20 years. The environment movement sometimes fails to acknowledge the complexity of how the public will respond - an uncompromising approach can backfire later. We need to take this into account with population policy too. I'll write a 10-year forecast, weaving in how social media will affect climate policy, for one of my upcoming columns. Stay tuned!

Greg Foyster | 26 July 2019