Quiet Collapse

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American Chestnut

What happens at the end of a system? The American Chestnut used to be one out of every three trees in eastern hardwood forests; now there are a few blighted remnants, a few resistant individuals hiding in the far corners of what few forests remain uncut. The system has moved on, to a sparser, less self-sufficient balance. But what happens when the system can’t adapt? What does it even look like to us, human beings who struggle to think in systems and who shift our baselines faster than natural systems move?

When a system is stressed beyond its ability to adapt, change gradually, or shift states, it collapses. But collapse isn’t often the wholesale destruction we imagine—instead it is slow disintegration, a move towards less complex stability that never stops. A system in collapse exists as a whole, and then as parts, and then as fewer parts, and then as scattered remnants. A few American Chestnuts, resistant to the blight that killed them, standing alone. The system is dying slower than the people that killed it.

Sometimes systems do collapse rapidly, but those are the examples that bias our understanding of what collapse can be. If a tailings pond from a copper mine fails, and kills one hundred miles of river downstream, that looks like a collapse to us. If the global economy, spurred on by reckless lending and foolish speculation, reaches a tipping point, the end of that fragile housing bubble looks like a collapse to us. Yet when arctic sea ice sets new record lows every year, we wonder whether climate change is real, and whether the system is really collapsing.

Collapse isn’t a building falling down, or a market crash, or a poisoned river, or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Those are moments of failure, markers in our memory that we pretend are isolated events. The collapse is the trend as systems break into smaller functioning units, and then isolated functioning units, and then non-functioning units.

There are people out there who argue that climate change, even if it is happening, is not a big deal. We’ll probably be fine, they say. Some natural systems will fail, but human ingenuity will persevere. We’ll come up with the technology we need, and we needn’t pay such close attention to the warnings of scientists and activists and the people already under water—those warnings are exaggerated.

Those people are wrong.

Collapse of a climate system isn’t doomsday. Collapse of a climate system is one more day without snow, until you forget snow was ever common. It is one more day without rain, until you wonder how people ever grew food where you live. It is one more Chestnut, dying in the woods where no one sees it, making no sound at all.

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