When the first signs came, it was too late. But we didn’t see them for what they were, so what does it matter?
More importantly, it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
I was as guilty as anyone else in ignoring the early signs. Of course, I knew something was wrong, but there was so much else going wrong with the world. And there were still some bitter cold days back then. Sometimes for a week or more. I remember thinking of the hot days as “heat waves.” This was a convenient semantic trick, I came to realize later; one that identified the heat as something that wasn’t normal. As soon as it snowed again, our concerns disappeared and everything was back to the way it was. It took several years without snowfall before anyone even hinted that cold days had been the exception. But the early signs of calamity are the exclusive domain of historians, not those living in the times, and this turned out to be no different that any other case.
In those days, we did what everyone else was doing – we made light of the the things that made us uncomfortable and assumed that someone else was doing something about them. This was easy to do. There were always articles circulating online about activist groups somewhere fighting for something good. Occasionally they won, usually they lost, but it was a comfort to know that the activists were out there, giving up their comforts to fight for our planet. Reading these articles made us feel empowered, even though, in retrospect, we were doing nothing helpful and acting as self-important cheerleaders to the real people who were fighting injustice.
We also watched shows about how scary things would eventually get. TV series about survivalists in apocalypse landscapes were in vogue. At the same time, we watched videos of how stupid other people were. We were comfortable that people would eventually recognize their ignorance, and we prided ourselves on the high road that we took; yelling and name-calling were out, peaceful demonstration was in. What we didn’t consider was that yelling and name-calling is what fighting looks like, so we were in no way actually fighting for anything. Anyways, we didn’t need to fight yet. It still snowed sometimes, so how wrong were things really?
Besides, it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
Sometimes I think that the problems began back then, long before the food shortages or the weather calamities that are normal now. I’m convinced that we signed everything away when we stopped fighting for words. The dire and dangerous-sounding “global warming” became the coldly mechanistic “climate change,” and the war was lost. What we forget is that words are what people actually fight over. An idea is an invisible hand guiding things, but words can render even the strongest ideas limp and lifeless. The early colonists fought for a Declaration of Independence, not a Suggestion of Autonomy, not Life, Liberty, and Feeling Alright. Words matter. When words change, so do their speakers, and then the world. We understood “heat waves” as temporary and “early summers” as unusual but good grilling weather. I wonder; would “planetary overheating” or “winter death” have stirred more people into action? We’ll never know, but it turned out that “climate change” barely got people out of bed.
However, the promise of jobs got plenty of people out of bed just before the Collapse. In those days, automation was changing what people were needed to do and where it would be necessary. Many Americans felt that they were entitled to work where they lived, and so they demanded that jobs come back to them. It didn’t take long for politicians to see them as easy stepping stones to power.
We were told at every turn that employment was the most important thing, and soon after, it became common for the goodness of organizations to be measured by their effects on employment. Among the worst organizations were those advocating for worker’s rights, regulatory agencies, and environmental groups, who were clearly conspiring to prevent people’s freedoms to work themselves to death, to make it harder for rich people to make money, and to destroy good and mighty industry outright. Wealth – whether individual, corporate or national didn’t matter – found itself at the core of every political decision. It wasn’t long after the regulations disappeared that the Collapse came, but that was more correlation than causation at that point. Things had gotten pretty bad.
And all I remember was thinking that it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
While culture, language, and money were all mitigating factors, it was the ignorant disregard of our planet by every person alive that triggered catastrophe. Yes, our culture was passive, yes, our language distanced the problem, and yes, money pushed against reform, but we bought wholesale into all of it and hastened the death of winter. They called it an environmental disaster, but it was so much more than that.
It’s hard to remember which problems were first – was it the failed corn crop? Global food recalls every month? Could it have been one of the major droughts? Maybe the increasing flow of hunger migrants? It wasn’t one, but many simultaneous problems that paved the way for disaster. And I don’t think political reform would have helped, despite what we fought for. No, our problems may have looked political but they were actually societal: systemic, even. But we couldn’t see that. Faster and faster, the world was burning up and all we could do was turn to our neighbors and yell. I wonder how much of our hot air was complicit in winter’s death.
But even after a few hard years living on what we now know was the brink of disaster, we still felt that it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
Two things happened the year that winter died. First, a heat wave settled farther north than any previous year. It spanned the entire North Atlantic, yielding no temperature below forty-five degrees for the whole season. Sea levels rose more rapidly than people had predicted. An early spring meant that energy companies had to changes their rates to make enough money to stay solvent. But most of all, people argued endlessly over the cause of the strange winter.
Second, later that year, a series of storm systems pounded the southern coastline. At first, only thousands were evacuated, but when the flood waters wouldn’t recede from Miami, millions panicked and began fleeing the area. That summer was the hottest on record, and many in Florida died in the makeshift camps that held the urban refugees. With nowhere to go, vagrants had to live in the shadows of communities that didn’t want them. With energy prices out of control and many dying from heat exhaustion across the south, the government had to help people resettle across the country. They were rarely welcome, and it didn’t take long for people to push back. Politics had made opinions uglier than ever. The government shut down over gridlock for many months as people died waiting for help. Images of one white, female emaciated body circulated into a hurricane, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But elevating human problems is selfish, considering the bigger disaster. Since that year, I haven’t seen snow. My wife and I live in Maine now. Diseases that were considered tropical are commonplace as far north as Montreal. Weather patterns are as unpredictable as ever. Families are struggling, and it’s hard to find decent work, since many businesses fled to more stable places. But that won’t last too much longer. Militaries everywhere are clamping down on unrest as the old order is crumbling. If I spent my youth ignoring the early signs of a global catastrophe, and my middle age watching those signs crescendo, then I’d say right now we’re looking at the final stages. I wonder if this could have been stopped, or if we were always headed here?
It’s easy to say that there was nothing we could do. But I’m ashamed at how little I did back then and afterwards to try to change the way we looked at things.
Most people remember 2024 as the year that winter died. It was certainly the year that our fragility and ignorance fully and finally failed us. But for me, it was one particular Thursday in 2017 that winter died. The wife and I were still living in our first house in Massachusetts. We were expecting our first child.
The temperature that day was close to eighty degrees. The forecast had only called for a little over sixty. I went for a drive with the windows down (what madness in a desire to burn fuel on the hottest February day ever?) and I took the dog for a walk. I did our taxes, ate lunch out (more fuel), and hung out around the house with the windows down. That day was not the last February record that would be broken, but that day I realized how we were all complicit in whatever was coming to us, and the revelation still haunts me.
It wasn’t that we were still burning fuel to enjoy cleaner air, although later in my life I’d come to understand that this was its own separate mania. Our problem was one that we never saw coming. It was the way we talked about the weather.
That day, I had three separate conversations with three different people about how nice it was and how we should take the grill out (still more fuel). Social media was crammed with people taking selfies outside and describing the spring-like weather as “great” at the same time “weird.” We all knew what was happening, we knew it wasn’t good, but we let ourselves enjoy it. The terrible events that would come to pass were not reversible at that point, but our attitudes and words could have helped lift us up instead of tear us down. We could have shared our hesitations and prepared for unity against disaster. We could have rejected and fought every description of the weather as “great” and called it for what it was: unseasonable, disturbing, worthy of our sincere concern.
In the end, I do not believe that it was a weather disaster that turned our society into the way it is now. It was our words and our willingness to relinquish our language to the uninspired, financially motivated people that paved the way here. The people that fed press releases and statements to the news. The journalists who kept their twisted wording and preserved their twisted reasoning.
We let ignorance, neglect, greed, fear, and group-thinking dictate the terms of engagement, the words that we used and, by extension, our very thinking.
And just like that, the day that winter died became a gorgeous sunny day, and we gave the world our permission to burn.