KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 9: Spring 2018
Nonfiction: 989 words [R]
  184 words [R]
  512 words [R]
  615 words [R]
  678 words [R]

[Five Commentaries on Imminent Doom]

by John Olson

1. From “The Thing With Feathers”

Some weeks ago, I awoke to hear a man on KEXP announce, in a calm, measured voice, that we are all going to die.


The man is Guy McPherson, an American scientist, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology, and evolutionary biology who taught at the University of Arizona and now resides in Belize. He is a man in his late fifties, tall, affable, easygoing, with thick graying hair and mustache. He is best known for announcing the end of our species, and thousands of other species, in the not too distant future. He has since retired from his academic career. He is free of institutional or political constraint. His move to Belize to live a more simple life off-the-grid allows him the freedom to speak as honestly as possible about our current situation, a dire, doom-laden predicament which he expresses with firmness and a humanitarian appeal to live with even greater intent and keep flossing our teeth.

It’s an odd but weirdly comforting message. Our imminent doom doesn’t mean giving up and lying around doing nothing, or living recklessly and hedonistically like a rock star on crack cocaine. Nor does McPherson encourage the positive but false project of turning things around via some miracle of geoengineering. That would cause more harm than good.

But seriously, he hears people say, I have children. They aren’t even in their teens yet. You can’t be serious. Are you saying there’s no hope? No solution at all? We’re all facing imminent death?

His answer is yes, there is no hope. He doesn’t see hope as a good thing. He sees it as a toxic, misleading enticement, a detrimental form of wishful thinking, what he refers to as “hopium.” Instead, he endorses an outlook and way of living similar to that of Eckhart Tolle. Our time is limited. It always has been. Life, even in normal circumstances, is remarkably short. Live as fully in the moment as possible. Pursue a life of excellence in a culture of mediocrity. Spend time with the people you love.

Yes, we are doomed, and yes, we have, at best, a few years. But that doesn’t mean surrender to dormancy or wild abandon. It means squeeze every last drop of meaning and joy out of life as you can, while you can.

I know. It sounds more than a little glib. But a lot of people appreciate McPherson’s calm portrayal of doom. It is refreshing. Talks that deliver messages of doom and gloom and then end on a note of hopeful enterprise—“here’s what we can do, folks”—seem false and calculated to me.

McPherson underscores his message with an irony: if, hypothetically, we stopped all carbon emissions and greenhouse gases from infiltrating our atmosphere, it would accelerate, not diminish, our predicament. The very pollution that is harming our planet is diffusing sunlight and helping to keep things cool. Without that filtration, the temperatures would rapidly escalate, and so hasten our demise.

In other words, we can’t turn things around. This is it. Game over.

Also: it wasn’t just cars and industry that did this. Civilization, in and of itself, is a “heat engine.” Our demise probably began with agriculture. If civilization did not consume energy, then the civilization would be worthless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The so-called “idea of near extinction,” a phrase which I pulled from McPherson’s Wikipedia page, isn’t so much an idea as a full-blown reality. I wish I could dismiss everything McPherson says, or even some of what he says, as the alarmist, hyperbolic predictions of a man with an agenda of some sort. But I can’t. His information is supported by the data of other scientists, not to mention all the phenomena currently underway. I can’t argue against the ice melting in the arctic and Greenland, the hurricanes that devastated the Florida Keys and Saint Martin and Puerto Rico, the flash drought this last summer in the Midwest which destroyed at least half of the wheat crops, or the smoke-filled skies of last summer here in Seattle.

McPherson always cautions people that he cannot give an exact expiration date, but he does predict that our death will most likely occur within the next five years. That “we” being us, human beings, Homo sapiens, the species most directly responsible for the irreparable damage done to this planet. Our home planet.

We are all facing a sixth mass extinction event. Numerous species of plants and animals and highly biodiverse habitats such as coral reefs and rainforest are slated for imminent destruction. There are a number of ways we—Homo sapiens—will be eliminated, barring a nuclear holocaust, which would destroy us more abruptly and perhaps more mercifully, than abrupt climate change; these would be lethal but slower events related to a discombobulated atmosphere: famine, social chaos (plundering, marauding, invasion), wet bulb temperature (in which heat and humidity get so high that we become leaden and delirious as our organs boil in our bodies), or diseases caused by paleobacteria reawakened in the thawed Arctic tundra. None of it looks good.

Many of these extreme weather events result from a fragmented, disarticulated jet stream. The polar front jet stream, a belt of upper-level winds that for thousands of years have moved in a westerly direction in the tropopause, is what insures enough stability in weather patterns to grow food crops. A solid, expansive polar ice cap is essential to its constancy. But the polar ice cap has been melting at an accelerated rate exceeding that of what scientists have predicted. It won’t be long before it’s the size of a welcome mat. It’s already too small to keep the jet stream together and the ensuing aftereffect has been what climatologist Paul Beckwith terms a “climate casino.” Massive hurricanes, frost quakes, ravaged crops, cataclysmic migrations, high prices, and jam-packed emergency rooms.

Symptoms of planetary fever are everywhere....


—Excerpted with Olson’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (7 February 2018); full text appears at:



2. From “Roots”

...I watch a YouTube video of climatologist Paul Beckwith show slide after slide, graph upon graph, of statistics concerning the melting and shrinkage of the polar ice cap. Arctic sea ice has been thinning and shrinking rapidly, far more rapidly than scientists predicted. It’s got me thinking. It’s got me worrying about food. Water. Suddenly life on this planet is no longer anything I take for granted. I’m acutely aware of its fragility and position in the solar system, the so-called Goldilocks Zone. I don’t have a spaceship. I sure wish I did. I’d be stocking it right now with cans of soup and pasta and meat sauce. Flashlights and maps. And I’d get out a map of the universe and look for the nearest habitable planet. A good Ramadan. Or Motel Six. Somewhere out there in Proxima Centauri. And I’d be sad. I love this planet. I have roots here. Deep affections and cannot look a crow in the eye without feeling a bond, an affiliation. We share a gray sky. And the bright moon in the web of my fingers.

—Excerpted with Olson’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (1 February 2018); full text appears at:



3. From “Atoms Contemplating Atoms”

...I couldn’t get to sleep. I was worried about a number of things, the melting of the polar ice cap, an erratic jet stream creating havoc everywhere, frost-quakes in Ottawa, a wildfire in Greenland, the rise of fascism, the government shut down, millions of people divested of health care due to the Republican tax reform (many of whom may die), orderlies in a Baltimore hospital depositing a patient dressed only in a hospital gown at a bus stop in thirty-degree weather, the privatization of education for the rich, ignorance and incivility on the increase, a decaying infrastructure, floods and famine and habitat loss. I shut off my tablet and the Bluetooth device on the radio and began listening to classical music on King FM. I started drifting off and was abruptly awakened by a hypnic jerk. It shook the bed. I closed my eyes and tried to lose consciousness again. And then there was a power outage. Fuck it. I put on my flashlight headband and went out in the living room to lie on the couch and read The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.

I heard the constant din of sirens. I put on some clothes and went outside to see what was going on. The air was mild and still. Only a section of the neighborhood was without power. The rest of the city was fine. The sirens appeared to be coming from the bottom of the hill on the south side, Roy Street or Mercer. When the power returned, I discovered that approximately 12,900 customers had lost power due to four circuit breakers going haywire and creating a cascading effect and a small substation fire. That must’ve been what the sirens were for. Power was back on by 6:15 a.m.

It’s hard to think of a future at this juncture in time. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a one. Not for humans. Or thousands of other species we’re taking down with us.

Has the human experiment been a failure? Is experiment the right word? If so, whose experiment are we? I seriously doubt that human beings are the result of experimentation, unless one adopts the very broad view that everything in the cosmos is an experiment. My guess is we’re just an evolutionary quirk, “atoms contemplating atoms” as the cherubic-faced British physicist Brian Cox puts it. Somehow geochemistry became biochemistry, the inorganic became organic, phosphorous and nitrogen became conversation and polypeptide chains. Mud and sand and rock became quivering blobs of synthesizing protein which became corals and worms which became vertebrates which became able to walk erect on two feet which led to the evolution of a tongue capable of speech which quickly escalated into consciousness, whatever that is, self-awareness and books and dignity and meaning.

Valentines and sonnets and airplanes.

Dance and flavor and religion and guns.

At the end of the day, who are we? No one knows. No one may ever know. We were here. For a time. And then we were gone, cooked by an overheated atmosphere.


—Excerpted with Olson’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (21 January 2018); full text appears at:



4. The Most Profound Philosophy of All Time

I feel haunted. But who wouldn’t? I mean, given the usual parameters of life. I believe the first time I saw it was at the post office, a simple slogan on the wall: expect the unexpected. There now. You have it. The most profound philosophy of all time.

It didn’t occur to me till much later in life just how much of my being was made up of other organisms, organelles and mitochondria and bacteria. Don’t get me started on identity, that old hallucination. I’m not going to try and be Lord Byron today.

Or Frankenstein. Not the doctor, the monster. Anyone who persists in writing poetry at this late stage is a monster, a large awkward man built of parts dug up from the grave and sutured together in the sparks and pandemonium of a dingy Gothic laboratory.

Or woman. With loud white streaks in her hair.

Which is a gigantic beehive.

Rocketing to heaven.

Big decisions can be paralyzing. Where do we go, now that the polar ice cap is melting and the jet stream is an erratic delirium of bizarre unearthly temperatures wreathing the planet in mayhem and death?

Sorry. I don’t mean to be a buzz kill. But next time you’re outside, ask yourself, where are the birds?

Crows don’t count. They’re supernatural.

Did we really have a democracy or was that just an illusion cooked up in the brains of wigged old men?

If the Age of Reason was truly about liberty and sober intellectual inquiry and justice for all, why did all those men wear powdered wigs? That’s more than a trifle irrational in my book.

I love the women in Fragonard’s paintings, so blithe and playful and a little ridiculous. These, of course, would be the young rich ladies of the court. Lady Anne Furye, by Thomas Gainsborough, gazing dreamily in a blue ribbon and lace choker, with crystal earrings and pompom flowers in her hair, looks like she just swallowed a bottle of laudanum.

Stewed or sober, everyone in the Age of Reason seems very poised. They maintain. Then along came romanticism and made everyone look a little unhinged, or at least flamboyant.

I unfold myself in maneuvers of word and image and love doing this. I love the gurgle and hiss of whipped cream from a pressurized can and airports and the smell of raw wood at construction sites.

I love to explore the inexplicable and sweat when I run and coax the day’s irritations into pearls.

I love the angels in Wings of Desire and the murmur of water in small mountain brooks and huckleberry and earnestness and deer.

I love the way rivers meander. They go everywhere. They say water seeks its own level, but is that really what’s going on? Rivers always seem to be in love with the ground they cover.

Catfish lurking on the bottom of the Mississippi know where it’s at.

What I’m trying to do now is build an emotion I can live with. I like to collect feelings. I mount them on the wall or put them in the freezer and bring them out later and let them thaw into sympathies.

And groans.

Does money still exist? It does. That amazes me. How does money still have value? Nothing else does.

Ok, that’s not fair. I can’t speak for everyone. My glands aren’t equipped with antenna and radar. They’re just glands. All I know is the sigh of exasperation, the cough of an engine starting, the anguish I never expected to feel watching the polar ice cap shrink.

And shrink.

While the pumpjacks continue to pump crude out of the ground.


—Reprinted with Olson’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (15 January 2018)



5. From “Out of Control”

...My eyes fill with the light of a thousand bright yellow leaves stuck to the sidewalk at the top of Highland Drive. The temperature is 45 degrees and is invigorating and moist. The sky is gray. It’s mid-November and Seattle’s skyline gleams below. I feel good, but can’t shake the sadness caused by hearing Guy McPherson’s grim predictions. McPherson was a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona until he left his position to live on an off-grid homestead in southern New Mexico. He has since moved to Belize and put his property in New Mexico up for sale. He is best known for his talks on imminent mass extinction due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere, a situation he deems long out of our control. He states a paradox: if all industrial production stopped this minute and no more pollution entered the atmosphere, the heating of the planet would be accelerated since the pollutants in the atmosphere act as a filter, diffusing the sun’s heat.

McPherson delivers his talks in a calm, measured, eminently rational voice. He supports his claims with compelling facts. He has a warm presence and emphasizes the importance of enjoying life to its fullest, living in the present moment, seeking excellence in a culture of mediocrity and continuing to floss one’s teeth. He tries to put a redemptive spin on our imminent doom by urging us to do what we love, disburden ourselves from the encumbering shackles of false hope and the oppressive tyranny of jobs and money and live to the fullest while we still can. But it doesn’t work. Extinction sounds horrible. The death he describes sounds awful: when heat and humidity rise to a certain level, we behave drunkenly, because our organs are boiling.

Other climate scientists, such as Michael Tobis at the University of Wisconsin, say McPherson’s claims are incompetent and grossly misleading. I don’t know what to think. I tend to think Tobis is correct and McPherson is wrong. I want Tobis to be correct and McPherson to be wrong: way wrong. I’m not a big fan of human beings, they’ve been responsible for a great deal of ruin and savagery and pain, but I don’t want to see humanity go extinct, any more than I want to see other species go extinct. I mean, didn’t the dinosaurs do better? They managed to stick around for 165 million years. Think of it: big old walking Walmarts of bone and flesh. And what about dinosaur farts? I don’t get it. Is it all this cortical activity that’s gotten us humans into so much trouble in such a short amount of time?

It would be so much nicer if I could just reject McPherson’s claims wholesale and get on with my life. But I can’t, not quite. I can’t shake the sadness nor the truthfulness implicit in McPherson’s words that easily. It will take more than Tobis’s rigorous mathematics to do it. The wildfires and hurricanes and droughts this last summer were horrendous. Clearly, something very, very wrong is occurring to our planet. And it’s just the one planet; there aren’t any more available when this one is finally, irreparably lost.

Flash drought destroyed half the wheat crops this year.

But enough of that.

Why is it that the things over which I have the least amount of control are the things hardest to let go of?

I think the answer is right there in the question: no control.

Most of the time, the only thing I truly have control over is how to respond to things. And even there I have to separate instinct from intellect.

I have no control over the maniacs using leaf blowers in the rain when everything is sopping wet and stuck to the ground, or the jerks whose leviathan SUVs and four-by-fours won’t fit in their driveways and stick out over the sidewalk blocking everyone’s way, or the ongoing looting of the American population by their “elected” officials, and their cronies, the banks....


—Excerpted with Olson’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (12 November 2017); full text appears at:


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