Cory Doctorow: The Swerve

Cory Doctorow
Photo by Paula Mariel Salischiker

We’re all trapped on a bus.

The bus is barreling towards a cliff.

Beyond the cliff is a canyon plunge any of us will be lucky to survive.

Even if we survive, none of us know how we’ll climb out of that deep canyon.

Some of us want to yank the wheel.

The bus is going so fast that yanking the wheel could cause the bus to roll.

There might be some broken bones.

There might be worse than broken bones.

The driver won’t yank the wheel.

The people in expensive front row seats agree.

“Yank the wheel? Are you crazy? Someone could break a leg!”

We say, “But there’s a cliff! We’re going to go over the cliff! We’re going to die!”

“Nonsense,” they say. “Long before we go over the cliff, we’ll have figured out how to put wings on this bus.”

We argue.

They add, “Besides, who’s to say we’ll fall off the cliff? Maybe we’ll be going so fast that we leap the canyon. Fonzie did it! Calm down. Hey! Keep your hands off the wheel? What are you, a terrorist? Don’t you dare do that again. Someone could get really badly hurt.”

The climate emergency is real and we are living through it. As I write this, I’ve emailed some writer friends in the southwest to ask if the fires threaten them or their homes. One hasn’t answered yet. The other wrote back to say they’re fine, but what about the wildfires near my house?

Oh, I wrote. We’re fine. So far. California is in for a hell of a wildfire season. It’s dry out there. It’s an emergency. Officially.

(It was an emergency before, but that was unofficial)

We’re not acting like it’s an emergency. In mid-May, The Guardian reported a bombshell: a series of planned “carbon bombs” – large-scale oil and gas projects that will “shatter the 1.5C climate goal.” The war in Ukraine has the world scrambling for winter heat – for sources of oil and gas, that is, not renewable alternatives.

Of course not. The only way for renewables to replace Russian oil and gas this coming winter is for Europe to have retooled around sustainable heating: a mix of beefed up insulation, heat pumps, and mass power storage. Those are long projects. We knew we’d need them decades ago, but we kicked the can down the road, and further down the road, and further.

Incredibly, climate denial still festers. “There’s no cliff,” they insist. “This bus is on a smooth road that goes all the way to the promised land. Only a fool would swerve now.”

The good news is: climate denial is on the wane. The bad news is: deniers have pivoted to incrementalism: “We’ll fix the climate. Give us a couple decades to phase out oil and gas. Give us a couple decades to replace the cars and retrofit the houses. Give us a couple decades to invent cool direct-air carbon capture systems, or hydrogen cars that work just like gas cars, or to replace our overland aviation routes with high speed rail, or to increase our urban density and swap out cars for subways and buses. Give us a couple decades to keep making money. We’ll get there.”

In other words: “We’re pretty sure we can get some wings on this bus before it goes over the cliff. Keep your hands off the wheel. Someone could get really badly hurt.”

People are already getting really badly hurt, and it’s only going to get worse. We’re poised to break through key planetary boundaries – loss of biosphere diversity, ocean acidification, land poisoning – whose damage will be global, profound and sustained. Once we rupture these boundaries, we have no idea how to repair them. None of our current technologies will suffice, nor will any of the technologies we think we know how to make or might know how to make.

These boundaries are the point of no return, the point at which it won’t mat­ter if we yank the wheel, because the bus is going over the cliff, swerve or no.

Focus on the swerve.

Believe it or not, the swerve is a happy ending. This is a hopeful article. Here’s what I hope we can do: I hope we can swerve.

A couple decades ago, the swerve might have been avoid­able. It was 1977 when Exxon’s own scientists concluded that their products would render the planet uninhabitable for humans. Exxon knew. They buried the research and paid for denial.

George H.W. Bush came into office in 1988 as the “Environ­mental President.” He campaigned on “conven[ing] a global conference on the environment at the White House. It will include the Soviets, the Chinese… The agenda will be clear. We will talk about global warming.” By 1992, he abandoned the idea of the US retooling to avert the catastrophe. “The American way of life,” he told the Rio Earth Summit, “is not up for negotiations. Period.”

If we’d started in 1977, we might have paid some civil engineers to build a bridge over the cliff. In 1988, it was still entirely possible. In 1992, the option was still there.

Today, time has run out for bridges.

All we’ve got left is the swerve.

We’ve got to seize the wheel of the bus. We’ve got to plunge past the first-class passengers in the front rows of the bus, and we have to yank the wheel. We have to swerve.

The bus will roll over. It won’t be nice. We will probably have to abandon some of our most beautiful coastal cities and towns. We will probably have to retool our industries in haste, and commandeer our factories to build new energy tech instead of consumer tchotchkes – the way we ordered factories to produce vaccines and PPE last year.

I don’t know what the first-class passengers were thinking. Some of them will be dead of natural causes before the bus goes over the cliff, and they didn’t want to sacrifice any of their material comforts to ensure that the rest of us continued to live once they passed on, I suppose.

Others are just ideologically committed to traveling in a straight line. The swerve is morally bankrupt. It’s communism. The only way to get over the cliff – if such a thing exists – is to floor the bus. Go as fast as possible. Leap the gorge! The Fonz did it, right?

The swerve is our hopeful future. Our happy ending isn’t averting the disas­ter. Our happy ending is surviving the disaster. Managed retreat. Emergency measures.

In the swerve, we’ll still have refugee crises, but we’ll address them hu­manely, rather than building gulags and guard-towers.

We’ll still have wildfires, but we’ll evacuate cities ahead of them, and we’ll commit billions to controlled burns.

We’ll still have floods, but we’ll relocate our cities out of floodplains.

We’ll still have zoonotic plagues as animals flee their disappearing habitat, but we’ll apply the lessons of COVID to them.

We’ll still have mass extinctions, but we’ll save the species we can, and we’ll prioritize habitat restoration as a way of preserving our horizontal broth­ers and sisters (as Muir called animals) and as a way of putting the climate back in balance.

We’ll swerve. The bus will roll. It will hurt. It will be terrible.

But we won’t be dead on canyon floor.

We’ll fix the bus. We’ll make it better. We’ll get it back on its wheels. We’ll get a better driver, and a better destination.

That’s our happy ending. That’s our hopeful future.

We gotta get ahold of that wheel first. You ready?

Let’s roll.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.

This article and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.

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18 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: The Swerve

  • July 5, 2022 at 7:37 am

    It was people like you who destroyed nuclear power; that was your “swerve” decades ago, when we could have had safe, non carbon-burning plants. You environmentalists destroy everything with your “review” processes designed to prevent anything from ever being built. I still remember the attempt to derail NASA’s Cassini probe because it used plutonium batteries.

    • July 5, 2022 at 2:12 pm

      yup. I would say they shot themselves in the foot but we know how they also feel about guns.

    • July 5, 2022 at 2:15 pm

      Ah, yes, the people in the bus pointing fingers at each other–it was really missing from the article. I’m sure if we manage to establish whose fault it really was (bold claim pointing at the environmentalists instead of, I don’t know, the corporations who hid the data and prioritized short-term profits over the future of the entire species–but hey, it’s your finger), if we can just choose someone to bear all the blame then the chasm will close up and we will magically make it out unscathed.

    • July 5, 2022 at 2:37 pm

      My goodness. IF you would be well informed, then you would know that also nuclear power has it’s limits since it is a limited resource same as every mineral we mine. IF all nations would have constructed more nuclear plants we would run into a fuel shortage pretty soon. France and Australia are havily betting on nuclear, so we can’t talk about that it’s completly neglected. Also all current nuclear power plants are money graves with gigantic delays. IF you calculate price per MW solar panels are allready cheaper (not considering storage for the moment). Yes at the current point in time we are pretty fucked. But that’s not because we bailed out of nuclear. It’s because we didn’t use the 50 years we have been warned about climate change to shift our energy source to a long term sustainable source. Now we have to do this while the energy price increases and we are in constant crisis because of it.
      The review process is there to prevent harm to humanity in the future. It’s a balance between our rights in this moment and the rights of future generations. If we don’t succeed in that what more are we then barbarians who pillage and mureder the future. The same accounts for climate change. We have to find a blance and that is formed by protests and public discussion.

      • July 11, 2022 at 6:02 am

        Australia is not ‘betting on nuclear’ at all. Not one little bit…

    • July 5, 2022 at 8:57 pm

      Let’s set fire to the bus while it’s going over the cliff! That will totally help!

      I fear you have perhaps not entirely understood what Cory is saying, and are certainly unclear about what “environmentalists” are.

      We “environmentalists”, including, I believe, Cory – are all about using technology to solve the problem. There’s no other way to do it. But it has to actually solve the problem and also not create even worse problems.

      It’s entirely possible that some nuclear power based solutions might be part of that at some point, just not the ones that obviously do also create even worse problems.

      Of course, the value of ‘even worse problems’ is changing rapidly, which is also part of the debate.

    • July 6, 2022 at 4:27 am

      Nuclear power isn’t safe.
      Nuclear fuels aren’t unlimited (go figure where most of Europe got their Uranium from for the last decades).

      Nuclear waste will be a problem for thousands of generations to come.

      Just imagine if the world had stopped investing in nuclear power in 1986, and had used all that money to advance renewable energies, and the things needed to store/distribute that power.

    • July 6, 2022 at 6:39 am

      Great, useful, depressingly memorable metaphor, Cory. We can’t give up.

      And Hyman, the people at the front of the bus love it when the passengers yell at each other for trying to steer the bus incorrectly, even though none of them ever actually got near the wheel.

      I laughed out loud at your scare quotes around “review”… do you feel that corporations should have been able to build whatever kind of plant design they wanted to, with no regulations? (It’s my personal opinion that nuclear power did not take hold due to simple costs: it’s easier to drill an oil well, and we didn’t regulate those as much because the probable deaths caused were more distributed, so the death corps kept on drilling, instead of sinking billions into infrastructure that wouldn’t have turned as much of a profit.)

      Also, the attempt to “derail” Cassini included ex-NASA emergency-preparedness folks… can we agree that launching 72 pounds of plutonium on a rocket should be at least questioned?

    • July 6, 2022 at 7:34 am

      Last I checked we have nuclear power. There’s two of them supplying electricity in my general area. Nuclear was never promoted as a ‘carbon free’ technology until very recently. It was promoted as ‘too cheap to monitor’ except it turned out to be the most expensive source of electricity.

  • July 5, 2022 at 9:11 am

    Thanks for writing this, and reminding us not to give up!

  • July 5, 2022 at 12:29 pm

    It’s like a cross between ‘The Big Bus'(1976) and ‘Snowpiercer'(2013). Grab your pitchforks and torches and let’s get to the front of the bus!
    Seriously, I agree that this is the only choice, but what is the actual plan?

  • July 5, 2022 at 2:17 pm

    Keep in mind that in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s and 2010’s we only had “10 more years”. 50 plus years of “only 10 more years” tells alot about those that say the world is ending doesn’t it? The hype isn’t selling because you haven’t solve the real issue and won’t allow common sense to prevail. If it truly is an emergency then double the nuclear generated capacity in the next 5 years and triple the capacity in 10. Then you will be able to afford the change instead of converting the farmland to silicon pavement and bird killing mixmasters.

  • July 5, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    The problem here is that over 80% of the people on the bus have completely specialized personalities, education, and experiences supporting an absolute minimal retention of generalized knowledge and awareness. To be blunt, we have become do-do birds. This dodo bird majority is all very good at preening and speaking and agreeing with each other, but when it really comes down to it, very few of them have any ability to respond to changing circumstances. They have never needed to do so before… and their experience tells them that what they need to do is continue to be able to say what they have been told to say and believe what they think others believe, because this will stabilize their position and success. It’s not just conformism, at this point, this is what patriotism and civilized behavior looks like, because civilization has advanced to such an abstract state that only true and radically conformist behaviors signify the civilized mind.

    It is already too late. For those few of us eccentric and perspective-gifted, the preening, crooning dodo-birds literally run the bus. Every time there is a solution proposed, they understand, at best, about half of the ideas proposed, and will, at best, pick the solution they best understand will best solve the issue, which, typically, is the solution which is only 50% effective, and then they will arrive at a consensus that preserves the bare essential 10% of the main idea required for it to work, and so, a solution that delivers 5% winds up being the productive outcome of any crisis, and so, progress, at best, stagnates. We have reached this state in our evolution.

    Worse, the politik-speak and corpo-crony ecological landscape demands that all crises which are politically convenient happen, are politely apologized for, and then repurposed into wealth generating golden ages. School shootings lead to educational system reform. Forest fires to massive insurance bailout. Water shortages become water credits and necessary taxes. Insecure election systems repurposed to tighten party control. Ecological disasters create jobs.
    At this point, only outright theft remains effective at decimating the rise of gezeigtkraft tailored “We are With You” facades servicing potentially millions of unproductive drones that move paperwork around and speak, to the detriment of all real laboring people and all original wealth generation, which must now necessarily supplant the continual inflation created by the leaky bucket of derivative and speculative wealth. We feed the world, but the world cannot feed itself.

    Who is the we? do you think the driver of the bus isn’t armed? At best, this is a call to resist, a crooning do-do bird cry of fear about a crisis which has already been landed. The next generation wont be coming, poorly chosen codon sites and toxic RNA markers have already promised that. And to what would you raise them, to what toast of the future? For better or worse, the world is a limited resource system. We broke that cycle with the haber-bosch process, and then we perpetuated the unsustainable explosion with the united states navy and the global mercantile exchange for the better part of 6 decades. It won’t continue, can’t continue, and when it ends, we will be in one of two three positions and staring The Great Filter right in the face and at our own cosmic doorstep. One, we will go back to the stone age and the planet will eventually stabilize despite the nutrient imbalance, climate(in this respect i refer to nature only, as in the oceans and the wild places of the land, not the SKY, which we are as ants concerning, and to which volcanic contributions massively outpace mankind’s worst intentions). By all means change your life, your lifestyle, and your habits, but unless you are willing to live according to squalid and primitive standards, even your most ecologically sensitive demands are still laughably unsustainable according to the alchemical economics used in real industry. Your vegan foods will still demand exemplar fertilizer production, your modern ecologically friendly homes and vehicles will still demand rare earth elements and today’s entrepreneurs are not too enthralled by the prospect of being asked to produce environmentally friendly transport which is still J. D Power safety rated. As a farmer, as a member of a multi generational farming family, who know the reality, we will tell you- one must either till or spray, or sacrifice all economically profitable yields.

    Two, option two, we continue on our present trend and earn our darwin award, as we continue to open more of pandoras presents to us and discover ever yet more convenient and off-the-shelf assimilable ways to exterminate each other. Give them another 20 years or so and friendly terrorists will have google access to research clearly showing how to make something like BASF’s Alite 27, but which works on you, instead. The academic do-dos say this would never happen, as they all have integrity, but it only takes ONE person to publish to steal the glory, and the temptation of glory is too great for the demands of such outdated notions as self-censorship, because your name will live forever, even when it doesn’t.

    Option three, we swerve and go off the opposite bank altogether, which leads to an endless river, and begin a luddite revolution to demand technocratic and principled systems for our own survival, and kick all advanced research and science offworld along with everything not necessary for life, and return earth to being a planet purely concerned with the sustaining of life itself, where man lives in enclaves, not scattered across the landscape, and spends his time working offworld. To accomplish this, however, we may very well require everyone to agree to work together, and also the majority to support this direction, something which, for the reasons stated above, simply is not going to happen.

    As a result, here is what is going to happen- to sustain my species, I am going to swerve this bus off the road. And I will be happy to take you on and do war with you if you try to stop me. But, should the vast majority of the less talented and more opinionated ones suddenly die off, I will be happy to assist in a last-ditch effort to drive off the other bank. To me, it doesn’t very well matter, as long as we get off this damn road to nowhere.

    • July 7, 2022 at 4:57 am

      > we may very well require everyone to agree to work together

      It should be enough if majority didn’t work against the third option. At least it would be easier to achieve than “working together”. Anyway, I’m curious if you have anything more about your particular “swerve plan” written down publicly?

  • July 5, 2022 at 8:33 pm

    How do we deal with the armed guards that the first class passengers have in place to stop anyone from getting to the wheel?

  • July 10, 2022 at 6:15 pm

    How many people are you willing to sacrifice for your swerve? Millions? Billions?

    Your story is really scary – not because of the climate analogy, but because it shows how fanatic believers like you have become, and how far you are willing to go now.

    The real challenge for mankind will be how to wrench power away from the alarmists again. As your story demonstrates, too much fear and panic will also cost lives.


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