In a certain sense, my lifework is frustratingly abstract: trying to reach national and international accords that would slow the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not nearly as satisfying, even for me, as building strong local economies and farming networks, or aiding real people in dire need of real and immediate help.

But it is, I fear, crucial work that undergirds those other efforts. What we’re trying somehow to do is keep the basic operation of the planet on course so that we actually have some hope of getting around to those other tasks. That background stability has marked the 10,000 years of human civilization, the period that scientists call the Holocene. But we’ve emerged from the Holocene now—our great fossil fuel binge of the last two centuries has added enough carbon dioxide to the air that temperatures have begun an...

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