Tom Joad and the 21st Century Conditions of Climate Change

“Subway’s no way for a good man to go down.  Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown”  – from Elton John’s Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters



The earth’s global temperatures are slowly rising but at a rate faster than any other time in Earth’s history because of the man-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.  Temperatures may only be increasing in fractional degrees – 2011 was 0.22°F (0.12°C) warmer than 2010 – but our biosphere becomes imperiled if global temperatures exceed the narrow range that allows for human and plant life to exist as we now know it.  A full degree fahrenheit change will have tremendous consequences for the planet’s life support system, especially the polar ice caps and global glaciers.  This melt-off raises sea levels around the globe and threatens civilizations that currently reside there.

Global mean sea level has been rising at an average rate of approximately 1.7 mm/year over the past 100 years (measured from tide gauge observations), which is significantly larger than the rate averaged over the last several thousand years. Since 1993, global sea level has risen at an accelerating rate of around 3.5 mm/year. Much of the sea level rise to date is a result of increasing heat of the ocean causing it to expand. It is expected that melting land ice (e.g. from Greenland and mountain glaciers) will play a more significant role in contributing to future sea level rise.    SOURCE  

This is only one of the climate change effects of global warming.  Along with droughts, dwindling water supplies, floods and other violent climate actions like increased velocity and numbers of tornadoes and hurricanes, rising sea levels will impact our economies negatively and create massive human populations shifts that will have the more economically deprived nations seeking relief in the richer, industrial countries.   Rising sea levels effect this pattern as they start to flood the lower coastal areas and river inlets around the world.  These are areas where the highest population densities exist.

Most indigenous populations in these areas are unable to build and live on the higher, more expensive real estate that accommodates wealthy people who want and can afford to pay for such solitude and magnificent scenic views, away from the crowds and as it tends to be the case, the higher rates of crime.  We’ve observed lately however the disadvantage of living in mountainous regions near urban centers where forest fires are increasing due to drier seasons as the planet warms up.  But in actual human numbers, the people who will suffer the most will be those that reside at or below sea level.

In the U.S. the most vulnerable regions are California, Florida, New Jersey and South Carolina according to a new study by Katherine Curtis, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and her colleague Annemarie Schneider.

When the researchers combined sea-level data with projected populations in those areas for the year 2030, they came up with an estimate of 19.3 million people who will be at risk of being inundated by rising sea levels in just the four regions they looked at.

That number, which they reported in the journal Population and Environment, is 35 percent higher than the estimated 12.5 million people who would have been predicted to be at risk if the study had considered population levels in the year 2000. And it’s 30 percent higher than the 13.7 million people predicted with 2008 population levels.

In Florida alone, nearly 10 million people are likely to be displaced by storm surges, flooding and inundation, the study found.

Where do all of these people go?  They clearly will have to move inland and inundate other communities who may themselves be experiencing the other side effects of climate change.  It’s been recently reported that over half of the country is experiencing moderate to high levels of draught.  The most we have seen in over half a century.  This is a pattern that will continue but at more frequent intervals.

As sea levels continue to rise economies begin to fail as sources of employment are lost to damages resulting from flooding and dying sea food supplies from acidified oceans experiencing higher temperatures.  Many family owned small businesses will be forced to shut down as these conditions grow worse.  As these populations migrate to other areas with already existing high unemployment rates, the social services that may still exist will be stretched beyond reasonable capabilities.

As resources diminish from catastrophic climate changes social unrest will swell and push civilizations to the brink


Social unrest will bring about further chaos and some, if not most, of the rich will demand that such “deviants” be thrown into over crowded jails rather than making necessary accommodations to address the unwanted economic conditions that climate change brings.  For those devotees of laissez-faire economics their support of the social Darwinist view will likely be willing to ignore the plight of low-income families and other indigenous people like the homeless and many mentally handicapped and elderly people.  In his book, “The Golden Door” the late Isaac Asimov was well aware how believers of the social Darwinism model professed by Herbert Spencer were willing to ignore acceptable levels of social responsibility to the unemployed or needy.

“In 1884 [Spencer] argued, for instance, that people who were unemployable or burdens on society should be allowed to die rather than be made objects of help and charity. To do this, apparently, would weed out unfit individuals and strengthen the race. It was a horrible philosophy that could be used to justify the worst impulses of human beings.”   SOURCE 

While more affluent people will be able to stave off these “discomforts” longer than poorer people, they too will become desperate as higher population rates negatively impact unemployment and crime along with diminishing food and water supplies.  But the poor will suffer first and the longest.  Conditions much like that described in Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” will have families with few resources relocating as authority figures in the various states and communities they make their way to will resist such influxes.

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 1

As Elton John’s lyrics signify, under extreme conditions of man-made climate change,  good men will die, not because they are weak or thoughtless but because they simply find themselves more deprived of the means to adapt to massive ecological paradigm shifts.  The thoughtless people, the Mad Hatters of oil and coal production and their coterie of media pundits, lawyers and bankers, are those who have enabled global warming to exceed Earth’s natural biological-sustaining limits and beyond natural rates that would have made adaptation by all humans and the others species more plausible.

While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers

Turn around and say good morning to the night

For unless they see the sky

But they can’t and that is why

They know not if it’s dark outside or light


The darkness of global warming’s impact on climate change is encroaching with tremendous force.  Steinbeck’s imagery of hard times has leaped from the pages of his novel and is once again thrown full square into contemporary reality.  But what’s different in this era of economic hard times where income disparity has reared its ugly head once again, is a condition that Tom Joad and the other Okies in Steinbeck’s novel didn’t have to contend with.  The dust bowl is no longer a regional thing.  Moving to another state will not offer long-term relief.  It’s now a global condition where droughts, floods, extreme weather and rising sea levels from ice melts feeds itself vociferously with each CO2 molecule we emit into the atmosphere from our unbridled use of oil, coal and natural gas.

What IS similar now is that like the Joads of the Dust Bowl migrations it will be the poor and disenfranchised that feel the greatest suffering and not because they are victims of natural causes but because  “great owners” of industries refused to allow their eyes to read history and to know the great fact that man’s activities have disregarded nature’s delicate balances and pushed us to the brink where Earth’s life system is rejecting what mankind has wrought.



Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and Climate Change  

Kiribati’s Entire Population is Being Moved to Fiji 

The Endless Summer

18 responses to “Tom Joad and the 21st Century Conditions of Climate Change

  1. What you write here is a reality that the wealthy are able to ignore. Their lives won’t be changed much by climate change. THEY CAN ADAPT. The CEO of EXXON has no idea what it will be like for the less fortunate to deal with these dramatic changes. And since he and others like him are purely motivated by greed and profit, they can ignore it. I don’t understand why the agricultural community isn’t up in arms about the reality of climate change. I read that corn crops are a total loss this year because of the drought.

    • “The CEO of EXXON has no idea what it will be like for the less fortunate to deal with these dramatic changes. And since he and others like him are purely motivated by greed and profit, they can ignore it.”

      That and if he is the Spencerian “social Darwinist” type. Along with being motivated by greed and profit, they simply won’t care because these are the people that need to be “weeded out … to strengthen the race.”

      “I don’t understand why the agricultural community isn’t up in arms about the reality of climate change.”

      Many independent farmers are but there are those who now find themselves unable to do much about it because they found themselves part of hard economic times in the past and in order to survive had to sell their ownership to Big Agri-businesses. These new owners take the corporate model and exploit what they can for profit as long as they can and then move on to other resources they can exploit for further profit as long as that will last, etc. etc., leaving everything in their wake poisoned or damaged for many generations.

      It has only been through the efforts of grass roots movements that keeps a fire to the feet of these corporatist to ensure that not only do they not further damage our bio-sphere but that the actions that ensure this will also ensure that future resources will be around, allowing them to continue to making a profit, without using a scorched earth policy.

  2. Law III: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction
    Newton got it right. THE idea that man is NOT changing the climate is ridiculous

    • Earth’s started to depreciate in value following the Industrial Revolution about as quick as a new automobile does as soon as it leaves the showroom.

  3. What a wonderfully written, researched, and nuanced essay! And, as SDS says, the rich don’t give a damn. But what’s frightening, is that the rich have effectively pulled the wool over the eyes of the disenfranchised so they don’t even understand what’s going on!

    • Thanks Linda.

      One Researcher, UC Berkley psychologist Paul Piff, has done a study that shows a correlation between wealth and the attitudes they develop about poorer people. The wealthier they become the more convinced they are superior to everyone else and develop and certain mean streak that becomes a callous norm for them.

  4. Not according to Mr. Stupid Inhofe of Oklahoma who thinks its an affront to God to think that we could do anything to what God created. Course, his bible is handwritten in crayon. When will people wake up? when the sea is rushing into their living room?

  5. “When will people wake up? when the sea is rushing into their living room?”

    That’s the point I attempt to make Sherry in that those who do see this first will unfortunately be like Elton’s John’s hobo who can drown. The Mad Hatters like Inhofe will be watching from safe and secure towers they can afford as all this happens, not feeling any sense of urgency because the victims below are just those poor hobos that need to be “weeded out”.

  6. Great piece. Did you hear about the story in North Carolina where legislatures decided to ignore predictions about rising sea levels and proposed legislation that excluded these predictions. Perfect example of head in sand way of thinking.

  7. You must have done a lots of research on this important issue. Very nicely written essay. We all need to realize the sensitivity of this issue.

    • Thanks Arindam. The “research” is what has been accumulated over time on this subject. The amazing thing is my ability to retain it. 😉

  8. Excellent article. However, I don’t believe the rich will escape the negative consequences of the social unrest that will follow the disaster of climate change. I just hope the wrath they receive from the displaced will exceed that of the effects of climate change that they will experience despite being insulated by their wealth. Here is another great article about the politics of climate change by Bill McKibben in Rollingstone Mag–

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