Is there time to rearrange the deck chairs as in the Paris Agreement, or should we just start passing out lifejackets? Many people still hope we’ll make a manageable transition to a low-impact economy. I’ve pretty much lost hope for that outcome, primarily because two factors now must be included in a realistic forecast—currently discernible collective human will, and already-appearing climate impacts.
1. Currently discernible collective human will
Oil companies have known of the link between their products and climate change since 1965. The news media was told about it when James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988. By 2000 environmentalists were beginning to educate the public and elected officials, testing terminology to find words that would capture attention and motivate action. “Should we say ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change?‘ ‘Greenhouse gases’ or ‘climate pollution?’” For at least two decades there has been steady and often brilliant effort by scientists, climate activists, and energy experts to show both the perils we face and the possible solutions.
We know the results. Major emitters have clung to fossil fuels and used their clout to obfuscate the issue rather than change direction. Emissions are rebounding post-pandemic, and 2023 is predicted to see the highest levels of CO2 emissions in human history. At this point it is probably a fact that the desire not to exceed 1.5oC is just a wish and not a fully inhabited intention for most of those who have the power to make it happen.
I’ve been surprised by the inertia, but I shouldn’t have been. The climate crisis may be seen as the logical result of cumulative actions that go back thousands of years. The agricultural revolution seems to have encouraged top-down social and economic systems, and perhaps the subjugation of nature and of humans lower in the hierarchy encouraged the development in the human population of what I will call insensitivity. Suffering can dull the physical and emotional receptors that ordinarily make life pleasurable. In a competitive situation, those who are more able to suppress sensitivity have an advantage. Competitive individuals tend to rise in the social order, and societies composed of such people tend to use their advantage to suppress other cultures.
Typical members of the leading nations of our day have not been trained to be broadly compassionate. Rather, by upbringing and by rewards in adulthood, people have been taught to limit their caring capacities. That means the advocates of climate action have been pushing not only against misinformation and the muscle of a fossil-fuel economy. We have been asking a populace and its leaders to care about something they are not equipped to care about. We’ve been directing our appeals to humans who, in Thomas Berry’s language, have become autistic toward nature, and I would say, toward their own deeper needs.
2. Already-appearing climate impacts
I will list a few from recent news stories.
The US Northwest heat dome
Fires in the US West
Amazon rain forest a net carbon producer
Floods in Western Europe
Temperature 118oF in Siberia
Thawing permafrost in Arctic regions
Drought in California food croplands
Grasshoppers in grain fields of US Midwest
1.5 million displaced by 3-day rain in China.
I can’t see how an orderly shift to low-impact strategies can be designed and carried out while dealing with developments arising from even just this snapshot of recent happenings. Several are at once a consequence and also an accelerant of climate change. As of today we can’t calculate the extent of population dislocation, illness, food shortages, and financial and political disruption that may result from any of these named climate-related destabilizers. I think we can assume, though, that emissions reduction projects located anywhere in the world will increasingly be interrupted by geophysical interference.
Unfortunately the possibilities for complications go beyond climate-related events. A million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Insects alone have declined by 75% in the past fifty years –insects that pollinate crops, recycle detritus, make healthy soil, control pests, and serve as food for larger animals. We’ve polluted our water and air, and all of the world’s topsoil could be gone within sixty years. Then there’s deforestation. Fresh water salinization. Loss of biodiversity. Plastic waste. Who can say when one of these non-climate situations will flare up to become the limiting factor in human undertakings? Altogether the degradation is so widespread, the potential effects so serious, and the changes required for remedy so vast that I struggle to articulate the scale of the problem.
I will mention the volatile US political situation only to call attention again to what I see as the fundamental limiting factor in our work toward solutions: the tendency of dominant cultures to produce individuals who don’t care about consequences beyond the personally felt and immediately observable. It is often the least altruistic individuals who rise to power in societies like ours, especially in times of upheaval. Without strong democratic structures to grant representation to the views of less aggressive, more communally-minded members, far-sighted policies are not likely to be enacted.
What then can we do?
If I accept the seriousness of our predicament the question becomes, to use a familiar phrase, “How then shall we live?” What can people who care about life on Earth do to help at this point? And how do people who haven’t lost their sensitivities stay out of depression?
Through action, I would say to the last question, and the roles we take might fall into categories like these:
Localists: I think most of us will simply work to save whatever we can reach as long as our strength allows. The appropriate range of our actions, though, is out to the far edge of our abilities. If I’m not extending myself, I’m not doing my duty.
Visionaries: Those who are dreamers can connect with those who can implement the dream’s instruction. To think of a cake is only the first step toward dessert; to bake it requires ingredients and an oven. The dreamer bears responsibility to bring an idea to realization by locating appropriate vehicles and associates.
Spotlighters: Those who possess the power of influence can wield it for the benefit of all. In our era the only proper application of grand talent or deep wisdom is to heal the life of the planet. Like the gift of a dream, the advantage of influence carries a weight of obligation.
I fall into the category of Localists. My circle of influence is shrinking as I age, and what I can envision is ever closer to home. Over the years I’ve whittled away at my use of fossil fuels and my engagement with the consumption economy. I grow most of my food, rarely enter a store, and share a home with my daughter and sometimes a third generation. When I need a car, I borrow one. In my mid-eighties the growing edge seems to involve character: to learn to listen better, to be more kind, to accept my limitations and sometimes ask for help.
I’m learning more about these practices through living in an intentional community in a rural county in the US South. Whereas when I was younger it seemed I needed to grow backbone, now I must learn to be flexible. Residents adamant in their opinions soon become frustrated with group decision-making. Happier neighbors can yield control and change their minds in order for the group to move forward. I’m “banking” on the belief that the skills we develop as we build this small community will eventually benefit people beyond our circle.
I hope the Visionaries will have large dreams with wide application, and surely there will be charismatic Spotlighters—pop stars or other mass-culture idols—who can swing the public mood away from consumption and toward conservation to a meaningful degree.
But will humans be able to agree on and follow a sustainability path that will hold the warming to a tolerable increase, without killing that last insect at the base of the food web or poisoning one too many rivers? I don’t think so. We have upended almost every aspect of the ecosystem and are now well into the period of penalties. We can each do our best to put mind and voice into turning this thing away from ruination, but from here on it is bits and pieces. Think lifeboat, not ocean liner. Like survivors of a shipwreck, we can save from the cargo only a few of the fossil fuel era’s treasures, and I don’t think there is time to decide as a group which those will be. We will move into the next age at the pace of Earth’s momentum and in the manner the planet permits.