One of the things I tell students in my Sustainable Development course is that human beings have an extraordinary proclivity for waiting until a problem is staring them in the face before taking action to deal with it. This must be why Lao Tsu wrote ‘deal with it before it happens, set things in order before there is confusion’ in the Tao Te Ching, written in China in the sixth century BCE. I also point out that our current society tends overwhelmingly to attempt to deal with problems by addressing symptoms rather than causes. For example, we invest enormous sums to try to remove chemicals, sewage and other toxins from our river water before we run it to our taps, rather than halting the pollution of our rivers. These human proclivities are what make it difficult to be optimistic in the face of the threat of climate change. Our response to the Covid-19 pandemic also provides reasons to doubt our ability to deal with big threats, but we are still in the process of mounting a collective response, so there is room here for drawing parallels as well as lessons about our capacity for collective action.
Politicians speak of ‘tackling the problem of climate change’ as if it were on par with repairing bridges or creating new jobs for the unemployed. The scope of human suffering that awaits current and future generations of humanity and animal life, if we fail rise to the challenge of climate change, has no precedent or parallel. Media pundits also present reports suggesting, for example, that India could become too hot for human habitation by 2100 in the most banal fashion. While it is quite understandable that most of us cannot really grasp statistics projected into a future beyond (most of) our lifetimes, even the current manifestations of global climate change—massive fires in Australia and California, increasingly intense and destructive hurricanes and derechos, rising sea levels and vanishing reefs—seem to have only begun to elicit a shift in public consciousness only recently. But where public consciousness is at today is far from adequate to the task of saving ourselves from ourselves. It took a 15-year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, to find the right words for us to correctly imagine our predicament: ‘I want you to behave as if our house is on fire, because it is.’ More abstractly, lyrics penned by the late Neil present a devastating conception of what our planet’s future might look like
The sun is turning black
The world is turning gray
All the stars fade from the night
The oceans drain away
Silence all the songbirds
Stilled by the killing frost
Forests burn to ashes
Everything is lost
Horizon to horizon
Memory written on the wind
Fading away, like an hourglass, grain by grain
Swept away like voices in a hurricane
In a vapor trail…
Whatever the actual meaning of these abstract yet despairing words, written by a man who had recently lost his family, they conjure up images of world devastated by climate catastrophe and/or nuclear holocaust. One is reminded that our planet’s early history was extremely violent and conditions were then unsuitable for life. Scientifically speaking, the survival of life on earth comes with no guarantees. When you let something burn, vapor trails are all that remain.
If we don’t get this right, what meaning will there be in all our endeavors? It Earth goes the way of Venus and overheats to the point that our atmosphere ceases to protect the planet from the intense solar radiation that would otherwise make life here impossible, our entire civilization and our entire historical record could vanish without a trace. What then of Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be’ or Descartes’ ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am’? Will two plus two still equal four? To have meaning, all our arts, sciences and humanities require living humans to learn and pass on knowledge. Whether or not we individually believe individuals enjoy an afterlife beyond death, all of use partake in language and collective knowledge which is dialectically both individual and social at the same time, and by partaking in this collective human endeavor which gets passed on through the generations, and as such, our collective social life assumes a quality akin to immortality. The survival of this project of human knowledge and understanding requires that we sustain the habitability of this planet (the strange and current spectacle of increasing numbers of humans believing they can successfully relocate to Mars notwithstanding).
At the height of the Cold War, in the face of the seemingly ever-increasing probability of nuclear annihilation, lyricists began to contemplate the end of all life. ‘We are stardust, we are golden, we’re a billion year old carbon,’ wrote Joni Mitchell. ‘All we are is dust in the wind’ wrote Kerry Livgren. It is from a lesser-known song by Baltimore-based band Crack the Sky titled Nuclear Apathy from that era that I have chosen the title of this blog. As the song goes: ‘From the moon they’re laughing hard, from the moon they’re falling off their seats. From the moon we’re comedy, from the moon we’re really quite a treat.’ What are those aliens (loonies?) on the moon laughing at? A species so obsessed with war it continues to produce and deploy weapons which only serve to ensure the annihilation of the species if used. The song continues: ‘Will they blow us all apart, or kill us off with virus darts?’ And then an appeal to some ill-defined revolutionary action: ‘Or rise up children, the fight goes on and on, wise up children, the fight goes on and on…’
In recent reading, I came across the term ‘climate porn’. The author was taking issue with writing which projects a dismal or blank future because it encourages despair. In his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore argued that when it comes to climate change, you have on one end of the spectrum those who deny it is really a problem and on the other end those who despair. ‘I am interested in that middle ground,’ he declared. One must agree as a matter of course. My argument is that we nevertheless have to stare into the bleakness of the dystopian world we are presently racing toward at full speed, really let it sink in, if we are to awaken our senses to the reality of our predicament and begin to collectively strategize in a serious manner—one far surpassing the seemingly hopeless shortcomings of the Conference of Parties (COPS) meetings—a plan not just for surviving climate change but for greening our little garden planet. In so doing, however, it is important that we not overwhelm ourselves with grim statistics on how rapidly the coral reefs are vanishing or the acceleration of the burning of the Amazon rainforest.
Who do I mean when I say ‘we’? To many, a ‘we’ implies a ‘them’. The old trope we find in alien landing movies where humanity unites in the face of a common threat comes to mind. Climate change fits the bill for such an existential threat, but since its observable effects are primarily local rather than global and since the threat extends out beyond our lifetimes, it is not an ‘enemy’ we can ‘defeat’ in a short-term battle. In short, climate change is not an ‘other.’ It is merely the inevitable result of our collective failure to toilet train industry (and ourselves as consumers, when it comes to automobile emissions and excessive energy consumption).
The ‘we’ I have in mind is the common stuff that gives rise to all life, whatever it is, that we all instinctively would wish to preserve because the collective will of our species to survive is literally written into our DNA. Programmed into that same DNA is our fight or flight response, which was coded over millions of hears of humanoid experience in dealing with the threat from animals and other humanoids. The triggering of his response is what brought us to the brink of nuclear war. Most seem to have forgotten: we are still there. But now we face an equally devastating threat not in the form of those others over there who threaten us back, but in the form of what amounts to a pattern of collective suicidal behavior. The ‘we’ or the ‘us’ that I have in mind is conjured up in that simple Sanskrit word namaste, which, when spoken, conveys the message that the divine light within me acknowledges the light that is within you. Deep within, we are the same. Smile. Laugh. Lighten up. How absurd we are when we got so excited that we want to fight, even kill one another. From the moon we’re comedy.
And if we need a reminder, all we need do is look up in the sky and see that barren sphere that orbits our planet daily. Would it not be absurd if the sum total of all our efforts was to leave the earth looking like that cratered wasteland?