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Copenhagen Won't Be Enough -- Only a 'Human Movement' Can Save Civilization from the Climate Crisis

A strange cloud envelops human civilization as its leaders fail to take the measures to protect it in Copenhagen that they themselves endorsed just five months ago.

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Few people's cognitive frameworks include concern about "the environment," let alone its future impacts. It is indeed an "abstraction," as Gore has said. But most people's cognitive maps do include a deep concern for their children's future, a concern expressed in the present, not future. Thus they begin saving after their children are born for their college education, or thus an aged grandfather works 40 hours a week to buy a computer for his 4-year-old granddaughter's future which he will never see. A "human movement" would focus on people's very real and tangible concerns not only for their kids' future, but that of their nation and world.

The scientific and environmental debates are critical, and must continue. But we also need a far more profound human and existential conversation that engages philosophers, poets, writers, thinkers, artists, songwriters, moviemakers, church leaders, spiritual teachers, academics, students and the great publics of the world in deciding the life or death of our species.

In an ideal world, we might hope that a President Obama, who has not yet leveled with Americans about the existential issues they face, would hold a series of "fireside chats" explaining how we are threatened even more by climate change than terrorism or war, and--in the mode of a wartime leader--seek to mobilize our nation to confront it.

It is likely, however, that only if those outside the system act first will our leaders respond with the tough measures we need. Gore's reference to the civil-rights movement is apt.

We have somehow managed thus far to avoid using nuclear weapons since Hiroshima without changing the consciousness that produced them. But Einstein's insight has now become the organizing principle for solving the human climate crisis. Only if we can literally "see the world anew" will our civilization survive.

Although so-called climate-change alarmists are often accused of pessimism, they are in fact hopeful, believing that once they know the truth, people will sacrifice today so their kids can live tomorrow. Those who deny the crisis, or who understand it but propose half-measures, are the pessimists. They operate within the consciousness that has produced the problem.

But they are likely selling human beings short. Women and men have responded since the beginning of time to heroic missions, and the greatest irony of our time is that what we most fear today can be our greatest salvation. Moving to avert climate change is America's only serious hope for creating a new clean-energy economy which can, after a period of short-term sacrifice, produce unprecedented wealth and dramatically extend life spans. It will also require the kind of unprecedented global cooperation of which humans have long dreamed, and that can then be extended to promote peace and reduce poverty.

And, perhaps most significantly, making climate change a human issue will provide unprecedented opportunities to find meaning in life. Precisely because we are the first generation to so threaten the future, we are also the first who can take actions that will live on in the hearts of our descendants for all human time to come. Though we will neither hear their voices nor see their faces, we will find deep meaning now in knowing that all who follow us later will owe their lives to our wisdom and mercy, and celebrate us for having acted in their moment of greatest need.

Some object that facing today's grim climate realities will only increase "psychic numbing" and denial. But present approaches are not succeeding, and if telling the truth fails, we are doomed anyway. And most people usually do act to save themselves once they acknowledge the threat they face. We will only know if humanity will choose life over death when it understands that this is its choice.

 
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