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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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The successful nuclear freeze campaign of the 1980s provides important lessons for today. What motivated it and reached so many people were openly discussed life-and-death concerns. The campaign's central document was Carl Sagan's "nuclear winter" article in Foreign Affairs, which clearly described the horrific impacts of nuclear war. The campaign also teaches that while it is necessary to reach the general public, human issues are the key to mobilizing those who accept the science, and upon whose action our salvation will depend.

It may be that if our civilization does survive, future historians will see similarities between these years and the "phony war" period in the 1930s. Then, too, isolationist nationalists prevented their society from meeting a growing threat; then, too, a divided America saw enormous numbers of citizens faced unprecedented joblessness and lowered living standards; then, too, the wealthy and powerful initially resisted the very idea that fair and shared sacrifice was necessary to save their nation.

But reality rules and, as McKibben has rightly noted, "You can't negotiate with the planet." Sooner or later, Americans and their leaders will be forced to take the human climate crisis seriously.

It may, tragically, be too late at that point. But if there is a chance to save human civilization, success then may well depend upon the groundwork we lay now--including planning for the transition to a clean-energy economy, preparing policies to meet growing human needs and, above all, helping people understand the real human stakes involved for themselves and their children.

We need now a great national conversation about the human implications of climate change, conducted across at least seven dimensions: (1) Hope: Is there a strategy that can avoid the death of our civilization? (2) Philosophical: Can humans value long-term survival over short-term economic growth? (3) Psychological: Do we care enough about our children to end our denial of the risk we pose to their future? (4) Economic and social: Can we sacrifice and share in the short run so as to create a strong, new clean-energy economy in the long run? (5) Spiritual and moral: Can we tap into our deep but presently latent spiritual concern for future generations? (6) Political: Is there a new human politics that can reach more people? (7) Global: Can a new consciousness create the new global climate governance institutions we need?

There is much reason to answer "yes" to each of these questions. A new "human movement" would take such issues directly to the people. Basing itself on climate science, it might, for example, sponsor university teach-ins and town halls around the general theme of "The Human Implications of the Climate Crisis," posing such questions as "How must society change to prevent the end of civilization as we know it?" "What does it mean that we are the first generation in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our own children?" "How much are we willing to sacrifice so that civilization will not die in our children's lifetimes?" If we would be willing to unite in times of war, how can we justify not doing so as to face a climate threat even greater than world war?

A "human movement" would see teach-ins on every campus and meetings in every town that discuss the human implications of climate change, as well as the science; an artistic and intellectual outpouring, with the imagery and imagination focused on people as well as melting glaciers, preserving human civilization as well as "the environment"; giant advertising campaigns focusing on existential issues, e.g., "If you would donate a kidney so your children could live today, would you not support a clean-energy tax so they can live tomorrow?"; and grassroots education and organizing campaigns that would take such questions into living rooms across our nation.

 
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