Can thinking change climate change?

“We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.”

-Lord Rutherford

While I’m off exploring Wisconsin’s thumb, John Ingham has kindly agreed to step in and pick up some of the slack. As usual, he’s asking big, important questions few people think or dare to ask. John’s post is another fine addition to Climate Chronicle’s Inner Climate file. Submit your comments and I’ll make sure they’re shared with other thoughtful readers.

-Rick

The human race — or that portion of it which is paying attention — has suffered a profound shock. Until very recently, our past was much shorter than our future. Our past may stretch back thousands or millions of years, depending on how you count. But we’ve generally considered our future to be limitless. We thought we would pass our family keepsakes on for countless generations. We’d overcome disease and aging. We’d travel among the stars, and meet with sports leagues from other galaxies. Like Energizer Bunnies, we’d just keep on going. Didn’t the size of the universe implicitly symbolize the size of our future?

Now we’re getting irrefutable first-hand evidence that the climate is beginning to rip apart our relatively pastoral world, making it much less hospitable to human life. How rapidly this will devolve and how bad things will get is impossible to pinpoint, and still depends in part on our behavior, but it’s looking as though life as we’ve known it — nurtured by a generous and generally predictable “mother nature” — is about at an end.

What do we do?

Some people have begun to do things to “combat” climate change, from buying low-energy light bulbs to choosing lifestyle options that reduce use of fossil fuels. Some people are learning (or teaching) survival skills. Others are organizing communities around self-sustaining models. Businesses everywhere are developing eco-friendly products, or at least re-casting their wares as “green.”

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

My own life has changed in this regard. Instead of ambling through a leisurely retirement, I’m trying to learn how to grow as much of our food as I can. I’m making new connections among my neighbors in the expectation that we will all need to help each other in the years ahead. I am trying to cultivate special skills that might be useful to a small, local community.

Whether any of this will make a difference, I have no idea. The next tornado or flood that comes through our township (and we have been visited by both in recent years) could whisk us away to neverland.

I imagine I’m not alone in feeling distraught, trying to figure things out by myself. If we had not allowed our society to disintegrate so shockingly, we might be getting some informed guidance from our educational institutions and our government. But our schools are fighting just to keep the doors open, and our morally bankrupt government is busy bombing innocent people in irrelevant wars.

What do we think?

While we have a panoply of “action items” to keep us occupied, we have had little or no guidance in what to think about our grave situation. There has been a dearth of public discussion about how to incorporate the looming specter of global warming into our thinking; no attempt to contextualize it and make it fit in our lives. But it seems to me that how we think about global warming can determine how intelligently and effectively we deal with it.

Like the three blind men trying to describe an elephant, we have been dealing with fragments and misconceptions. If we could accurately describe the beast in its entirety, we might organize a concerted and informed plan of action.

First, think; then do. Sound sensible?

Lots of people apparently don’t think about global warming at all.  They’re flying to Vegas. They’re building more ATV trails. They’re finding new ways to extravagantly pursue leisure.

Perhaps they’re in the first stage of Doctor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief, the process by which people deal with death and other tragedy: first denial, then anger, typically followed by bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.

A fairly new online journal, Ecopsychology, explores the environment’s effect on people’s psychological well-being, and suggests that many people are depressed, if not by the climate situation in general, then by discrete climate events, such as Hurricane Katrina and its effects. One paper’s finding maintains that people who are engaged in ecologically sustainable activities are happier than those who aren’t.

I have been solidly depressed by global warming for a long time. When I initially talked with my doctor about it, I asked him if he was seeing other patients who were depressed as a result of the climate news. “You’re the first,” he told me.

“Will you let me know when you start getting some cases?” I asked. Eight years later,  no new complaints. Meanwhile, though still depressed, I have moved on to acceptance of the situation, and am definitely engaged in “ecologically sustainable activities.” Which perhaps makes me less depressed than I would otherwise be.

Survey says…

When I find the opportunity, I ask people what they think about climate change.  One friend, on the cusp of retirement, asked, “Do you think it’ll get here before we check out?” I think a lot of older people just want to outrun it.

Another friend, who runs a university program for beginning farmers, rolled his eyes but had not a word to say. Most people claim they have no opinion.  A few, like Wisconsin candidate for U.S. Senate Ron Johnson, claim that climate change is just sunspots.

When I do get an intelligent reply, it’s usually from someone who works closely with the land. They can see the changes, and it scares them.

Institutional thought

I have been curious about what churchgoers think, and about what “official” positions churches might take on global warming. So I asked my long-time friend, a recently retired Lutheran pastor, Dr. John Krueger, beloved shepherd of flocks in California and Arizona, what was up in his bailiwick. He thought that his parishioners weren’t much concerned

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

about climate change per se, but shared a belief that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent because of the increasing evil, decadence and tribulation in the world.

Would the worthies be raptured, as in the Left Behind book series? Baptists and many others believe in a rapture followed by a second coming for the also-rans, John told me. Lutherans (and many others) believe in a one-shot return, wherein all people would proceed directly to Judgment Day.

John even polled his colleagues: “I asked some pastors about this.  Neither the conservative nor the liberal nor the middle-of-the-road pastor indicated that his/her denomination has said much of anything about global warming.  Neither has the LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).”

My conclusion: Christians seem to be leaving things to God to figure out.

What do you think? What will you do?

What and how should we think about global warming? Will invention and technical innovation save us? Is it the end of civilization, or a whole new planet, as Bill McKibben maintains in his newest book, Eaarth?  Is it God’s work — or a human problem? Does it go away when you ignore it? What do your children think?

We need to talk about it. We need public discussion in order to develop a coherent view of global warming, and a concerted approach to deal with it.

What about you, dear reader? What’s your take on global warming, and how does it affect your life? What are you doing about it, and what do you think we should do as a society?

Thanks in advance for your opinions and insights. They may make all the difference in the world.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. This post certainly provoked me into thinking! And I have a few comments.

    First, I’m a scientist, and I’ve followed the climate change/global warming data and discussion for many years. Scientifically, we see things happening, but at this point, no one can do more than make exceedingly general predictions about how the future will unfold. Humans everywhere will be affected, but we have precious few solid details upon which to base effective and practical countermeasures. This makes if very difficult to harness the political will to effect changes that will really make a difference.

    Next, I believe that the vast majority of people have very little if any real understanding of what climate change involves and means. It’s science and therefore considered largely inaccessible. For most, it’s something they’ve heard mentioned, and they may have a vague feeling about it being “bad,” but it seems to complicated to take further.

    In addition, when faced with such a huge side effect of human actions, people feel overwhelmed. If they think about it at any length, they probably start to feel not only helpless, but hopeless. People can’t live in a state of hopelessness. We shrug off the knowledge that we’re each fated to die, because it’s inimical to life to consider not being alive. We know there are lions out there, but we keep the fire going and hope they stay away.

    Also, it’s in our nature to pay most attention to the here and now and the short-term future. Do I have enough food for today? For next month? How can I distract myself from the harshness of life for a few minutes or hours? We learn to avoid touching a hot stove or a poisonous plant, but we just don’t generate much urgency about things that are likely to hurt us years from now, especially if they’re not concrete and have not already been encountered. Some people are better at incorporating future consequences into daily thinking. Many are pretty poor at it. Most of the time, rightly or wrongly, we just continue what we’ve been doing and believe that we’ll be able to continue doing it.

    A corollary to this is that a subset of humans will always be greedy and interested strictly in themselves, and of course, in a very short-term way. They will not be stopped from polluting, from fleecing investors, from killing for gain, plus a zillion other smaller expressions of greed. Their pressures will go far to keep us on our current track.

    I don’t see that overall our responses are likely to change much unless each individual experiences daily, concrete reasons to change. Frankly, a lot of the necessary changes are going to be unpleasant or at least not what we’d like, and most will not willingly choose those changes, especially if the payoff is not crystal clear.

    When I think about all this, I keep seeing the classic boom-and-bust cycles of basic ecology. The grass is abundant, so the rabbits breed a lot, and the owls eat lots of rabbits. The grass is decimated by the rabbits, and between the owls and the lack of grass, the rabbits are decimated. The owls are decimated from a lack of rabbits. And the whole cycle starts again.

  2. John
    You continue to make me think. I have heard the opinion from several intelligent people (more educated than me) that global warming is a crock, that I was lulled into a hopeful stupor. I began to think that global warmists were nutcases and alarmists. Now however, I feel in my bones that a change has begun. Maybe it is a huge cycle, but I don’t see it ending well for humans unless we all wake up and change. I don’t however see that happening, so I believe that those who are alarmed need to come together and lobby until laws are enacted and enforced to make the needed changes. In the meantime I believe that each of us/each household needs to carefully examine how we live and make the changes we can. We can also encourage our employers to do the same. I for one believe that we humans are the ones who need to find solutions. My belief is that the Higher Power resides in each one of us and will help us find our balance both internally and externally. We just need to tune in to the quiet, common sense we can find within, which is also mirrored in our first teacher, Mother Earth.

  3. John:

    Thanks for initiating discussion about this important issue. When I have more time (after Nov. 2), I will try to contribute a few thoughts from an economics perspective. But for now I offer only one, namely, that we focus on the problem, not its cause. By trying to identify sources of climate change, we not only dissipate our efforts but may also fail to identify the best solution. That is, just because human activities appear to be a primary cause of climate change, that does not necessarily imply that reversing those activities is the optimal solution–it may be, but not necessarily. For example, if the source were a natural phenomenon such as a volcanic eruption, I doubt that we would focus on capping the volcano.

  4. Cindy,
    I don’t know why some seemingly intelligent people deny climate change. Sometimes they have businesses that will suffer if climate change is acknowledged. I also think some people simply can’t face the enormity of the changes we’re confronted with. The physical evidence of global warming is massive and undeniable. And virtually all the scientists in the world agree that we are undergoing a human-caused global warming. What would the world’s scientists gain by conspiring to lie about it?

    I agree with you that it’s high time for action. Legislators are short-term thinkers, so as long as they can look out their windows and see a sunny day, the issue is not urgent to them. I have been trying for years to get our area’s legislators to take the lead in fighting global warming. “You could lead the movement! You could be a hero!” I tell them. I guess they don’t want to be heroes.

    Ordinary people can do a lot on the individual and community levels, but it still takes tops-down legislation to make the big changes we need. Climate change writer Bill McKibben (350.org), along with the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace USA, are calling for the building of a “grass-roots” movement that government and the large corporations will have to deal with. Here are the details: http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/we-need-your-ideas-a-call-for-direct-action-in-the-climate-movement

    Thanks for your thoughts and ideas, Cindy.

  5. To Meg the scientist:
    Thank you very much for your informed perspective. You’re right that we don’t know how this climate drama will unfold; that is, in what order which catastrophes will hit us, and how hard. And at this point, it’s impossible for people to stop climate change in its tracks. So it’s difficult for a politician or a government to say, “Everybody has to start living on 20 percent of the energy they are used to consuming. And if you do that, life will still get worse.” I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for that.

    You’re right, too, Meg, about people thinking in the short term. There have been times in the past when we were somewhat longer-term thinkers. Pioneers knew they had to produce enough food in the summer to supply their family all winter. Villages in wartime Europe were seen to protect their communal seed grain for spring planting, even though eating it in the dark of winter would have saved lives…for a little while.

    We have been trained to be even shorter-term thinkers by the social safety net (now unraveling) which has traditionally rushed in after disasters to make boo-boos all better. Corporations make decisions based on quarterly reports. Insurance, including unemployment insurance, softens many of life’s blows.

    But all that is ending, and people have to be helped to learn how to take care of themselves. Specifically, they need to learn how to feed and shelter themselves, and that takes longer-term thinking than they are used to. This is where government, locally and nationally, can help people, through education in survival skills. And scientists, though they’ve been treated shamefully by the recent Bush administration, could do a better job of communicating what they know about climate change to the public. They needn’t wait until every detail is perfectly clear. Thank you, Meg, for your insights.

  6. To John Simonson,
    Best of luck in your contest for Wisconsin’s 51st District Assembly seat. Thanks for taking time from your busy campaign schedule to give us your analysis. You may be right that the best course of action involves something other than stopping our use of fossil fuels. So far, I haven’t heard what that action might be.

    Some experts are beginning to say that human effort is irrelevant at this point, and I agree that there’s no stopping the beast. But when people finally begin to catch on, I think they’re going to want to try to do what they can to make things better (or less worse) and to live longer. That effort involves reducing CO2 output and drastically changing lifestyles. I look forward to your further insights and action plans once you’re elected.

  7. For some reason, I find John Ingham’s column profoundly reassuring and calming. I have been thinking about global climate change for a long time. I gave up my car in 1985, my television set somewhat after that, but I still travel and use the internet, and my computer, quite a bit. I have not been able to reconcile these and other discrepancies in my life. I need to travel to visit my mother and my son. I do not NEED to travel otherwise, but know that my life would be less meaningful, to me, without travel. I do feel that more and better mass transit would enable me, and everyone, to live fuller lives, along with better and cheaper energy saving measures. I think John’s column is helping me see that it’s not unusual to be frustrated by the ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in dealing with global change.

    Oh, and, by the way, it’s not “going to start” in some distant future. It’s here.

  8. Terri,

    It looks as though changes in our physical world are overtaking human society’s ability to comprehend them, much less deal with them. If you gave up your car a quarter-century ago, that puts you in the vanguard of people who are aware of what’s going on.

    You’re absolutely right that the situation is fraught with ambiguities and paradoxes. There seem to be no easy answers, no “path of righteousness,” especially on a personal level. Lifestyle changes that might fit one person may be impossible for another. What’s right for me is to keep learning as much as I can about the swiftly changing state of the world, to help communicate that information to others, and to make the changes I can in my own life that are responsive to the earth’s needs. I don’t pretend that I’m significantly helping the planet; but I am helping myself. I think it’s important for one’s mental health to do what one can, and then look for some degree of contentment.

    Thanks, Terri, for your expansion of the discussion.