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.

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A lesson too late for the learning*

“The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.”

-Lord Byron

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

I first met John Ingham, the author of this post, at a poetry reading in Spring Green, Wisconsin several years ago, where he read aloud the poem I shared with readers in an earlier post. He reminded me then a little bit of John the Baptist, and it wasn’t just his facial hair and dusty clothes. He looked a little wild about the eyes–and a little defeated. He looked like a man who knew too much. John doesn’t wear hair shirts or eat wild locusts, but he does live close to the land and has long been a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. I believe he is a prophet for our times. It is written that a prophet is not without honor but in his own country. Here, John shares a little bit about his experience trying, with little apparent success, to get his neighbors to wake up and pay attention to what’s happening before it’s too late. Although he’s not getting in people’s faces anymore and urging them to repent–he’s really a soft-spoken man–we would all do well to heed his new message. I hope we will hear more from John in the days ahead.

-Rick

I think it’s all over for our civilization. We’ve twiddled our thumbs for too long, and global warming is rapidly approaching full rampage mode. Nevertheless, I continue to try to lower my “energy footprint.” And I make an effort to spread the word, to urge people to action.

Last week a friend asked why I bothered, if I thought things were hopeless. “Why not go on an orgy of consumption? Or hole up like a hermit, with a cache of ammo to beat back the starving hordes?”

It is tempting to give a flip answer. But after serious thought, I have to blame my perhaps irrational activities on Scrooge McDuck and Pimwee the Jungle Boy. This calls for further explanation and some backtracking.

I am a scribbler by trade and not a meteorologist. Nevertheless, it was during the 1980s that I started asking people, “Isn’t the weather changing? Isn’t it acting strange?”

There was a great shrug of shoulders. But I came across a theory which claimed that historically, we have experienced alternating patterns — 75 years of tame, temperate weather followed by 125 years of more extreme, less predictable stuff. Oh. Too bad, but not disastrous, I thought.

In the late 1990s I started paying fresh attention to alarming reports about dying coral reefs, vanishing phytoplankton, the migration of animals and plants as their preferred temperatures moved away from the equator. The riots of invasive species. The threat or eruption of pandemics. I found substantive information in the foreign press, and from books like Red Sky at Morning, by James Speth, The Future in Plain Sight, by Eugene Linden, and plenty more.

During the summer of 2000, the dime dropped. It became suddenly apparent that unless we did something drastic and soon, we humans were about to see our civilization disintegrate.  I started spreading the word, with editorials, articles, community action groups, even poetry and songs. Surely, I thought, people who so treasured their past (love of Civil War history, indiscriminate veneration of Shakespeare, fat scrapbooking of family trees) would equally treasure their future. For all of recorded time, each generation has struggled for the sake of better prospects for their children and grandchildren.

No more. Virtually none of the people I talked to cared to acknowledge or discuss global warming in any way whatsoever.

A Change of Strategy

In 2008, I gave up trying to spread the word, because the word was out everywhere — receiving lip service even in mainstream publications, alongside ads promoting exotic air travel to foreign fun spots and powerful new ATVs, alongside occasional political pledges to look into climate remedies that “wouldn’t hurt the economy.” Next to science articles touting magical technical advances and inventions that would make driving and healthcare and space travel more thrilling and rewarding in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, nature began turning nasty and started trying to peel our underwear off. Blizzards, violent rainstorms, tornadoes and floods began to increase rapidly; not just in the national news, but in my community. Floodwater filled our hillside basement. Critter-borne diseases spread. A mosquito carrying West Nile Virus killed my father-in-law.

People lined up for government disaster relief while they planned their annual summer vacations. When I mentioned at parties that we would all have to reduce our personal use of fossil-fueled energy by 80 percent, I could feel myself mentally crossed off guest lists.

And now, in 2010? If governments and citizens globally woke up tomorrow and acknowledged the threat and committed themselves to restructure their lives to accommodate the planet’s needs, perhaps we could preserve some semblance of our civilization. Otherwise, I think we’re done for. Game over. We’re riding a boat too big to turn around.

These days, instead of tugging people’s sleeves about global warming, I’m trying to promote the idea of public education that will help prepare those who care to survive the coming trials. How to feed, shelter and defend themselves when the current distribution systems and assistance programs crumble. Shockingly few people, especially young people, know how to grow or cook food. They don’t know how to use tools. They have no idea what the earth has to offer in the way of sustenance and shelter.  Public schools could help, but high school home ec and shop classes are largely a thing of the past. Our own school district, strapped for cash, would rather spend money on new $500 football uniforms than on practical education.

When I was little, Scrooge McDuck, in the popular graphic literature, was always visiting exotic places, trying to discover or retrieve lost fortunes. The people there — in the Tibetan mountains, or the jungles of Brazil, were depicted as exotic, primitive, totally unlike us. In second grade, our Social Studies text examined in depth the life of Pimwee, a fictitious “Indian” lad in the Amazon basin. Pimwee was happy living like an animal among the vines, and obviously would never have the same needs, desires or interests as we privileged children in America. We were a different breed.

Scrooge and Pimwee set the tone for a lifetime of propaganda that taught us we could consume as much of everything as we wanted, without worrying whether other people were getting their share. Because they weren’t really people like us. Or because their needs were simpler. Or because they could have what we had if they worked for it. Because there was plenty of everything and we would never run out. And if we did, we deserved the lion’s share because God favored us. And we could afford to pay for it.

As I grew up among these attitudes, something inside me kept whispering that it couldn’t be right. That it’s not all right to dump trash in your neighbor’s ravine. Or to kill animals for sport. Or to look on any group of people anywhere as somehow less important than yourself. That same voice protests waste. Consuming more than you need. Hoarding. Selfishness. Wanton destruction. Putting on airs.

Maybe you have grown up with a similar voice. It’s not very loud, so usually it’s easy to suppress, and model your behavior and beliefs by the actions of those around you. But as it turns out, people have been wrong. Dead wrong.

So now I promote elementary survival education — self-sufficiency and community building. I do this partly for self-preservation, because the better prepared the people around me are to survive tough times, the more likely it is that I will survive as well.

A Simple Focus

But my main motivation for caring about a future we probably don’t have is atonement. If I can make up, just a little, for the harm I have caused our planet, and the hardships I have helped deal our children, the better I will feel. When I embrace and talk to the ancient prairie oak in my yard, conversation is difficult.  When I stand on the ridge at the north edge of the pasture and confront the rumpled hills and the roiling sky, I feel ashamed. If there is time to improve that relationship, that’s all I can hope for at this unhappy stage.

So my message, after all this, is that we need to learn to provide for ourselves and our neighbors in these parlous times. But perhaps most of all, we need to learn how to say we’re sorry.

Singer Tom Paxton speaks to the earth for me:

You’ve got reasons aplenty for going,

This I know, this I know.

For the weeds have been steadily growing.

Please don’t go, please don’t go.

And also tenders my apology:

I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind.

That was the last thing on my mind.

*(from “Last Thing on My Mind,” by Tom Paxton)

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