…We can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today….To all the politicians that pretend to take the climate question seriously, to all of you who know but choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent the catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself… Please treat the crisis as the crisis it is and give us a future.
When I entered my interdisciplinary environmental graduate program, I already had years of work experience behind me as well as a lifetime of informal environmental education. I recognized the grim ecological picture. Some of my professors, however, were quick to admonish, “We can’t be gloom and doom.” Their other refrain was, “We can’t go back.” They offered no evidence for those two prescriptions with regard to the climate and ecological crises, yet their commands were common among environmental scholars. More than a decade later, we face far more dismal prospects for the future of humanity, but we are still loath to truly address them.
Doom and Gloom
In 1972, the Club of Rome, a consortium of scientists, economists, politicians, diplomats, and industrialists, produced a lengthy scientific report entitled Limits to Growth. Their work predicted a collapse of the human population due to our unchecked economic growth and resource depletion. While their estimates were condemned as alarmist and overreaching, independent researchers have updated the report for the 50th anniversary of the club’s inception, and have largely found that the conclusions from the original still hold.
Nevertheless, in July of 2017, David Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” about the worst-case scenarios resulting from the climate catastrophe created an uproar. Frenzied scientists and science communicators (positivity adherents one and all) raced to the media to denounce the highly accurate piece as scare-mongering, even as they could not dispute the validity of the information therein.
Then came the most recent report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which, more than any of their other previous papers, finally conveyed the true immediacy and urgency of the climate crisis. It largely validated Wallace-Wells’ assessment of impeding large-scale catastrophe to all of humanity if we do not act promptly. For some of the more muted voices who study, work on, or otherwise follow the many environmental crises concurrently embroiling (and broiling) our planet, the IPCC report was surprising, not because of how drastically it portrayed the severity of the predicament we are in, but because of how it no longer pulled any punches about our dire circumstance. While still likely conservative in its forecast, as scientific predictions tend to be, this assessment finally painted the very bleak picture in store for us all if we don’t change our way of life radically and immediately.
The staunch belief in the field of science communication, based upon a small number of studies, is that depicting the climate problem as it stands makes it appear too big and overwhelming, which incites hopelessness and inaction. Thus, we must keep the information simple and hopeful in order to effect change.
Indeed, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update supported these notions in the wake of the IPCC news:
Colin Jost: Scientists basically published an obituary for the earth this week and people were like, “Yeah, but like what does Taylor Swift think about it”….We don’t really worry about climate change because it is too overwhelming and we’re already in too deep.
Michael Che: That story has been stressing me out all week. I just keep asking myself “Why don’t I care about this?” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I 100% believe in climate change yet I am willing to do absolutely nothing about it.
On first glance, it would seem that the science communication scholars are correct: the devastatingly huge nature of the problem leads to despair and inaction. But is that really what we are seeing? Are we seeing despair – or denial? I don’t mean the sort of denial that claims climate change is not occurring at all or that it is a natural phenomenon. I am talking about denial in the form of not willing to admit that you, personally, have a role to play in the problem and in the solution – that in addition to so many changes necessary on large-scale political, economic, industrial, occupational, and social levels, every one of us also needs to change our way of life in innumerable ways, and none more so than the wealthy.
One of the issues with the science communication research that emphasizes carefully crafting optimistic messages about environmental crises so that people will act on solutions is that it tacitly assumes that solutions have been articulated. How can we conclude that people’s despondency results in inaction when very few real actions have been offered? All that we offer are minimal, usually consumer-based alterations to what we buy. As we can see, these small, manageable, incremental changes have done nothing. Perhaps that is where the despair comes from? Al Gore’s conclusion in The Inconvenient Truth gave us recommendations to change our light bulbs and drive hybrid cars. This sort of advice, while Gore himself hypocritically continues to own multiple large homes and travel around the world with the excuse of educating the public about the crisis, rings false because it is false. The truth is that the public has not taken action because no one dares to explain what to do, and no one dares to explain what to do because what to do inevitably involves radical changes to the daily lives of the majority of people in the western world, most especially the richest among us who contribute the most to all of our ecological calamities. But even more importantly, no one with money, power, and influence dares to walk the walk when it comes to personal environmental action.
Truth and Consequences
The climate crisis, as many other environmental issues, isn’t a scientific problem; it is a social, political, and economic one. As they say, “it isn’t rocket science.” It is greed. A Green New Deal will not cut it because it leaves capitalism, corporatism, imperialism, and consumerism in place. We aren’t going to “science” our way out of these crises. We can’t advertise or market our way out, shop our way out, sing and dance or entertain our way out, fundraise our way out, engineer (and genetically engineer) our way out, protest our way out, text, tweet, snapchat or instagram our way out, pray our way out, or even vote our way out. Our way out is to dramatically alter much of our way of life. It is to prioritize ecological concerns and do our best to conduct every aspect of our lives sustainably, rather than just pay lip service to our belief that climate change is real or that plastic pollution is a problem or that fossil fuel use is unsustainable. In many, if not most ways, we just simply need to stop. Our way of life is incompatible with the continuance of life.
Donald Trump blatantly admitted to prioritizing the multibillion-dollar sale of arms to Saudi Arabia over the life of an assassinated journalist (not to mention the lives of millions of Yemeni people). While Trump overtly admits placing the importance of economic values over social and environmental ones, the rest of us do much the same every day as we go about our “normal” lives and activities without considering their proximal and distant repercussions.
We know well the myriad problems – global climate change, extinction of species, ecosystem disruption, overuse of natural resources, massive pollution from toxicants and plastic. Scientists have done a wonderful job of documenting the fall™, but they have not offered many concrete solutions besides ending our use of fossil fuels and placing restrictions on certain toxics and pollutants so that they continue to harm us and our ecosystems chronically rather than acutely.
A far from exhaustive list of some of the things we might try to accomplish, personally and collectively, in order to avert total climate catastrophe (and tackle other environmental issues) is in the appendixto this piece. Suffice it to say, much of what we are used to in our lives is antithetical to sustainable life and probably has to go. Besides reduce, reuse, and recycle, we should add slow down, simplify, and stop.
Our modern technological, consumerist, lifestyle must be massively curbed. We may not be able to curtail environmental disaster completely, but we can at least try to greatly mitigate and adapt to it while also addressing poverty and massive inequality and attempting to reduce the suffering and pain of as many people as possible. Changes that would help the environment and changes that would bring more social justice go hand in hand, because it is precisely the industries, occupations, and lifestyles of the rich that create the enormous environmental, economic, and social crises. Therefore, restraining or removing their enterprises is the ultimate solution to our troubles.
As it is, market forces that enrich the wealthiest not only permit, but demand that food goes wasted rather than to the hungry, that clothing is destroyed rather than worn by those who have need for it, and that homes are left empty rather than housing the millions of homeless and marginally-sheltered around the country. This sort of economic model should be unconscionable because it is not only morally reprehensible but ecologically unsustainable. And we are all complicit in this when we work for these companies and industries that allow for such atrocity.
Along his current book tour, Chris Hedges seems to be repeating a (paraphrased) quotation from Sartre: “I don’t fight fascists because I think I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists.” Similarly, there are people who live every moment of their lives with environmental sustainability in mind. They might say “I don’t live this way because I will save the world; I live this way because it is the only way to live.” In both cases, while the individual choice is a moral and ethical one, if we all, or at least the majority of us, were to come closer to making those moral and ethical choices, we might have a fighting chance against both fascism and environmental devastation.
Besides which … Are you happy? Polls and surveys suggest that the answer to that question for the vast majority of Americans is a resounding “No.” While the poor struggle to get by day to day, what’s left of the middle class live paycheck to paycheck. And even the upper-middle class and rich are not completely satisfied, probably because they have actual experience that money does not buy happiness in an atomized, unjust, and environmentally degraded world. But they will never admit to this reality and will continue to strive for more wealth and dominance in a futile quest to fill the voids in their lives.
All of those I know who are truly despairing about the environmental situation are the same people who are doing the most about it. Their desperation comes not as much from the overwhelming nature of the problem, but more from the fact that so many around them do not seem to notice or care.
Nearly all of the changes that can potentially help mitigate our environmental crises will also mitigate our social crises and our misery. So exactly why are so many people so reluctant to change? The mega-rich generated their massive fortunes by exploiting the environment and all of us, so clearly they are averse to change. For them to change, the rest of us will have to work together to force their hands. But what is everyone else’s excuse, given that we are all so unhappy and unsatisfied? Why can’t we seem to give up our palliatives (shopping, driving, television, social media, selfies, online gaming, etc.) that wreck our ecosystems as well as our physical and psychological well-being?
Scientists’ best estimates suggest Homo sapiens, the species of modern humans, emerged between 300-200 thousand years ago. While we are an extremely young species in the context of geological time, we have nonetheless exacted a powerful toll on the planet during our relatively short stint here on Earth. The majority of that toll only occurred in the past few hundred years. Not only have we altered geology, chemistry, and biology across the globe, we have left a wasteland of ecosystem destruction, species decimation, acute and chronic toxic pollution, and of course, global climate change. But these alterations were not inevitable.
For most of our 200,000 years, Homo sapiens, like the other species living among us, affected local areas in limited ways that were not completely detrimental and irreversible. We didn’t leave traces of persistent organic pollutants at the poles of the globe, having manufactured and used them thousands of miles away. We didn’t leave radioactive vessels at the bottom of the ocean and heaps of radioactive materials in piles that we hope will not be touched for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. We didn’t deforest and desertify swathes of land the size of states and countries. We didn’t drastically reduce the number of insects and pollinators of our food supply. We didn’t kill the majority of species of large mammals. We didn’t leave a supply of chemical and plastic waste in the oceans, the quantity of which will soon outnumber the productive biota of the sea. And we didn’t drastically alter the gaseous concentrations of the atmosphere, thereby transforming the entire planetary climate. Some humans never did.
To be sure, not all humans created this problem. Ironically, it is the ones who have all but been obliterated across the globe – the indigenous – who hold the keys to our salvation. They did not exploit natural resources to the point of collapse; they honored and respected other species and their place in our global ecosystem. They considered more than quarterly earnings; they considered the consequences of their daily actions and looked forward toward the preservation of life for a minimum of seven generations of their people. Rather than revere the psychopathic, narcissistic, members of society who hoard all of the wealth, resources, and power to the detriment of people and planet, many indigenous cultures would shun and ostracize them. This is not an exaltation of the myth of the “noble savage.” Even the current IPCC report advises that indigenous knowledge and wisdom have important roles to play if we are to survive.
It is not inexorable that human activity will obliterate all life on earth. There are subsets of our species who lived, and still live, largely sustainably on the planet. These indigenous cultures are models for different, more viable alternatives. We should be striving to adjust our lives to be more like theirs rather than forcing them to adopt our corruptive, toxic, homicidal, and suicidal paradigms. All evidence suggests that we do, indeed, need to “go back,” or at the very least, massively scale back.
Right before I received my doctoral degree, I had to meet with the graduate dean for a sort of exit interview. Seeing my field of study, she commented, “So, you are going to go out there and save us.” No. There are no individuals of any field or discipline who can save us. Likewise, to combat utter ecological devastation, people often say “we need our leaders to step up.” If it is not abundantly clear by now, our leaders have little incentive to do anything, and they have accomplished appallingly less.
The truth is, we must all take the lead. We must eat, sleep, and breathe with our environment in mind. In doing so, we will have to support one another in a battle against the rich and powerful who resist – with more fervor than any other type of resistance – all of the changes necessary that might stand half a chance of making this world more equitable and ecologically sound. We should do so not because we will necessarily save the world, but because as moral, ethical, rational, human beings, how can we not do so? And we do so because, unless we are mere sociopaths, we are clear about the truth of our situation and the consequences of not doing so.
Kristine Mattis received her PhD in Environmental Studies. As an interdisciplinary environmental scholar with a background in biology, earth system science, and policy, her research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the U.S. Congressional Record, and as a science and health teacher. She can be reached at: [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.