"I believe that the purpose of life is to expand our own moral imagination ..."
Mary Pipher's "Wake Up! Our World Is Dying and We're All in Denial"
is just the most recent of many articles trying to address the immense gulf between the seriousness of the climate crisis and the political and public indifference. Most of the articles by scientists and activists take the movement to task for soft pedaling the true gravity of our situation. Pipher's stands out as different. But first some context.
It is quite true that scientists in particular, but also many activists have grossly understated the extent of the crisis. This is usually justified with the usual bromides that it is necessary to underplay the seriousness of climate change to prevent people from becoming paralysed with despair. There are numerous problems with this approach.
First, however well meant, the fact remains that it is a lie. Any action that begins with a lie is necessarily at least suspect, if not to be rejected outright as clearly the wrong way to create a more just and rational society.
Further, the underlying premise is that once people take some action, they will feel more empowered and are then ready to take even more action. The fact is that it is more likely that once they realize that they were mislead and manipulated, they will lose all trust and stop taking any action at all, if they ever did.
Then there is the obvious disparity between the action and the scale of the problem. However little they may understand about the nature of the crisis, most people who accept the reality of climate change understand that the problem is huge. The premise that simply reusing shopping bags and changing our light bulbs will somehow solve the problem is transparently ludicrous.
Given this contradiction, most rational adults will conclude that either nothing can be done, hence the lack of any call for decisive action, or that the problem is not actually very serious, in which case why do anything at all. In either case not much of any consequence is accomplished, and indeed the whole exercise may do more harm than good.
Of course those not willing to hear the alarm will find it all the easier to do when the alarm is muffled. Indeed the very contradictions I note are used by many to show that "obviously the whole thing is a sham," or alternatively, that it is hopeless.
The biggest problem with this approach is that you do not solve a problem that you are not admitting exists. These "little step" approaches are certain to fail, and this can only leave those taking these actions feeling helpless and defeated.
The truth is that this faux optimism is in fact a deep despair and sense of helplessness in disguise. Anyone who feels empowered does not begin with the premise that they have to lie to people in order to manipulate them into doing the right thing.
How about us?
The problem of inconsistent and inappropriate messaging is real, but far more serious is that we are not living the full seriousness of the climate crisis. By this I mean many activists and progressives live lifestyles with a carbon footprint that is not particularly distinguishable from the population norm. Sure we bring our own grocery bags and travel mug, but what percentage of the average carbon footprint do those amount to?
The bulk of the environmental movement operates as if the CO2 produced by an activist's flying here and there is somehow not as damaging as that produced by an oil executive doing the same thing. Carbon is carbon, and the failure of most of us to significantly reduce our carbon footprint makes it all too easy to dismiss us entirely.
Herein I fear another uncomfortable truth, specifically that most of us are unwilling to ask others to do what we ourselves are not willing to do. I fear that much of the rhetoric about what the public is willing to do is simply a smokescreen to justify the climate advocates not taking serious action themselves. A depressing thought, but probably more true than not.
Being blunt, at a minimum it is necessary to become at the very least vegetarian, if not vegan, and to give up the private automobile and all air travel. These three actions are still far, far from enough, but they are at least a serious beginning.
Pipher reiterates much of the analysis of public apathy and offers a number of the standard solutions (not all of which I agree with), but what makes Pipher's article worth reading is her core suggestion for avoiding despair: amazement.
Regardless of what happens, whether action is futile or not, whether humanity is doomed or not, regardless of any of that, we are here today. Alive, or at least potentially so.
Taking radical action to deal with climate change is the right thing to do, more so than any other struggle in human history. That we are given the opportunity to be one of the ones to participate in that struggle is amazing.
It is a rare and wonderful privilege, even if it is also a terrible burden to bear. Despair is is for those who discover that they are too petty and selfish to make the effort. Those who rise to the challenge risk being fully alive to the fact that regardless what happens in the future, we are alive today and it is amazing!
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we lok to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
-- Paul Simon,
"The boy in the bubble"
Mike Kaulbars is an environmental activist and science writer living in Ottawa. This column represents his opinion on issues of the day.