Alarming data and warnings about climate change have been with us for twenty years. The issue has morphed into something like a low-level toothache. The public is numbed by all the bad news, and in place of sensible solutions, we witness the folly of political polarization. You can’t believe in climate change and be a good conservative. This departure from fact-based reality is only part of the problem. China and the U.S., who produce 40% of the world’s harmful emissions, block measures to reverse the trend toward global warming for purely selfish reasons – two rich economies want to preserve the status quo.
One can react to this situation in various ways, leading to a choice of tactics.
- Mount a vigorous public crusade with greater signals of alarm.
- Rely on future technology to reverse the harm done to the atmosphere.
- Prepare for a future with a drastically different ecological balance.
- Do nothing, except perhaps pray.
- Temporize until the catastrophe cannot be ignored.
Most people find themselves wavering among these options. If you decide that the real issue is not Nature but human nature, then only a few options are viable. Human nature has a track record. We know, for example, that past ecological disasters, such as turning the Sahara into a desert, denuding Spanish forests, and burning all the usable fuel on Easter Island, could have been averted but weren’t. When resources become skimpy, human beings don’t suddenly cooperate to conserve what’s left. They fight to the last scrap for possession of a diminishing resource. We also know that man-made catastrophes that hurt everyone, such as war, don’t come to an end even though peace benefits everyone.
With human nature in mind, the doomsayers appear to be winning. For the foreseeable future, the world will look upon the ravages of global warming and do a combination of hand-wringing, sounding louder alarms, scrambling for some magical technology, and praying. Active cooperation will not emerge any time soon. The rationalists among us – who always seem to live in Scandinavia – will soberly adapt to inevitable deterioration in the ecology. People are already talking about preserving coral-building organisms as seeds for the future, accepting that the present coral reefs, already hugely damaged, will one day die.
As a single individual, none of us can alter such massive and overwhelming situation. It seems utterly meaningless to foul our planetary nest. But there is meaning to be found here. The meaning resides in the very source of the problem, human nature. Human beings place their desires ahead of the collective good. We consider ourselves more important than the ecology, which is rooted in the belief that we are above Nature herself, a privileged species that need answer to no one, not Nature, not God (if a deity exists).
The meaning of doom is that all of these assumptions won’t be able to survive, not in their present form. The tactic that will prevail is “Temporize until the catastrophe cannot be ignored.” At the end point, whenever that occurs, human nature will be forced to look at itself. A reappraisal of who we are will be inescapable (I’m assuming that the human race won’t choose mass suicide, although there are some who take the longest view and who claim that the planet may be better off without us). The solution to global warming doesn’t have to reach the end point, of course. The coming generation could evolve at a fundamental level.
This seems to be happening with war. At present the number of people dying in armed conflict, including civil wars, continues to drop. The non-proliferation of atomic weapons has reached a point where everyone agrees that the goal should be worldwide disarmament. Nuclear holocaust is no longer a viable threat. But to confront climate change is probably even more basic. If human nature is to evolve, a new set of assumptions would look something like the following:
Human life isn’t set apart from life on earth.
We must live in balance with Nature.
Consumerism isn’t unlimited and doesn’t lead to happiness.
Toxic pollution harms life and cannot be justified.
As a conscious species, humans must be stewards of the ecology.
None of these are surprising ideas; they are common coin in the environmental movement. But to make them viable on a mass scale, the tide must turn. The part of human nature that says “Me first,” “I want mine, who cares about you?”, “I only live for today, forget tomorrow,” and “Nature is here to be conquered” must be re-examined. Will that happen? No one can tell, but it’s important to see that the world “out there” has no chance of changing until there’s real transformation “in here.”