Identifying the Right Question
Greta Thunberg has been the world’s most prominent climate activist since she was 15. (She is 19 now.) Over and over, from platforms grand and small, she has implored heads of state all over the world, “You don’t have to listen to me. I’m just a child. But please listen to the scientists!”
Many of us liberals and environmentally “awake” people are Greta fans. We resonate with her frustration and desperation, and we wearily ask each other, “Why DON’T our world governments ACT? Don’t they understand the magnitude of the crisis? Surely, they must! What the hell is wrong with the major nations’ governments, including our own?”
But could it be that we’re asking the wrong question?
I think so. Because I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Government cannot save us.
Consider President Joe Biden. I think he really gets it about climate change. He has repeatedly called it an existential threat to our survival. I think if he could act decisively and effectively to mitigate it, he would.
And I believe he is not the only world leader who is, essentially, pretty helpless.
So let us assume (at least for that moment) that – for whatever the reason — our world governments cannot respond sufficiently to the overwhelming, horrific, phantasmagorical, imminent, VERY REAL threats presented by the hydra-headed monstrosity that currently goes by the mild name of “climate change.”
If we accept that, then the question becomes … What – if anything — are WE going to do about it?
Whether she consciously realizes it or not, Greta isn’t only speaking to the governments of the world. She is talking to all of us.
Our Shared Trance
I don’t understand Trump voters. What can they possibly see in this vile man that would inspire loyalty, much less affection? Are they all in a trance, the 73 or 74 million people who voted for him?
I don’t know. Maybe. But then … maybe I’m in a trance too. Maybe all of us are.
And maybe Greta is trying to shake us awake.
Maybe these times call on each of us to act in some way that makes sense, and we are collectively sleepwalking through that call. Maybe we have to do more than just live our lives and hope that the “powers that be” come up with some sort of solution, technical or otherwise.
Recently I watched the movie DON’T LOOK UP on Netflix. Excellent stuff. In case you missed it, it’s a brilliant allegory about climate change – a comet is on collision course with the Earth but nobody is capable of responding with appropriate urgency because, day by day, nothing apparently changes in their lives. Because the movie is so pointed and compelling – with delightful star turns by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonard DiCaprio among others – many viewers shared that it gave them “hope.”
But hope for what, I wonder?
Most of us know that our collective habits of consumption are a major contributing factor to climate change. And it’s not only energy consumption, which is the obvious culprit. It’s our continual voracious consumption of so much stuff that requires energy to produce in the first place.
I’m not saying we should all stop consuming things. That’s impossible. I’m not even suggesting that we must pare our lives down to the bare essentials. I’m not sure that’s feasible, and I know it’s not desirable, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to happen so I wouldn’t waste time advocating for that, even if I did think it was “the right thing to do,” which I’m not certain of at all.
However, it feels important to insert a small point here: When I watch cool movies, like DON’T LOOK UP, or read important books like REGENERATION: ENDING THE CLIMATE CRISIS IN ONE GENERATION by Paul Hawken or THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING by Naomi Klein, in and of itself, absent any other action, all this really amounts to is another form of consumption – in this case, consumption of books and movies for my troubled little brain.
It may help me feel more “tuned in” and afford me some semblance of “hope” but if that’s the extent of it, then it’s really just more consumption within a consumption-oriented lifestyle and culture. Those books and movies become assimilated into my (our?) all-encompassing trance.
Another Cool Movie
Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of the movie MERCHANTS OF DOUBT, which was released back in 2014. It’s an outstanding (and highly entertaining; I recommend you consume it) documentary about how professional “spin doctors” cast doubt on established science in order to protect the interests of industry. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, that took the form of sowing confusion about the harmful effects of cigarettes and the addictive properties of nicotine. Ultimately, this misinformation campaign “failed” because now “everyone knows” that cigarettes are addictive and dangerous. Fewer people knew it in 1960 though, and as a result of these unscrupulous persuaders’ lies, millions of people got hooked on smoking and died horrible deaths.
Now, the movie shows us, the same pattern has been repeated with climate change. The oil companies knew back in the ‘80s that global warming was a real thing, but they paid their PR people and salaried “researchers” to present “counterevidence” in order to create the impression that the science of climate change was unsettled and uncertain, which it never was.
The result of this highly coordinated, sustained deception with respect to cigarettes was sickness and death for a lot of people. The result with respect to climate change, the movie warns, may well be the demise of human civilization as we know it.
Again, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT is a great movie. Yet, I would question one of its implicit premises – namely, that we, the bulk of humanity, are hapless, unknowing, innocent victims of the cynical, manipulative, cold-blooded, shortsighted, ruthless, all-devouring greed of the fossil fuel industry. (And similarly, the millions of smokers who have died of lung cancer were victims of the cigarette companies’ morally depraved corporate executives.)
Arguably, that all may be part of the equation. But …
What, in a person, makes addiction possible – be it addiction to cigarettes or to profligate consumption?
What is the vulnerable point in the human soul that provides purchase for life-destroying addiction to take hold, individually and/or collectively?
From where or from what does the “sin” (so to speak) originate within us?
Surely, not every smoker was so easily fooled by the tobacco industry’s propaganda of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There must have been some part of their psyche that suspected, or even knew, the truth.
And could the vast majority of the “first world” population really have been so ignorant as to be simply bamboozled by the fossil fuel companies?
Here is a thought: If greed is what is killing the planet, maybe it’s my own greed too. And yours.
I say this without judgment. Honestly. And I’ll have a lot more to say about garden variety greed – especially my own — in our next newsletter. But for now, please believe me when I say I have no judgment. The human “operating system” is riddled with problematic features. Greed is just one of them.
In fact, for now, I’ll also say this: Many people believe that our window of opportunity to act on climate change is already gone, that if we had somehow rallied to the task in, say, 1995, we could have gotten a handle on emissions, but now it is too late.
Here is my response to that: We couldn’t take action on climate in the 1990s because we did not understand the problem correctly. We failed to understand the problem because we did not understand ourselves.
Our very human nature was, and is, a key part of the problem.
So there is no use regretting what we “should” have done. We did the best we could. And here we are now. Here we are, here we are.
My Favorite Greta Quote
A few years ago, Greta organized a school strike – children skipping school to demand action on climate change. In 2019, this became a global event spanning 150 countries and involving millions of kids, but it began in 2018 on a much smaller, local scale in Greta’s native country of Sweden. And it got plenty of attention.
At the time, Greta said this:
A lot of people say that Sweden is a small country, that it doesn’t matter what we do. But I think that if a few girls can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could do together if we wanted to.”
So – inspired by Greta’s words – if we were to take an action, and multiply it by a million or two (which could happen!), what difference might it make?
That depends on what action we take, of course. We’ve seen that protesting and demonstrating and “demanding action” hasn’t gotten us very far just yet. So what should we do instead?
I have a little idea. Just a germ of an idea really. I’ll share it in our next newsletter. (Not to keep you in suspense but it requires some exposition, and this newsletter is already a little lengthy.)
Have a great couple of weeks.