Climate, Culture, and a Call for New Environmental Leadership

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Jim Irby Photo
Author Jim Irby

This week’s mini-series is a collaborative effort with Ecclesio. Check out these and other articles at www.ecclesio.com.

It’s been said by environmentalists from Al Gore to Daniel Quinn that a frog put in a pot of slowly heating water will not panic or try to escape until it is already cooked. Another year comes to a close, and our behavior continues to mirror that of the frog: we watch the earth heat slowly but fail to look for a way out. Unlike the frog, however, we have the gifts of foresight, statistical analysis, and climate models. We have international governing bodies, advanced environmental engineering, and a 97% consensus among climate scientists that the earth is heating and human activity is to blame.

So where has that gotten us in 2013? While skeptics put strong effort into publicizing the alleged global warming “pause,” climate scientists have shown definitively this year that global warming has not slowed but is, in fact, causing dangerous increases in ocean temperatures capable of altering weather patterns. We’ve seen Superstorm Haiyan wreak havoc on the Philippines, even as polar vortexes and the remaining destruction from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy continue to unsettle us on the home front. Wouldn’t it seem that we’d start to notice the water around us simmering?

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This is not the problem of some undefined future generation. For myself, and I suspect for many reading this article, I hope to see the year 2044.
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The international response continues to be lukewarm. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Warsaw a few months ago and made only modest steps towards a new climate agreement in 2015, putting off any decisive action for another 2 years. The greatest success of that meeting was strengthening the REDD+ program to reduce deforestation in developing countries, to which the US pledged $25 million dollars (a whopping $0.08 per person). In the same breath, however, the US fought against many of those same developing countries to ensure that it would not be expected to pay compensation to countries falling victim to environmental disaster (The US emits carbon at a rate over 75 times higher than, for example, the Philippines). While 2013 has brought us proposed new EPA regulations for US power plants and talk of limiting coal consumption and taxing carbon in China, these two countries remain by far the greatest greenhouse emitters in the world, in a year where carbon dioxide levels exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in history.

Climate graphic
Photo Credit: Guardian Graphics

The fact of the matter is that for most of us – myself included – going about our daily business as usual means sitting in the pot of water and waiting for it to boil. These modest advances in 2013 do very little to curb the tides of the ever-increasing amount of carbon in the air: for example, the 20 tons that each American releases into the atmosphere each year. This year, while we continued to assure ourselves that climate catastrophe ultimately concerns “future generations,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report  saying that the dangerous milestone of a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase (at which point natural feedback loops could further accelerate warming to truly catastrophic levels) will likely happen within 30 years.

This is not the problem of some undefined future generation. For myself, and I suspect for many reading this article, I hope to see the year 2044. Imagine where you hope to be in 2044—advanced in your career? Raising your children or grandchildren – or sending them off to college? How does that vision change when rising sea levels cause unprecedented refugee crises across the world? When droughts and shifts in rainfall lead to unimaginable famines and resource wars among those fighting to survive? When there are more and more parts of the world where being outside is dangerous? I hope beyond all hope that none of this comes to pass. But the reality is that “global warming” is just a pleasant euphemism. What we are really dealing with, if we keep living as we have been, is the end of human life as we know it.

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One of our greatest cultural myths, instilled in us from childhood, is that independence is virtuous and we alone are responsible for our own fortune (or misfortune).
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So what can be done? More appropriately, what can those of us who aren’t scientists or policy makers do? Actually, I believe we are the ones who can – and who must – make the biggest impact. The problem lies neither in our science nor (necessarily) in our politics but in our lifestyle. The problem lies in the way in which we have come to view the Earth and our relationship to it. What we need is creative leadership – people inspired to think in new ways and dream of new possibilities, to challenge the aspects of our culture that have become toxic to all life on this planet.

Diagram of Ef
Source: Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School

Hoping to start that conversation here, I want to discuss three aspects of our culture that I think we must address if we seek creative environmental vision. The first is that we make a stark contrast between the individual and the system such that we fail to see their essential connectedness. One of our greatest cultural myths, instilled in us from childhood, is that independence is virtuous and we alone are responsible for our own fortune (or misfortune). This idea manifests itself socially when Congress votes to cut food stamp funding—and the rhetoric goes so far as to put the blame on the people in poverty—while failing to recognize that the underpaying and insecure jobs that lead to poverty are demanded by our system of competition-driven wealth. In a biological example, our bodies, individual and indivisible as we may perceive them to be, are complex systems of life, consisting of 10 times as many bacteria cells as “human” cells. Take the bacteria away and we cannot survive—we are sustained by our parasites, unable to live as truly “independent” life forms.

Similarly, we could choose to see our planet as simply a spinning mass of rock and water, separate from us individuals that inhabit it; or we could recognize that Earth, like our bodies, is a complex web of organisms that together make an absurd and fantastic system of predator and prey, producer and consumer, lion and lamb – inextricably connected in sustaining the community of life. I am blessed to be a part of this system; its connectedness is sacred and does nothing to diminish my individuality. But if I choose to live independently of the Earth, I am choosing death.

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Our acceptance of waste is a disturbing symptom of our fetishization of profits. The money we make becomes our source of meaning, and we forget that most of what we actually need doesn’t require factories or gadgets or overtime hours.
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If removing the individual from the system is the mindset that got us to this point of environmental collapse, promoting that individuality at the expense of the planet’s diversity has been the mechanism. Thus the second factor a creative environmental vision needs to address is our threat to the diversity of life on this planet. The individualism myth has told us that it’s our own unique right to conquer and control the land, and thus we’ve designated ownership of almost every inch of productive land on the planet. In doing that, we have decided which species we want to preserve and which habitats we will destroy. On a planet with millions of naturally occurring plants and animals, 12 crops make up 80% of what our farmers produce[1], while rainforests are bulldozed and “useless” species are removed to make way for oilfields, farms, and shopping malls. In the process of feeding and enriching humans in the modern era, we have started what could turn out to be the 6th Great Extinction, threatening to destroy over 75% of all species on Earth.

GM_sign
Photo Credit: Inside Costa Rica

Our efforts to preserve species need to not be limited to the majestic animals (whales) or the cute animals (pandas). Genetic diversity is the community of life’s great defense against changes in its environment. It is a brilliant way to preserve a broad range of characteristics, relationships, and processes that sustain the living system on this planet. We must preserve habitats that still exist, re-wild the land that we can, and produce food for ourselves in sustainable ways that don’t require us to destroy everything else.

Finally, we must rethink the idea of “waste. Our culture of consumption has taught us that something has a purpose – for a while – and when that purpose is used up, we throw it away. Unfortunately, out of sight does not mean irrelevant. We dig landfills and cover them up; we dump waste into water and release it into the air. On a planet that, when left to its own devices, seamlessly cycles water, air, nutrients, and organic matter so that nothing is left unused, we create plastics that take millennia to break down. We take oil from the ground and poison the air; we make pesticides in factories and let them run into rivers. We buy the latest trendy gadget, car, or clothes and quickly throw the old ones out. In all of these processes, we are creating things that are at best useless, at worst dangerous—and none of it disappears. Ever.

Landfill - Photo by Michelle Arseneault
Landfill in Ontario
Photo Credit Michelle Arsenealt

We justify this by saying that we can always produce more. Why save something that can be replaced? After all, doesn’t our economy need more people producing more things so more people can buy more things? Our acceptance of waste is a disturbing symptom of our fetishization of profits. The money we make becomes our source of meaning, and we forget that most of what we actually need doesn’t require factories or gadgets or overtime hours. Meanwhile, the waste we create in our pursuit of profit is destroying the community of life that has sustained us for millennia. Some conscientious producers speak of a “triple bottom line” – products that are good for “planet, people, and profits.” Yet even this attempt at stewardship fails to recognize that without a healthy planet, there will be no people. With no planet or people, profits are worthless.

Daniel Quinn was on to something when he wrote, “If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by people with old minds and new programs.”[2]  Our response to climate change may start with a new carbon tax or more restrictive EPA regulations, but it cannot end there. If we hope to persevere on this planet and leave it for those who could come after us, we must locate the meaning for our existence in something much deeper than production and profit. Our lives literally depend on it.

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Here, possibly more than anywhere else, we see the need for an active and activist Christian church today—a people united by the conviction that our meaning and purpose ultimately lies outside of ourselves.
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My generation is faced with a crisis that compels us to be creative, to invent new ways of living yet unimagined. We have the opportunity to replace the bottom line of profit with the bottom line of life worth living – and not just human life. Here, possibly more than anywhere else, we see the need for an active and activist Christian church today—a people united by the conviction that our meaning and purpose ultimately lies outside of ourselves. The Christian tradition is bursting with the resources to do the reimagining we need, to put the good of all creation above our comfort and convenience. What, then, is the new Christian vision for our world in peril?


[1] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).
[2] Daniel Quinn, The Story of B (New York: Bantam Books, 1996).

AUTHOR BIO: Jim Irby is an educator and amateur restorationist living in Seattle, Washington. He studied Global Studies and Government at the College of William and Mary. He encourages everyone reading this article to stop what they are doing right now and read the book Ishmael.

Read more articles in this series.

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