I’ve just finished reading Jared Diamond‘s book, Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or survive. Apart from being a fascinating and completely absorbing read, it is a book that is so relevant to our times precisely because we need to understand the factors that primarily determine whether or not a society, any society, will survive challenges to its very existence or succumbs to those challenges and collapses. Diamond is not just another academic professor, but one who combines a vast breadth of knowledge across many different scientific disciplines with a vast record of experience travelling the world, especially to places where societies have actually collapsed. And he applies all that knowledge and experience to considering just how we can learn from all those past collapses in order to avoid the very real danger we face now of our own society collapsing through such accumulative pressures as global warming, environmental and ecological damage through modern industrial practices, globalisation, overpopulation and other factors.
Diamond has constructed a five-point framework for helping to understand how any particular society collapses: the damage that people inadvertently inflict on their environment, climate change (whether that be in either a hotter or colder, wetter or drier direction), hostile neighbours, decreased support by friendly neighbours, and the society’s responses to its problems. He then applies that framework to detailed case studies of actual societies that have collapsed throughout history, ranging from the distant past to very recently, showing how some or all of the five points may have been involved in the collapse and how those points interacted with each other in each collapse. The detail of his analysis and the range of evidence he assembles from so many different disciplines in order to support his analysis is breathtaking and convincing, and makes me realise just how vulnerable all societies are to collapse, either rapidly or gradually over several centuries. Obviously not all societies collapse, but the ones that do flourish do so because they usually have to take stock of serious challenges to their very existence and take action, sometimes very drastic action, in order to overcome those challenges and survive. What is also very sobering, and should be a great lesson for our own times, is just how often many of those challenges include dealing with dramatic climate change and environmental or ecosystem destruction that is either deliberately or inadvertently caused by that society’s activities.
A very simple and dramatic example, perhaps the most vivid one, is that of Easter Island: there a once flourishing society destroyed itself by cutting down all of its trees. Once the trees were gone, that society collapsed very quickly. Trees are essential to ecosystems rich enough to permit humans to carry out essential activities, such as agriculture. Without trees, you eventually have no soil, or soil in the wrong place, or soil lacking in sufficient nutrients, and so forth, and then growing enough food becomes too problematic. And without enough food, well, any society would have trouble coping with that, no matter how prosperous or powerful it is. The people on Easter Island weren’t stupid, and they did value trees very highly, but all societies have within them ways of behaving and thinking that can possibly lead to an inability to be aware of just what problems are emerging, or if there is awareness of the problems, an inability to act upon that awareness by taking the necessary remedial action.
The climax of the book is the final chapter in which Diamond applies his five-point framework to today’s society, which can be considered a truly global society due to the global spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, and the deeply interdependent trading links between economies that is at the heart of globalisation. In the past, some societies could collapse in isolation without having knock-on effects on other contemporary societies. No such chance now, especially not with global warming, which effects all societies today, and if one major economy collapse, then it will have significant knock-on effects on other economies because of today’s global economic interdependencies.
In the final chapter, Diamond isolates the 12 most serious environmental problems that face our present societies and discusses them in detail:
- Destruction of natural habitats, especially forests. Diamond says: “Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book”
- loss of wild species, populations and genetic diversity. For example, bees are declining in numbers and health. But without bees, how do we pollinate most of our crops?
- Loss of agricultural soil from water and wind erosion, and salinization, acidification, or alkinisation.
- The growing scarcity of fossil fuels, the world’s major energy sources, leading to greater financial and environmental costs of extracting the still available reserves.
- increasing scarcity and decreasing quality of freshwater
- the shrinking terrestrial photosynthetic capacity for growing greater amounts of food, made more acute by the rapid rate of population increase.
- toxic chemicals released into the environment by industry.
- environmental damage caused by alien species of plants and animals transferred intentionally or inadvertently from places where they are native to ones where they are not.
- Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities, causing environmental damage, such as destruction of the ozone layer or causing global warming through exacerbation of the greenhouse effect, thereby leading to climatic changes that can impact adversely on crucial human activities such as agriculture. Here Diamond does, I think, significantly understate the seriousness of global warming as an environmental problem. He does accept that it is happening and that human activities are contributing to it, but he pulls his punches about just how serious it is. Most climate scientists now accept that global warming is now happening faster than even the most pessimistic forecasts of the IPCC and that the manifestations of that warming in terms of extreme weather events and significant climate shifts is already happening on a large and rapidly increasing scale around the globe. Diamond even say at one point that “it turns out that global warming will produce both winners and losers”; that is simply wrong as whatever short-term gains there might be in, for example, higher agricultural yields in some areas (and I don’t think there is enough evidence in yet that there are, in fact, any short-term gains at all), will be massively outweighed by the losses, losses which will quickly wipe out any so-called short-term gains. With global warming on its current trajectory, we are all losers, now and much more so as time goes by. And if we don’t get a grip on solving this one environmental problem right now, then our chances of solving all the other problems becomes increasingly more difficult if not impossible to address. Yes, all 12 problems need dealing with now, but the absolute priority is global warming; its threat is that existential.
- rapid growth of the global human population
- the impact of that growing human population upon the environment.
Diamond makes the very telling point that we need to solve all 12 problems:
because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other. If we solved 11 of the problems but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.
But Diamond does have a message of hope for us. He describes himself as a cautious optimist because he says that a realistic acknowledgement of the severity of the problems facing us will lead naturally to a willingness to take those problems seriously and deal with them now. And the problems are not insoluble. As he says:
Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions already available.
The other major reason for hope that Diamond gives is that the prevalence of education and information available today to most of us gives us an awareness about the past and what makes societies survive or fail that was not available to most of the past societies that collapsed. We can learn from history and we have so much information about the past now that we have no excuse as a society for failing to learn from the past. Our society is not immune to the danger of collapse; it has no unique privilege or right to survive where others have failed. Our society will survive only if it faces up to its problems and changes in radical ways in order to solve them. That means changing the way we think and behave, including our attitudes, values and customs if need be, as well as changing the way we use technology. Diamond’s book is an invaluable contribution towards the necessary consciousness-raising that must precede such positive change.
- NASA: Climate Change May Flip 40% of Earth’s Major Ecosystems This Century (thinkprogress.org)
The start of a new year is a traditional time for making predictions about the coming year, so here I go with mine. Not that I usually make predictions, but the ones I’m making are about trends so massive and important, in my humble opinion, that I feel the need to emphasise those trends by making predictions about them in order to highlight the pressing imminence and intensity of those trends.
The most important prediction is that global warming will manifest in 2012 in the form of even more extreme weather events than last year, or any previous year, for that matter. That does not necessarily mean that the frequency of weather events will increase, although it is worth noting that some places in the world had a record-breaking sequence of extreme weather events, most notably the USA. But I do feel that whatever extreme weather events that do occur will occur with record-breaking intensity and especially in places not used to such extreme events. Climate scientists predict that global warming will make droughts and floods more extreme and frequent and the increased heat energy of the atmosphere will make storms and heatwaves more extreme than they would otherwise be. We saw these predictions amply borne out by the extreme weather of 2011 , so it’s a no-brainer that 2012 will see more, perhaps a lot more, of the same, especially now that it is so clear now that there is massive (and, in places such as the Arctic, exponential) loss of ice occurring across the world. This throws into sharp relief the complete inadequacy of the Durban deal in the most recent round of the IPCC COP climate summit talks. We simply cannot wait until 2020 for a legally binding deal for reduction in carbon emissions to kick in. Given the present lack of global political will to deal with climate change now, what will reduce carbon emissions quickly enough? At this stage it looks like only a massive global economic recession will do the trick. Not that I would welcome that, but it is a fact, according to the Global Carbon Project, that global carbon emissions dropped significantly only in 2009, at the height of the global financial crash that started in 2007, and that drop has probably only lasted one year as a recovery of sorts began in 2010.
That brings me to the next prediction of 2012: that there will be a severe recession within Europe which will have a severe impact upon the USA, especially given the rapidly growing sovereign debt problems of the US, and there may even be a severe impact upon the ability of the Chinese economy to maintain its own growth. The irony of the present situation is that the agonies of economic recession will have the unexpected, unintended effect of increasing the chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change, or at least delaying it, which would impose the most severe economic catastrophe of all as the natural capital we all rely upon – such as fertile agricultural land, reliable rainfall patterns, etc. – would be irreversibly damaged and unable to sustain the basic indsutries we depend upon, especially the food industry.
Of course, the zero-sum game of economic growth versus planetary salvation can be massively mitigated by an immediate and sustained shift towards a zero-carbon economy that is primarily based on renewable energies and more efficient use of scarce resources, with less emphasis on growing GDP and more emphasis on increasing quality of life. But few places in the world have shown the political will so far to push on with such a long-term, sustainable strategy. Instead, the overwhelming focus of most politicians and government officials is on how to regain the economic growth rates of the recent past, as their perceived urgency is to reduce the debt burden that consumers, banks and countries have built up and which cannot be maintained, let alone paid off, unless there is enough new revenue created to at least pay the interest on that debt. But most of that debt is simply unsustainable and has to be written off somehow. Debt forgiveness will have to feature large in any realistic scenario for containing the debt problem. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 has left a toxic legacy so great that it cannot be overcome without massive change to the global financial and banking system, which is now in a chronic state of crisis. Indeed, because governments and policy makers are now so focussed upon dealing with the immediate debt and banking crises, the focus is not on the even greater challenge of dealing with the threat of catastrophic climate change, a threat much greater than that of a collapsing Euro or a string of banking failures.
But here’s the thing: what will prevent GDP growth rates returning to anything like the historical norm for the most advanced industrial societies is the rapidly growing impact of peak oil. Peak conventional crude oil as a geological fact occurred in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency in its 2010 report. Crude oil production rates globally have been declining at over 4% a year since then, so it is no surprise that the price of oil has risen from about $20 a barrel to over $100 a barrel since then. So my final prediction for 2012 is that the price of oil will go even higher. That’s not much of a prediction, but what I think we might see is that the price will go even higher despite a major recession in much of the industrialised world. Why? Because India and China are still industrialising so fast and their demand for oil is so great, and still increasing, that whatever reduction in oil consumption is achieved by the OECD countries is more than offset by the increase in consumption by China and India. Plus there are so many growing constraints – goelogic, economic and political – on the ability of the major oil producers to maintain present oil output let alone increase that output, and many of them, especially within OPEC, are reducing the amount of oil they export in order to fuel their own growing economies and populations. Particularly pertinent here is an analysis by Chris Skrebowski, one of the best peak oil analysts, that shows that 2012 is bound to be another oil crunch year because of the lack of new oil production megaprojects coming on stream this year. And, of course, there is always the danger of political crises erupting which create an immediate spike in the oil price to economically devastating levels; think of an attack on Iran by Israel and an immediate closing of the Straits of Hormuz by Iran.
But again, as in the case of a debt and financial crisis induced economic recession that leads to a decrease in carbon emissions, a sustained spike in the oil price could be the catalyst for a dramatic decrease in the consumption of oil as unintended price rationing crushes demand, and that in turn would lead to both a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and a faster switch to non-oil dependent forms of transport, such as electric cars, than would otherwise be the case, thereby further contributing to a delay or prevention of catastrophic climate change. Yet again, short-term pain could lead to a massive, unexpected long-term gain, always assuming, of course, that this is facilitated by a political will to drive through the necessary social and economic changes.
But what I cannot predict is how all these three factors – global warming, the debt crisis and its associated banking crisis and suppression of economic growth, and the onset of peak oil – will actually interact with each other in 2012 to mitigate or enhance the effects of each, or manifest in various political, social, or economic crises. Who would have predicted that the Arab Spring occurred when it did, or where it would manifest next, or how it will still evolve? But what is clear already with hindsight is that oil price rises ultimately led to food price rises, which were a powerful factor in creating the social and political tensions that led to the Arab Spring. These are indeed turbulent times, with wild weather, wild economic oscillations and wild fallout from peak oil. You could ask the same question that W.B.Yeats asks: “and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
- PBS Covers Link Between 2011′s “Mind-Boggling” Extreme Weather and Global Warming: “It’s Like Being on Steroids” (thinkprogress.org)
- Joe Romm’s Climate Story of the Year: Extreme weather and threat to global food security (dailykos.com)
- 2011 the costliest ever for extreme weather damage (summitcountyvoice.com)
I’ve just composed a little ditty for our times:
The banks will fall,
The people will rise.
Tribunes all, hear the call:
No more lies, no more lies.
In my last blog post I talked about how catastrophic the Fukushima nuclear accident was. Now, after two months, it is even more catastrophic than I first thought, as the latest information dribbling out about the accident indicates that there has been very severe nuclear core meltdown resulting in: at least one, and probably multiple, breaches of primary containment, and at least one, probably multiple, breaches of secondary containment, one massive spent fuel pool explosion due to the fuel going ‘recritical’, and there is still massive and continuing leakage of radioactive substances from the reactors into the groundwater, seawater, and air resulting in widespread and increasing accumulation of radioactivity over large areas of Japan, including the Tokyo metropolitan area. And the crisis is still not at an end: attempts to control the reactors are still badly hampered by massive radioactive contamination of the reactor sites, the inability to restore adequate cooling systems, the inaccuracy of the original monitoring equipment inside the reactors and control rooms due to earthquake and tsunami damage, and the lack of specialist equipment and personnel that the Japanese have had, for most of this time, for dealing with a nuclear disaster of this magnitude. The knock-on effects of the disaster for electric power generation generally has contributed significantly to the recent collapse in industrial production and in the subsequent negative growth in the Japanese economy, which just exacerbates the overall financial vulnerability of an economy mired in excessive sovereign debt.
Just about all that has happened at Fukushima was never regarded as possible according to most nuclear authorities. The nightmare scenario of four nuclear reactors, all next to each other, all going out of control, and leaking radioactivity continuously over many months was just considered impossible. But the impossible has happened, has not ended, and might even get worse if new explosions of incidents of ‘recriticality’ occur. And the radioactive contamination has not just affected Japan, but now also the entire northern hemisphere, which will lead to illness and deaths from such contamination wherever people have had the misfortune to ingest or come into contact with minute particles of radioactive dust in soils, food, water, etc. Fukushima is now far, far worse than Chernobyl because of its sheer scale, its longevity, and its continuing and accumulating effects in a much more densely populated part of the world, although as usual various nuclear and government authorities are doing their best to downplay the seriousness of the situation. For example, the Japanese authorities have allowed schoolchildren to go back to school even in areas that are still accumulating excessively high levels of radiation, and have been very slow to enlarge the evacuation zones around Fukushima and to evacuate them fully. And all of this need not have happened at all, as there were plenty of scientists and campaigners in Japan over the last few decades warning that building nuclear power stations in earthquake and tsunami prone areas was too dangerous, and the design standards were known, even by some of the engineers designing them, to be way below the standards required by the worse case scenarios that some experts realised needed to be taken into consideration in the design stage.
And yet the British government will continue to try to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, declaring them to be ultra safe and that the UK is an area where devastating natural phenomena like Japanese-style tsunamis are too unlikely to worry about! The UK government can be this confident partly because the HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Inspections has declared in his Interim Report on the implications of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami for the UK nuclear industry:
The direct causes of the nuclear accident, a magnitude 9 earthquake and the associated 14 metre high tsunami, are far beyond the most extreme natural events that the UK would be expected to experience. We are reassuringly some 1000 miles from the edge of a tectonic plate, where earthquake activity is more common and severe.
Yet a quick look at Wikipedia in the ‘Tsunamis in the UK’ entry confirms that tsunamis have hit the UK in the past, and in recent times too, in 1607 and 1755, and is at risk from future tsunamis, particularly from one triggered by fresh volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands. Indeed a tsunami, that was 21 metres high, far bigger than the tsunami that hit Fukushima, hit the UK in 6100 BC caused by the Storegga Slide off Norway. We might be a long way from the edge of a tectonic plate, but we are on the edge of an ocean riven by tectonic plate edges and volcanic islands, and tsunamis can travel vast distances across oceans, even ones as big as the Pacific Ocean. And most of our nuclear power stations are situated at, or very near, the coast, at very low elevations. It is simply the height of hubris to claim that UK nuclear power stations are free from potential tsunami damage. It only takes one tsunami to create one nuclear accident of such severity that massive, catastrophic damage is done to people, homes, and livelihoods in an extremely densely populated country such as the UK is.
A devastating tsunami hitting the UK might be perceived by the UK authorities as impossibly remote to worry about, but a tsunami-damaged nuclear reactor is such a dangerous scenario, as Fukushima proves, that it is simply insane to even contemplate having nuclear reactors at all, let alone ones that are on the coast, close to sea level. Catastrophic consequences from very low-risk events means that even very low-risk events must be protected against, and certainly built into the design standards for nuclear reactors, if you are going to have the damned things. But then again, I just have an acute case of the Fukushima blues…
The tragic consequences of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are truly awesome and demand the greatest of all compassionate responses. The power of natural forces is once again made manifest in the most brutal of ways. But what is making this tragedy all the more tragic is the man-made catastrophe that is the nuclear emergency consequent upon the earthquake/tsunami damage to several of Japan’s nuclear power stations. The catastrophe is man-made because there is no absolute necessity to build nuclear power stations at all. And certainly there is no necessity to build such stations in a zone vulnerable to earthquakes. It has to be the height of hubris to claim that you can design a nuclear power station to safely withstand any earthquake, let alone one that is combined with a tsunami. And the biggest recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan will forever be proof of that hubris. Even if complete nuclear meltdown is avoided in all of Japan’s stricken nuclear reactors, the sheer amount of effort and resources that have to be devoted to managing the nuclear situation is compounding the consequences of the natural tragedy, because the last thing anyone wants is the diversion of attention and resources away from helping the victims of the earthquake itself.
Then there is the lasting shortfall of power generation that will result from the nuclear emergency, because those stricken reactors will probably never be usable again (for the simple reason that most of them are now being flooded by sea-water, a truly last-ditch defence against meltdown). And for a country like Japan to be so reliant on power from nuclear reactors, the lack of power now will weaken the ability to help the recovery and rebuilding work in the affected areas as well as weaken the resilience of the Japanese economy and society generally. Indeed, according to the BBC website:
“The triple blow of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident is set to damage the world’s third largest economy possibly more deeply and for longer than initially expected, analysts have said. Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japan’s economy shrank by 2%, followed by a V-shaped recovery. But if the power supply is affected nationwide for a long period, it could lead to a sharp contraction of production. Oil prices are also significantly higher than after Kobe, the Yen is stronger, and the public finances are weaker“.
The prospect of Japan temporarily increasing its dependence on oil in order to deal with a tragic over-dependence on nuclear will only add to the increasingly dire peak oil problem for the whole world and may lead to Japan having to pay ruinously high prices for whatever oil it gets hold of, further weakening the resilience of the Japanese economy. Nuclear power may perhaps be safe enough if none of the worst-case scenarios of nuclear energy planners ever arise, but if they do arise in the form of black swan events, then nuclear power is catastrophically unsafe, and only adds to the unintended consequences of the black swan events themselves. Japan will hopefully be rescued from nuclear catastrophe, but it cannot be rescued from its overdependence upon nuclear power unless it radically changes course and transitions as soon as possible – as all nations should – to a truly resilient society based on renewable energies, free from nuclear power altogether. What better way to safeguard the future of the tsunami-hit areas of Japan than to rebuild those areas as exemplars of such a resilient, low-carbon, non-nuclear society; in that way, they would become beacons of hope for the whole world as well as guarantee the residents of those areas a secure future in the post peak oil world that is surely coming. But whatever Japan does about its future recovery, Japan’s present nuclear emergency is the starkest possible warning to the rest of the world that a nuclear future is always a uniquely perilous future that is forever at the mercy of unforeseen natural forces of unimaginable ferocity and power. Even in areas apparently free from earthquakes and tsunamis, Nature will always have a surprise or two in store, out-smarting the best-laid plans and calculations of mankind’s technological wizards.
- Explosion rocks nuclear plant, Japan struggles to contain crisis (blogs.nature.com)
- Japan ministers ignored safety warnings over nuclear reactors (guardian.co.uk)
I’ve just finished reading The Happiness Manifesto by Nic Marks, an ebook just released by Amazon as a Kindle Single, and I’ve just seen his TED talk about the ideas embodied in that book, which summarises much of the work he has done with nef (new economics foundation).
Both the book and the TED talk are deeply inspiring and illustrate to me how the Buddhist idea of happiness as being the basic goal of human beings, more important than any of their other goals, is finding a resonance in the research and thinking of science and the intellectual world of academia and social commentators. ‘Happiness’ is now the buzz word of the intelligentsia and is a respectable part of cutting edge thinking, and what I find interesting is that the present new-found emphasis on happiness, and trying to identify exactly what it is, so closely mirrors what Buddhists would regard as necessary, certainly as more important than trying to, for example, focus on what will generate more economic growth and more material prosperity. That there is now so much talk about happiness is just as well because the present socio-economic turmoil is only going to get worse, especially with the onset of peak oil and the increasing impacts of global warming, so if one’s happiness is based primarily upon those socio-economic conditions getting better or returning to the normal levels of the recent past of ‘the boom years’, then one might have to wait for a very long time for happiness to arrive! It would be like Waiting for Godot…
For example, according to Nic Marks, research from positive psychology shows that giving is a source of happiness, because spending money on oneself has been shown to produce less happiness for the spender than if the same amount of money was spent by him/her on others. Does that not remind one of the Buddhist refrain that giving is the real source of wealth, not just the wealth of external resources but also, and more especially, the inner wealth of happiness? And happiness is not just being discussed, but the research on it is also being turned into social movements and public campaigns. For example, the Action for Happiness movement is rolling out a popular movement to translate the research findings on happiness into actual programmes or activities for people to get involved in so as to help empower people to consciously create happiness in their own lives. And this happiness is increasingly being perceived as capable of being monitored fairly precisely by individuals themselves, given the right tools to work with, tools which are increasingly being generated using the powers of the internet.
For example, there is a way of tracking one’s mood closely and seeing what affects one’s changes of mood; it is called Moodscope. I have been using this tool myself for a few days, and it is a brilliant way of monitoring one’s own overall sense of well-being, using a technique derived from social scientific research. This tool reminds me of the story of Geshe Ben Gungyal, who was a Tibetan monk who did none of the usual activities expected of a monk, but engaged in such activities as just sitting in a room tracking what his mind was doing and maintaining his level of happiness by mentally intervening whenever any mental factor arose that threatened his level of happiness; this is not what you need to do with Moodscope, but Moodscope is a secular tool for mind-tracking that empowers one to become aware of what leads to happiness and unhappiness, and although it may appear to be a little rough and ready from a Buddhist mindfulness perspective, it is a stepping-stone on the road to such detailed, real-time reflexive analysis, and more importantly a great way to introduce the general public to the idea, and value, of monitoring one’s own awareness.
As a Buddhist, I find such awareness of how happiness has definite causes - causes that can be initiated within each individuals’ own awareness of those causes and willingness to work with that awareness - a great confirmation, in secular terms, of much of what the Buddha was trying to say. Therefore, as someone trying to be a Buddhist practitioner, I feel it is only proper that I should support such enlightened secular movements and thinking, and learn from them so that I can help to create a better bridge between the Buddhist cultural world and the larger, secular cultural world that Buddhism in the West must adapt to if it is to speak in a language that connects with most people.
Global warming is a phenomenon that is confirmed by an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence, provided by the majority of highly qualified and experienced climate scientists and many climate research institutes. However, it is also a phenomenon that is denied by many people, including politicians and policy-makers in powerful or influential positions. Denied, moreover, in terms that are sometimes vitriolic and vituperative, even threatening. There are many reasons indeed why such denial occurs, and there are many commentators who write very good articles, books and blogs about the phenomenon of climate change denial. But what I have noticed is that sometimes the defenders of the scientific consensus on climate change, myself included, sometimes have to be mindful of the danger of getting too sidetracked by the counter-denying of the deniers. Yes, the incorrect statements and distortions by the deniers of the facts about climate change need to be publicly pointed out and corrected, and this is a very worthy and essential task, but it is also one that can become all-consuming and even counter-productive if, in the process, those who defend the climate change consensus get ground down psychologically by the sheer effort of it all and, worse, get drawn into making negative attacks upon the deniers, or regarding the deniers as ‘enemies’ to be defeated. The deniers are, in the end, amongst the very people that we, out of compassion and loving-kindness, want to save from the horrifying effects of catastrophic climate change. The fact that they deny what is now so obvious is their right, after all; no one can insist that they must accept what scientists say. If they want to deny the facts, so be it. Indeed, the fact that they often feel the need to deny the facts with such vehemence should increase our compassion for them, not decrease it. The failure to accept empirical reality, even at the cost of one’s own best interests, is always immensely sad and tragic. Indeed, human beings often, perhaps usually, think and act against their own best interests. T.S.Eliot himself said that “human beings cannot bear too much reality”, and the reality of climate change, when it sinks in, is sometimes too hard for me to bear; the urge to just forget about it and think of something more pleasant and more immediately self-satisfying can become very tempting at such times.
But it is precisely at such times that I recall – sometimes – that the reality of climate change is also a supreme opportunity to generate true empathy with others, for thinking about the sufferings of those affected severely by climate change is such a powerful experience that compassion for such people naturally arises, and with that compassion comes a joyfully positive wish to be able to contribute in any way possible to the alleviation of such suffering and to prevent it happening to others too. It is then that the struggle to mitigate climate change can become a joyful struggle, full of meaning. Absorption in the flow of that struggle can create eudaimonia, something that positive psychology says is an essential constituent of a happy life. Martin Seligman says, in his book, Authentic Happiness, that “eudaimonia, what I call gratification, is part and parcel of right action. It cannot be derived from bodily pleasure, nor is it a state that can be chemically induced or attained by any shortcuts. It can only be had by activity consonant with noble purpose” (p.112). For me, and I’m sure for many others too, the immersion in the struggle to promote public awareness of climate change and to support the efforts to mitigate it, and adapt to it, is indeed a noble purpose, and potentially gratifying in profound ways. Whether we succeed or fail in the struggle is neither here nor there; the struggle is in itself a source of meaning and happiness, both for ourselves and countless others.
Besides, the reality of climate change impacting right now in the form of extreme weather events around the world, and the clear evidence of climate change accelerating even faster than the IPPC anticipated, because of ever more positive feedbacks kicking in, means that the focus should not be so much on denying the deniers, but more on pressing ahead with efforts to promote and implement the practical measures that can help mitigate climate change now, or can help us adapt to the consequences of climate change that are with us now. The reality is most deniers will not change their point of view no matter how much scientific evidence is placed before them, and any politician or policy-maker who does look dispassionately at the evidence will have more than enough evidence now on which to come to the decisions that are necessary if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. All that is needed now is the necessary political will and community mobilisation to get on with the job with whatever tools are available. The “fierce urgency of now” that Martin Luther King spoke of is as relevant to the challenge of transitioning to a zero-carbon society as it is to the challenge of ensuring equal civil rights for all.
- a positive side to global climate change? (andydharma.wordpress.com)
- Rebut a Climate Change Denier With These Simple Responses (treehugger.com)