“Climate change has destabilized the earth’s poles,” said a Washington Post headline on December 15, and it served as a reminder. The ice is breaking up. The waters are rising. The all-encompassing political question today is climate catastrophe. How can the nations and people of the world mobilize the social energy necessary to slow the process? This danger won’t be cut off by defunding, by fostering mindfulness and new sensitivities, or even by penalizing the jocular skepticism and quack science that tell us climate change is a hoax. The problem is with human nature: the way we are constituted—the most selfless as well as the greediest individuals.
Many of us know this; we feel it as a nagging reproach. We push away the anxiety, from bewilderment but also from a rational uncertainty regarding tactics. One entire political party denies or minimizes the threat. The other party addresses it somewhere near the top of an indifferent list, alongside worthy items like improved health care and free college.
How did we come to this place? For the past five centuries, Appropriative Man has sought to dominate nature. The tools discovered by science, which we find already in our hands, are valuable for aggrandizement, destruction, comfort, and self-care. We don’t intend to bury the tools, and even if the sacrifice were plausible, we don’t know how to perform it. We lack the strength to make ourselves weak.
That last sentence, italicized in the original, was written by Jonathan Schell a few months before he died. And the same thought came up more than once in our conversations. In moods of “optimism of the will,” Jonathan believed that nuclear weapons might be abolished one day and the human conquest of nature might eventually be curbed. Yet the science that yielded the world-destroying processes could never be rendered inaccessible.
No phrase is more sacred to secular activists than “human flourishing,” but the campaign against climate disruption will set boundaries on our flourishing. Such acts of collective self-denial have emerged in the past only as means to a political end—as when Cromwell proposed that members of Parliament resign their military command for the public good. Now the elimination of convenience and luxury will be part of the end itself. We can “thrive” and be “resilient”—two more favorite words—only in the changed conditions we must now impose on ourselves.
Schell believed that we face an almost insoluble puzzle about the limits of imagination. We project past regularities into the future and are unavoidably constrained by our habits of thought and action. It is hard to go beyond the local—hard, anyway, to stay out there for long. We are primed to notice only high-contrast disruptions of routine, or immediate threats to our well-being. Imagination on a planetary scale is difficult; for most people most of the time, it is close to impossible.
In his essay “Nature and Value,” which I quoted above, Schell offered a broad summary of our predicament. By the release of carbon in the atmosphere, the deposit of plastic on the ocean floor, the large-scale destruction of wildlife and its replacement by domestic animals for milk or meat, human existence has rerouted and overloaded nature:
The walls of separation that once divided the human artifice from nature have come down. History has flooded into evolution. And evolution has returned the favor and flooded history.
People who worry professionally about democracy, culture, domestic and foreign policy—the things that occupy a magazine like The Nation—are dealing with history before the flood. But now consider the Covid pandemic, in all its endless variety. We know that it originated in one of two ways, a laboratory accident or human encroachment on the natural environment. What should be the consequences of this knowledge?
How much easier to talk about the threat of China, the new enemy on the horizon! That is an old-world problem, familiar and sensational. Meanwhile, we may notice occasional floods and tornadoes; we may even pause a day or two over the mass-incineration fires in Australia and California; but we take them in as if they were epiphenomena—freak occurrences, no matter how overwhelming. So we absorb the events that signify a larger degradation, but they pass. And mostly these are tolerable changes. We don’t notice that there are fewer songbirds, fewer insects. And maybe the trees are dying (as sugar maples now are dying in Connecticut), but it happens gradually, and there are other trees around. If spring comes a few days later, what of it? There was no snow last winter, or very little, but how many of us pay much attention, and for how long?
The commitment required to avert climate catastrophe is going to be staggering, expensive, and, at the same time, tedious and ordinary. Putting in a heat-pump system is not like buying a new Peloton. And yet the change must come, to the exclusion of other expenditures, if we are going to maintain a shred of decent living half a century from now. If there were ever a cause that demanded single-minded attention, this is it.
One commonly hears it said, with a shade of regret by people over 50: “I won’t live to see the end of this.” Is it possible to shrug your shoulders morally? The nature of our lethargy is to look on the catastrophe as one more transient discomfort, amenable to political solutions like the other problems on the usual list. The truth is that this will cost a lot and it won’t be fun. It adds up to an obstruction our commercial culture can do nothing with.
This reformation will be full of drudgery and very little uplift. No wonder Barack Obama—who knew enough and knew better—avoided the subject for most of his presidency. No wonder Donald Trump took care to know no better but instead retained “the possession of being well deceived.” The task calls for clear scientific explanation accompanied by political persuasion—in short, exactly the kind of leadership we haven’t yet seen.