Like many of you, I’m aware of the imminence of the coming climate collapse. I’d be willing to alter my life quite radically if there were some reasonable hope of staving it off or even just mitigating it.
I’ve made some changes. We keep the house at 65°F in winter. We’ve installed LEDs and CFLs except where design requires a pencil-thin halogen. One of our cars is a hybrid; the other is nineteen years old. I travel less, but don’t forswear travel. I buy a lot of locally grown food and eat a lot less meat than I used to, but it’s far from a categorical commitment.
But like everyone else, I’m caught in the Tragedy of the Commons. I’m unwilling to be an energy martyr, or to impose that on those around me.
Even if I were to don the environmental hair shirt and squeeze every last molecule of excess carbon out of my life, give up my income, spend my savings on efficiency, and become a subsistence farmer like Helen and Scott Nearing, that wouldn’t move the climate needle back into the safe zone. It might inspire others, and that would be no insignificant thing, to be a climate Gandhi. But I’m no Gandhi, or even remotely like him.
What’s needed is cooperation at scale. Back-to-the-land is not scalable in a world of seven billion people. While organic local farming is key to long-term sustainability for human society because it demands far less fossil fuel, as a prescriptive cultural shift for all people, it is in fact unsustainable. We can’t break the farmland of the world into a billion little plots and grow enough food. It’d be far too inefficient.
We need a leader—the energy martyr I wish I could be—to unify us behind the truth of our profligate carbon emissions and the cooperative effort it’ll take to keep the worst from happening. But humans aren’t built to fully comprehend, let alone act in unison on, a planetary risk that they themselves are creating. We’re built for individual-scale fight-or-flight, to counter or evade other creatures in our immediate area who personally threaten us. We band together to eliminate the threat, and return to more independent endeavors once the threat is dispatched.
A few visionaries have influenced government to take a handful of actions. The EPA has increased car mileage requirements. California’s cap-and-trade law is designed to ratchet carbon emissions down to 80% of their 2005 levels by the year 2050. So far, so good on those efforts. But the low-hanging fruit has been plucked. By 2020, we’ll start to cut into the meat of existing infrastructure and land use patterns. Already there’s intense local resistance to the regional planning required to alter traffic patterns to reduce emissions.
I get that resistance. Unless you’re convinced that a climate collapse is imminent, and that action now can avert it, regional planning seems like ideological government intrusion. “A small group of us have figured out a better way to live, and we’re going to coerce others to live that way.” That’s the reaction of many.
The irony is that retaining the status quo is forcing that exact same acceptance on others, except that the status quo is always privileged in the human psyche, even when the fundamental reason for the status quo no longer exists and in fact has inverted to its opposite.
We can’t behave the same way in a crowded 21st-century city as we did on an 18th-century frontier plain. But in a lot of ways, this is exactly how we try to behave. We call it tradition. We call it our way of life. We invoke our forefathers and the Constitution and the Good Lord.
Without feeling the threat in their gut, a lot of people look at grand schemes to alter land use patterns as utopianism. Utopias require a compulsory belief system, and the history of compulsory belief systems is ugly and frightening.
On top of that, the climate threat is permanent. It will never be over. It’s not something we can dispatch like we did the Nazi threat, and get back to “normal.”
That’s why we need a common realization and agreement on what’s a stake and what to do about it. Bottoms-up belief systems are the strongest: democracy and Christianity are examples. That’s why they’re evoked so frequently in opposition to the structural societal and economic changes required to ameliorate the climate crisis. Yes, democracy and Christianity have had their episodes of top-down enforcement, some quite brutal and shameful, and they have been corrupted, but in their early years, they exemplified the aphorism about the unstoppable power of ideas.
They are ideologies accepted rather than imposed.
How to come to the collective realization that the climate risk is real in the very short time we have? How to act on the idea, to create an ideology of survival, rather than impose it?