Endangered Earth: Ignorance, Indifference or Fear?

Go, go go, said the bird; human kind Cannot bear too much reality’
T S Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton
Give me somewhere to stand, and I will move the earth
Archimedes, 287-212 BC

Opening my newspaper on a recent Sunday morning, there were problems for the Labour Party in Scotland, the Prime Minister was breathing hell-fire at the European Union; unknown (to me) celebrities indulging their mid-life crises; ubiquitous bankers pleading that their bonuses be not capped at a mere 100% of salary – all those customary trivia and nitty-gritties of our ‘advanced’ 21st century, market-economy-driven lives.

Eliot was right – as humans we take our ‘realities’ in very small doses: but it’s Archimedes who still speaks more directly to our human potentials.

We prefer to ‘inch’ our way into even our shorter-term futures, measure them mainly against our own, and our children’s modest expectations and horizons, happy – even if we have eschewed religion and ‘ever-afters’ – in the more proximate continuities of family, friends and the ongoing, reassuring time-thread of evolutionary life. It’s sad that, after so many millennia, we have failed yet to solve the eminently solvable problems of cruel poverty and inequality in our societies; but most now share the richer wisdom, too-slowly learned, that human quality does not cohere with the size of a parent’s income.

Nevertheless – and certainly for Arts Social Action and its declared mission on Climate Change – the day’s general press silence on the topic was both par-for-the-course and particularly unnerving. This was because the week, seen via other sources, had bristled with developments and topics of crucial significance for the cause; but about which few, beyond a ludicrously small minority, would be likely to know?

First, a Review in the London Review of Books (Paul Kingsnorth, ‘The Four Degrees’, LRB 23 October 2014) reminded us of the deplorable 20 year history of international, government level neglect – the abortive, 1992 Earth Summit (treaty not binding so nothing happened); the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (entered by 200 countries but never ratified by the US); the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, which collapsed in disarray, undermined by the US and China; and Doha (2012) aimed futuristically at some binding agreement ‘by 2020’ three decades after the sad process started. The product has been a current situation in which carbon dioxide emissions are at record levels, and rising.

Unfortunately Kingsnorth, who is a gifted novelist, approaches the task of reviewing what sounded to be important books on the climate issue in a way which too quickly aligned his critique with his manifest personal assumptions and prejudices. So, the curiously titled Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall (Bloomsbury £20) seemed to chime most sympathetically with the reviewer’s own ‘doomsdayish’ expectations on the climate front.

He was quick to quote Marshall:

“Scientists who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nevertheless keep using the same word CATASTROPHE.”

(Do they ?)

“It is increasingly likely that Earth’s climate will warm by 4% – twice the so-called agreed upper limit”

(Is it ?).

So, why don’t we commit to working harder to at least hold the temperature and reduce further emissions? That, according to Marshall’s reported thesis, won’t work – because “most discussions of climate change start from the curious (sic !) assumption that if we can just give people the information they need, they will demand action, and then the politicians will have to take action…” (There is something to be said for that view, you might think, since colluding media and governments have too often been economical with the truth and obfuscated the issues.) “But this is almost completely the wrong way round” Marshall asserts – turning not to climatology but to Dan Kahan, a psychology professor at Yale Law School, who is said to believe “it isn’t information but ‘culture coding’ that forms the basis of our world view”.

We can hazard a guess at what the good professor means and take note; but this prevailing, nihilistic and cynical scenario seems always on the verge of collapse into inertia; especially when the final word is given to yet another (this time Nobel Prize Winning!) ‘expert in the psychology of human decision-making’ – Daniel Kahneman, (when chatting with Marshall in a New York café) :

“No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line. There is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry…”

We humans are shot through with imperfections, but I believe, with many others, that we can do much better than that. Faced with this unprecedented threat to the earth’s survival, we certainly need a ruthless realism – but, with it, a clear commitment to action – some action – engaging that hard-earned, uniquely human positivism which Roosevelt once invoked – that “what we have most to fear is fear itself!” Archimedes, certainly, would have bridled at such pathetic surrender!

Next up in Kingsnorth’s review is Naomi Klein and “This Changes Everything. Capitalism v The Climate” (.Allen Lane £20).

So, what will destroy this web of denial, displacement and paralysis?” Kingsnorth asks, before continuing – “Enter Naomi Klein whose latest book aspires to ‘upend the debate’ about climate change by linking it squarely to the latest crisis of capitalism. It’s a long work, filled with original research”, he tells us, though he chooses to reveal precious little of it to us before exposing his peremptory conclusion – that her book ‘doesn’t fulfil its promise’.

He could be right (Arts Social Action will be offering a fuller, more consistent review of the Klein argument and analysis); but the reasons given by Kingsnorth are more broadly revelatory of the conventional obstacles in the way of a more progressive dialogue on this most urgent of all issues. The first harks back to the ‘Marshall’ thesis and offers this overly short paraphrase of Klein’s very detailed argument:-

“If this is a ‘war‘, we need a war economy; one that will rein in the corporations, and allow governments to assert more control over the necessary and rapid creation of a low-carbon economy… it will need more power for the poor and less for the billionaires… it will need a huge transfer of wealth and technology from north to south…”

All of which, Kingsnorth rapidly concludes, “is an American liberal wish-list, and which party leader would be brave enough to try to sell that”. What Klein has done, he rather cynically suggests, “is simply figure out how to fit climate change into her existing ideological box”; though, as other commentators point out, this may be the critical missing insight, since both the ‘corporate’ and ‘ governing, neo-liberal market-elites’ have been allowed a near- monopoly of the issue within their own ‘ideological boxes’ for far too-long and with potentially disastrous results.

Reverting to Marshall, Kingsnorth concludes that we should see climate change not as a ‘war’ but as a ‘quest’, in which we must all ‘lever ourselves out of our comfort zones‘. ‘It is clear now that stopping climate change is impossible’ he writes (correct- or at least until we’ve halted the decline); but “what is still worth fighting for” is not his negative “some control over how bad it will get” but a multilateral binding commitment to a 565 Gigaton maximum carbon release by 2050 and temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

So, why not cheer up and come help us achieve that? But alas, Marshall and the ever gloomy Kahneman are given the last word. “So that’s my bottom line; There is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.

So he, and Marshall, should be – but before their last psychologist puts out the lights, what about a little Archimedean enterprise? For this was soon to come via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 Report, released 2nd November in Copenhagen; which at last sets out the definitive evidence and eminently affordable action necessities for the worldwide phasing out of fossil fuels by 2100 and the commensurate expansion of renewables.

It’s within this more positive scenario that Arts Social Action will be deploying its own creative agenda, as the IPCC Report and some promising new alliances change the dynamics of this most critical dialogue. In the necessary battle for hearts and minds to carry through this massive reconciliation with our Earth, who could be better equipped and motivated than those whose lives have drawn so copiously on its munificence and inspiration for their creativity and art?

© Ralph Windle 2014.

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