John Buell

We Must Respond to Climate Change

Climate science now presents a unique challenge. We have already passed a tipping point. No matter what we do now, our children will live on a more inhospitable planet. This is hard to acknowledge in a land drenched in technological optimism. The temptation to repress and return to business as usual remains strong. Nonetheless, what we do still matters. Cutting greenhouse emissions dramatically now will mean less severe and rapid climate deterioration. And we can plan, design, and build on a large scale for a world of expected floods, droughts and heat waves.

Jeremy Brecher has called for an international human preservation movement <>. Brecher is surely correct in recognizing the need for transnational collaboration. Existing nation states and the materialist/nationalist identities expressed in and through them are a large part of our ecological dilemma. Brecher points out that in the late ’50s and ’60s activists came together across borders, religions, and ideologies to fight for atmospheric test bans. Yet such a sense of a common survival interest that can override nationalistic or fundamentalist religious creeds and identities is hardly automatic. The partial successes of the anti nuclear movement depended on more than shared survival instincts. They also required some lessening of Cold War era ideological and nationalistic rigidities at least among some activists. These efforts might have achieved more had that process gone further.

Commentators often say that Americans will never give up their consumer lifestyle. We can buy many different autos for transportation, houses for access to good schools, vacation packages to get away from the grind of daily life.

But the consumer lifestyle and the culture that sustains it are not inalterable or invulnerable. We cannot buy public transit, clean air, universal access to good schools or quiet neighborhoods. And as we purchase private goods like cell phones, fancy autos, houses in affluent neighborhoods and braces for our children so they can get ahead our neighbors and co-workers make similar purchases. Each is caught on a treadmill of endless work and consumption, which often ends up being disappointing. It is no wonder that survey research shows that beyond basic comfort, more and more affluence does not increase human happiness. There is an opening on which a more ecological politics premised on expansion of opportunities for qualitative choice might develop.

Such seemingly unrelated issues as immigration and end of life care (voluntary euthanasia) also have a large bearing on our planetary future. As Hamilton recognizes, cultural attitudes to death underlie as well as are intensified by these frightful risks and challenges. Our faith in technology and our sense of ourselves as a special people can be read as compensations for a finitude we cannot bear.

Thus ethical/religious questions must also be in play. Is or must death be in God’s hands? Viewing death as punishment or even as an inadequacy of the human condition to be perpetually resented only intensifies the urge to find compensation in techno wonders and belittling others. (Usually some combination of both.)

A new maturity about both death itself and consumption can become more widespread. This new sensitivity might help us cope with the more dangerous world we have created. Quality of life may matter more than number of years. There may be more joy in a relatively short life spent in contemplation of nature and the wild than in eight decades of the work/consumption treadmill. New understandings of nature that are neither mechanistic nor updated forms of medieval teleology may help evoke such sensitivity in many of us. These portray a nature that amidst its periodic order displays moments and realms of stunning and sometimes terrifying surprises. (See, for instance, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.) Exposure to other cultures and lifestyles, aiding in the survival of our neighbors and our families can convey meaning and satisfaction. Concepts of economic “growth” that emphasize environmental quality and increased leisure to develop new interests and sensibilities are keys to this transformation. As Juliet Schor and Benjamin Hunnicutt have emphasized, such concerns are hardly un-American. They are a forgotten part of our labor history and a continuing goal of many downshifters in both urban and rural settings. Broadening the opportunity for such life style choices should be a central environmental goal.

Movements for international survival often depend on efforts to reduce the psychological, economic, and even religious pressures to secure collective and individual identity by demonizing those who differ in religions, ethnicity, or ways of life. Cultivating a capacity latent in many to appreciate a world of growing diversity in religions, languages and backgrounds, family structure, sexual orientation, music, dress, food preferences will be crucial if we are to survive.

In this regard, the politics of immigration is itself a central environmental issue. The Pentagon is preparing for war against the immigrants sure to be displaced by floods and draughts. Environmental and social justice advocates need to prepare now for a different future by collaborating across borders to provide subsistence for all in developing nations while slowing the mindless and self-defeating growth compulsions in affluent societies. In the process ideally community amidst those who hold different religions, histories, and ethnicities can be achieved and validate itself. 

Here in the US activists can demand that our vast military establishment be reprogrammed to provide disaster relief so that, as one of the Navy’s ads says, it can truly become a global force for good.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2012

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