“The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is.”— Theresa Mancuso(quoted in Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, p. 19)
There are moments – contemplating global warming and mass extinctions – that I wonder what I think I’m going to accomplish with my ethics studies, and whether there’s really time to learn (to teach) new ways of thinking and being in the world. Many perfectly sensible scientists believe it’s too late to stop (or even slow) the destruction, and that we must now turn to planning for it, coping with it. But even that is impossible if we can’t get the administration (or our own SUV-driving neighbors, for that matter) to “face the way it is.”

When the Kyoto Protocol took effect a couple weeks ago, George Monbiot wrote about (western) human denial in the face of mounting indisputable evidence of catastrophic climate change. The whole (short) column is worth reading, but this part resonates:

But there’s a much bigger problem here. The denial of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent with – even necessary for – the outlook of almost all the world’s economists. Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the dominant economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses.

And this, of course, is beyond contemplation. It mocks the dreams of both left and right, of every child and parent and worker. It destroys all notions of progress. If the engines of progress – technology and its amplification of human endeavour – have merely accelarated our rush to the brink, then everything we thought was true is false. Brought up to believe that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, we are now discovering that it is better to curse the darkness than to burn your house down.

Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as – and far more dangerous than – any religious fundamentalism. But their theories govern our lives, so those who insist that physics and biology still apply are ridiculed by a global consensus founded on wishful thinking.

And this leads us, I think, to a further reason for turning our eyes away. When terrorists threaten us, it shows that we must count for something, that we are important enough to kill. They confirm the grand narrative of our lives, in which we strive through thickets of good and evil towards an ultimate purpose. But there is no glory in the threat of climate change. The story it tells us is of yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until they are poisoned by their own waste. It is too squalid an ending for our anthropocentric conceit to accept.

The challenge of climate change is not, primarily, a technical one. It is possible greatly to reduce our environmental impact by investing in energy efficiency, though as the Exeter conference concluded, “energy efficiency improvements under the present market system are not enough to offset increases in demand caused by economic growth.”(6) It is possible to generate far more of the energy we consume by benign means. But if our political leaders are to save the people rather than the people’s fantasies, then the way we see ourselves must begin to shift. We will succeed in tackling climate change only when we accept that we belong to the material world.


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