To Deal with Climate Change Let’s Put Our Trust in People

David W. Orr suggests that treating the public as intelligent adults capable of heroic acts gives a greater chance of solving environmental issues.

To Deal with Climate Change Let’s Put Our Trust in People

To deal with the causes of climate change, we need a more thorough and deeper awareness of how we got to the brink of destroying the human prospect and much of the planet.

It did not happen accidentally but is the logical working out of a set of assumptions, philosophies, worldviews, and unfair power relations that have been evident for a long time....

The fact is that climate stability, sustainability, and security are impossible in a world with too much violence, too many weapons, too much unaccountable power, too much stuff for some and too little for others, and a political system that is bought and paid for behind closed doors. Looming climate catastrophe, in other words, is a symptom of a larger disease.

What do I propose? Simply this: that those who purport to lead us, and all of us who are concerned about climate change, environmental quality, and equity, treat the public as intelligent adults who are capable of understanding the truth and acting creatively and courageously in the face of necessity — much as a doctor talking to a patient with a potentially terminal disease. Faced with a life-threatening illness, people more often than not respond heroically. Every day, soldiers, parents, citizens, and strangers do heroic and improbable things in the full knowledge of the price they will pay. Much depends on how and how well people are led. Robert Greenleaf, one of the great students of leadership, put it this way: "It is part of the enigma of human nature that the 'typical' person — immature, stumbling, inept, lazy — is capable of great dedication and heroism if wisely led."

Genuine leaders, including those in the media, must summon the people with all of their flaws to a level of extraordinary achievement appropriate to an extraordinarily dangerous time. They must ask people, otherwise highly knowledgeable about the latest foibles of celebrities, to be active citizens again, to know more, think more deeply, take responsibility, participate publicly, and, from time to time sacrifice. Leaders must help the public see the connections between climate, environmental quality, security, energy use, equity, and prosperity. We must relearn how to be creative in adversity. As quaint and naïve as that may sound, people have done it before, and it's worked.

Telling the truth requires leaders at all levels to speak clearly about the causes of our failures that have led us to the brink of disaster. If we fail to treat the underlying causes, no small remedies will save us for long. The problems can in one way or another be traced to the irresponsible exercise of power that has excluded the rights of the poor, the disenfranchised, and every generation after our own. This is in no small way a direct result of money in politics, which has aided and abetted the theft of the public commons, including the airwaves, where deliberate misinformation and distraction of the public is a growth industry. The right of free speech, as Lincoln said in his address to the Cooper Union in 1860, should not be used "to mislead others who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it." But the rights of capital over the media now trump those of honesty and fair public dialogue, and will continue to do so until the public reasserts its legitimate control over the public commons, including the airwaves.

Transformational leadership in the largest crisis humankind has ever faced means summoning people to a higher vision than that of the affluent consumer society. Consider the well-studied but little-noted gap between the stagnant or falling trend line of American happiness in the last half century and that of rising GNP. That gap ought to have reinforced the ancient message that, beyond some point, more is not better. If we fail to see a vision of a livable decent future beyond the consumer society, we will never summon the courage, imagination, or wit to do the obvious things to create something better than what is in prospect.

So, what does a carbon neutral society and increasingly sustainable society look like? My list consists of communities with:

Front porches
Public parks
Local businesses
Windmills and solar collectors
Living machines to process waste water
Local farms and better food
More and better woodlots and forests
Summer jobs for kids doing useful things
Local employment
More bike trails
Summer baseball leagues
Community theaters
Better poetry
Neighborhood book discussion groups
Bowling leagues
Better schools
Vibrant and robust downtowns with sidewalk cafes
Great pubs serving microbrews
Fewer freeways, shopping malls, sprawl, and television
More kids playing outdoors
No more wars for oil or access to other people's resources

Nirvana? Hardly! We have a remarkable capacity to screw up good things. But it is still possible to create a future that is a great deal better than what is in prospect. Ironically, what we must do to avert the worst effects of climate change are mostly the same things we would do to build sustainable communities, improve environmental quality, build prosperous economies, and improve the prospects for our children.

I am an educator and earn my keep by perpetuating the quaint belief that if people only knew more we would behave better. Some of what we need to know is new, but most of it is old, very old. On my list of things people ought to know in order to discern the truth are a few technical things like:

  1. The laws of thermodynamics imply that economic growth only increases the pace of disorder, the transition from low entropy to high entropy
  2. The basic sciences of biology and ecology — that is, how the world works as a physical system.
  3. The fundamentals of ecological carrying capacity, which apply to yeast cells in a wine vat, lemmings, deer, and humans.

But we ought to know, too, about human fallibility, gullibility, and the inescapable problem of ignorance. So I propose that political leaders at all levels, as well as corporate executives, media moguls and reporters, financiers and bean counters, along with all college and university students, read, mull over, and discuss Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Melville's Moby Dick, and the book of Ecclesiastes as antidotes to the technological fundamentalism of our time. I hope that we would learn how to distinguish those things that we can do from those that we should not do. And the young, in particular, should be taught the many disciplines of applied hope, which include the skills necessary to grow food, build shelter, manage woodlots, make energy from sunlight and wind, develop local enterprises, cook a good meal, use tools skillfully, repair and reuse, and talk sensibly at a public meeting.

And one thing more. Hope, authentic hope, can be found only in our capacity to discern the truth about our situation and ourselves and summon the fortitude to act accordingly. We have it on high authority that the truth will set us free from illusion, greed, and ill will — and, perhaps with a bit of luck, from self-imposed destruction — but that will require a deeper and more fundamental transformation.

Reprinted from Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, by David W. Orr, with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright 2009 Oxford University Press, Inc.