What we talk about when we talk about climate change

I wrote this in late 2013 for the Creative Climate Project of the Open University. Spoken remarks based on it are published in Culture and Climate Change: Narratives [pdf], but here is the original

Caspar Henderson

Much of my work over the last 21 years has related to climate change in one way or another, and during that time I have mainly lived with four stories.1 The first I call Pragmatist’s Dream. In this story, we live in a world where reasonable people of good will can work together to meet the challenges presented by climate change no matter how intractable and daunting they may seem. This story has a powerful driving force, and it informs much if not most of the progressive thinking and action in politics, business and society more generally.

The second story I will call Nothing Changes. In this one, the science of climate change is getting better all the time, the risks are for the most part becoming clearer and the need for action more compelling; but the world is still heading, hell-for-leather, on a path of self-destruction. A glance at the trajectory of global emissions over the last 20 years and their likely future course seems to support this. But the story doesn't end there: we have to understand why nothing is changing. I remember going to a workshop organised by the group Platform London, some time around the millennium, I think, in which we were presented with a large number of charts and graphics relating to climate change over the previous 20 years and asked to identify a trend – apart, that is, from the steady rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. We puzzled for some time before the organisers pointed it out: the share prices of oil companies had risen steadily throughout the entire period. They were making a killing.

And this is the second part of Nothing Changes: the bad guys are still there, and still in charge. Privately-owned corporations – as well as those controlled by states in many parts of the world – will do almost anything to protect their profits from coal, oil and other enterprises that generate massive emissions. This kind of opposition cannot be moved by rational argument on the risks of climate change. We continue to live in societies dominated, in energy generation as much as in banking, by partly or wholly criminal enterprises which will do almost anything to further their short-term profits.

The third story I will call Angel Heart after the 1987 movie starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro, in which (spoiler alert) when we finally meet the villain he is ‘us’. In this story, it's not the corporations or the banks that are to blame (or at least not only them), but our civilisation or even our species as a whole. Here we have Edward Abbey's characterisation of industrial society as a cancer cell and David Suzuki comparing humanity to bacteria multiplying exponentially in a test tube. Something like this this view (of industrial civilisation, though not necessarily humanity as a whole) informs recent aspects of the the Dark Mountain Project or the thinking of Roy Scranton, the author of a philosophical reflection titled Learning How to Die in theAnthropocene. There have been times when I have found some variant of Angel Heart compelling, but in the end I usually find it the least convincing of the four stories I'm outlining here.

I don't have a good name for the fourth story. Let's call it Zhuangzi after the ancient Chinese philosopher. Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu in the Wade-Giles system of romanising Chinese characters) was a Taoist with a playful, anarchist's temperament. He is probably best known in the West for the butterfly dream, in which the philosopher wakes from sleep and recalls that he dreamed he was a butterfly. Reflecting more deeply, however, he realises he does not know whether he is in fact a butterfly dreaming he is a man. Zhuangzi as a narrative is about keeping an open mind, about being resourceful and flexible. It allows for the possibility of radical, disruptive change and new creation – new ways of organising that enable citizens that outsmart regressive vested interests, spectacular advances in green technology such as photovoltaics delivering power at less than a dollar per watt, and more.

In Zhuangzi, nothing is certain: we may yet see climate and environmental change that is anything from ‘difficult but manageable’ to catastrophic and comparable to the end of the Permian extinction in which 95% of species perished. Still, some things look reasonably sure. Humanity will continue to have an enormous impact on the Earth system. The greenhouse gases we have added to the atmosphere seem likely to prevent any ice ages that would otherwise have happened for the next 50,000 years or so, and the way things are going it is likely we will prevent all of those that would have occurred in the next half million years. In the nearer term, over the next century or two, we are probably in for an extremely bumpy ride unless we develop much better systems for managing resources and pollution and for anticipating and dealing with risk and conflict.

And yet human creativity and innovation in response to crisis – and even just for the sheer joy of it – can be almost boundless. We need to remain “possibilists” in the sense developed by Albert O. Hirschman long before David Eagleman supposedly coined the term, by which is meant meant “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” When it comes to predicting how things will go with any precision, my four stories, and others, are not a whole lot better than interpretations of Rorschach ink blots. The complexity of the Earth–human system means that much will remain necessarily unknowable, and we therefore need, as two critics of transhumanism put it, to ‘rehabilitate humility.’ (Transhumanism is the belief that, facilitated by increasingly rapid technological progress, humans are, or have the potential, to develop into something with greater capabilities than any of us have at present.) Only then can we listen to voices that are hard to hear to hear as well as those we want to hear. (“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead,”observes Daniel Kahneman). As in the story of Oedipus, the tragedy occurs when we refuse to listen.

Towards the end of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings I cite a well-known line from Voltaire's Candide: ‘we must cultivate our garden’. But what sort of garden are we cultivating in the Anthropocene and what sort of creatures will flourish in it? How will things turn out? When will we know? A true gardener wants to be able to see into the future – a good ‘eleven hundred years,’ joked Karel ńĆapek, ‘to test, learn to know, and appreciate fully what is his’. Alas, the option of so long a life is not open to us in the foreseeable future. We cannot know how the story ends. But we can live as if everything – or almost everything – depends on our quality of mind and attention, and on the presence or absence of love.

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