01/09/2014 - 14:06

Conceiving life afresh

Adnan Hezri, Ashish Kothari, and I agree on at least one point: that climate change poses a massive threat to humanity. But many people, myself included, have difficulty facing up to what climate science demands of them—difficulty imagining and embracing the radical changes to economies, consumption patterns, and political systems that are necessary if emissions of greenhouse gases are to be sufficiently reduced (while the basic needs of the world's poor are nonetheless met).

Why does imagination fail in this way? One underlying reason is suggested in the last paragraph of Hezri's Round Two essay. Hezri wrote that "economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering" and that "environmentalists must accept that life is for living." Hezri recognizes that carbon emissions must come down—but prosperity and economic growth, according to his framing, are inviolable. Whatever threatens them threatens to make life not worth living.

Modern humans have walked the earth for about 200,000 years. Fossil fuels began revolutionizing industrial production only in the last 200 years or so. It is remarkable that, in such a brief time, fossil fuels have become so entwined with human life that many people struggle to imagine the latter without the former. The petroleum industry (as detailed by Matthew Huber, a geography professor at Syracuse University) has worked to remind Americans that petroleum products saturate their lives. The industry has attempted to shape cultural politics in the United States toward neoliberal values such as privatism, individualism, and freedom of choice. Petroleum has become the material and energetic basis for people's aspirations toward home and automobile ownership, an entrepreneurial lifestyle, and even a nuclear family. Today, the success and affluence of a mythical American type, the self-made individual, seem inconceivable without petroleum and the petro-economy. The petroleum industry has successfully equated opposition to limitless petroleum consumption with opposition to cherished national ideals. Unfortunately, this insidious view of the good life is not confined to the United States. In developing countries, many who belong or aspire to belong to the middle class have embraced this imported vision.

To adequately address the challenges of climate change and energy access for the poor, it is vital to recognize that the neoliberal ideal of life, with its focus on selfish, individual advancement, creates a number of undesirable conditions. These include planetary and social destruction, loneliness, dissatisfaction, and an environment of cut-throat competition. Fortunately—as argued by Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley—humans are hard-wired to be caring, kind, and compassionate. Healthier visions of the good life—visions that emphasize love, community, solidarity, compassion, and generosity—have been cherished in many cultures through much of human history. These visions and values must be nurtured to vitality and must serve as a counterweight to the dominant survival-of-the-fittest narrative.

Achieving this will be easier said than done, of course. For many people, in the developing and developed worlds alike, the crushing weight of neoliberal economics and politics can make it very difficult to reconceive attitudes toward life and pursue new ideals accordingly. That is why climate solutions such as a carbon tax must be accompanied by safety-net programs that address the needs and fears of the vulnerable.

Humans are social beings with a deep yearning for empathy, connection, and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. By acting on this yearning, people can unleash their compassion, creativity, and brilliance. These qualities provide all that is needed, even in a world of limited resources, for humanity to blaze a healthier trail, care for all living things, and heal the planet. It is only when people's values, communities, and economies come into harmony with nature that human beings will experience the lasting fulfillment of lives well lived.