The heat backs up across the country, causing drought, wildfires, a mega-storm on the East Coast. More than 4,000 “hottest day” records have been shattered in the U.S. in the past month.
“The ecological ego matures,” Theodore Roszak wrote 20 years ago in The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, “toward a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. It seeks to weave that responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.”
Social change of real value is slow-going indeed. How do we manifest responsibility to the planet? A serious consensus is building across the globe that doing so is crucial, that the weather extremes of recent years are no less than global warming in action, the result of centuries of unbridled, industrial-age irresponsibility toward the planet, and something fundamental has to change in how we live our lives and sustain ourselves, but our leadership, certainly in this country, seems incapable of addressing an issue of such complexity.
President Obama, who campaigned as a new kind of leader, perpetuates, in the name of national security, assassination by drone. Meanwhile, every real issue of national security, including climate change, is ignored. Every problem we face either has an us-vs.-them solution or no solution at all — indeed, no existence as a problem. A year ago, when wildfires ravaged the state of Arizona, the best John McCain could do was blame it on illegal immigrants.
We’re stuck in a paradigm of domination, but we can’t fight our way out of the ecological disaster we’ve brought on ourselves. Perhaps, having brought the hell of war to the Middle East over the last two decades, we’re symbolically reaping what we’ve sown.
My friend Rebecca Hoffberger, who lives in Baltimore, spent the city’s recent blackout taking care of her 99-year-old father. She wrote to me that the experience — of having no electricity for days during 100-degree heat — made her think about our bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and how “civilians in countries we make war with had no power for months, sketchy access to water, etc. Their predicament was so far worse than ours. . . .
“So we lost expensive food from freezers and such, but the folks on the ground who had had elevators and running water and computer access and jobs to go to (no longer did). And not for the five days that D.C. and Virginia and Maryland citizens have been put out, but for months and years.”
Fourth of July 2012, she suggested, should be a time to reflect on “our massive blackout and feel more consciously what life is like for those abroad. Some of these cities were as modern as any of ours. We reduce people to a day-to-day focus on just how to get elders dinner, kids medicine, jobs maintained under conditions that must make them curse our presence and very existence.”
This begins to get at it. The problem isn’t simply that we’re failing to address climate change but that we’re continuing to aggravate it, flaunt it, inflict it on others. War, you might say, is a pre-enactment of global warming, a sneak preview of what happens when the world we live in turns viciously inhospitable.
These summers of drought and wildfire give us glimpses of our future.
For instance, corn yields have fallen precipitously this summer in the driest parts of the Midwest, according to Bloomberg News. The story, which ran in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, quotes a plant biologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana: “You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination. It’s like farming in hell.”
And Joe Romm, writing at ThinkProgress.org, noted that “the Earth has warmed only a bit more than one degree Fahrenheit since the catastrophic Dust Bowl (of the 1930s) — and we are poised to warm an astounding nine to eleven degrees Fahrenheit this century if we stay anywhere near our current greenhouse gas emissions path.”
How do we manifest responsibility to the planet? Will it take collective discomfort of Dust Bowl proportions even to bring this question into mainstream consideration? The paradox surrounding these questions is that we can’t ask them in fear. Fear generates simplistic, short-term thinking and results in the sort of solutions that find an enemy to blame or drive people into “end times” survivalist mode.
And this is what I fear. As the background conditions for global warming intensify, creating local situations in which random weather patterns are more likely to turn extreme, humanity might fall into the same pattern to a greater degree than we already have: focusing with increasing desperation on holding onto our possessions and lifestyle and thereby aggravating the very conditions putting them in jeopardy.
To avoid doing so will take courage. As the climate crisis intensifies, my prayer is that this quality, rather than fear, is what emerges in the heat.