Climate change - it's the apocalypse, stupid!
Dr Mark Byrne*
Published at Eureka
Street Extra, 13/9/06
Like many other politicians and scientists, the man who "used
to be the next President of the United States" thinks that
"the most serious crisis ever confronting human civilisation
is this climate crisis." At the same time, in An Inconvenient
Truth, the documentary about his travelling climate change slide
show, Al Gore laments his failure to have shifted US government
policy on the issue.
It's not your fault, Al. The human species is good at pulling together
to solve crises that affect us all. Witness the success of the Montreal
Protocol to plug the hole in the ozone layer by banning CFCs. But
it becomes harder to work together the more intangible the problem,
the further in the future the worst impacts are expected, and the
more global cooperation is needed.
The public is also tired of people playing either Chicken Little
("The sky is falling down!") or the Boy Who Cried Wolf
about global issues. In the 1960s it was the dire predictions of
the Club of Rome about the limits to growth. In the seventies and
eighties it was the threat of nuclear proliferation. These issues
haven't gone away, and the fact that they haven't resulted in the
collapse of civilisation is largely due to a combination of changed
circumstances, hard work and luck. Nevertheless, some conservative
commentators argue that we're still here, so maybe this climate
thing will blow away too?!
Yet the third time the boy cried wolf, there really was a wolf.
This isn't to imply that previous threats were unreal. However,
the challenge is to convince people that this time it's even more
urgent. This isn't a job we can leave to scientists alone. As Gore
says, "there has never been a stronger scientific consensus
than the one on this question." Still the Australian and US
governments refuse to listen, so the problem isn't that we need
more or better data. It is coming in every month, and if anything,
the news from the polar regions is making all the modelling look
way too conservative.
Climate change is not only a question of scientific data. It's
also a story. "Look at what is happening to our planet now,
what is likely to happen, and what we should do about it to prevent
a catastrophe." At its most serious, it is an apocalyptic narrative.
Humans have been telling stories about the end of the world for
millennia: the Hindu Kali Yuga, the Scandinavian Ragnarok, the Christian
Marxism, too, speaks in similar terms, only this time it's the
"inevitable" end of capitalism that will usher in the
workers' utopia. In the 1980s we had Ronald Reagan's belief in a
Rapture that would follow a "war of the worlds." The righteous
would ascend to eternal life in heaven while the earth and all heathens
would be devastated.
Usually in these stories, the end of civilisation is followed by
the birth of a new world. This is not something climate scientists
dwell on, but some environmentalists and social justice advocates
will say privately that the cult of consumer capitalism is so destructive
and so entrenched that it may well take a global catastrophe for
our species to learn the error of its ways. Maybe so, but do we
have the right to take our children's futures away, or to take other
species with us?
Because the end of civilisation is an archetypal story, we can
easily put it in an old box, one we're tired of opening. As George
Bush is discovering with his so-called "war on terror",
people cannot live forever on a war footing, their nerves frayed,
unable to relax let alone to plan ahead. We are likely to tune out
and withdraw into a world in which we can feel safe and in control.
To paraphrase Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, what we cannot imagine,
we are condemned to live out. The point of telling stories about
the end of the world is that we are then less likely to let this
terrible scenario unfold around us because we couldn't bear to think
about it. To enter into the imagination of a world in which everything
frozen has melted is also to express and share our fears for each
other, for our children, and for the rest of life on this beautiful,
Dr Mark Byrne is Senior Researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice
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