Thinking About Climate Politics with Thomas Berry
Thomas Berry wrote the following passage concerning universities and the problem of our modern industrialist worldview.
“I mention economics, jurisprudence, and religion because these are among the subjects that are taught in our colleges and universities. An integral presentation of these subjects has not been given because of their commitment to the view that the nonhuman world is there fundamentally for the use of humans; whether economically, aesthetically, recreationally, or spiritually. For this reason the universities may be one of the principal supports of the pathology that is so ruinous to the planet.
Because of this basic attitude we consider that the more extensively we use the world about us, the more progress we are making toward some higher state of being. This vision of a transearthly status to be achieved by exploiting the natural world has driven us towards ever more violent efforts toward this end.”
Berry wrote these lines as part of his chapter on “The University” in his excellent book, The Great Work (not to be confused with the more generic use of this phrase). If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it, regardless of your personal spiritual or ecological perspective. It’s not a heavy read at all, except perhaps the significance of some of the issues under discussion.
I’ve been reading Berry as I work through my dissertation, which is trying to make sense of this idea of the Anthropocene and its relationship to contemporary global environmental politics. Berry has been a lot of fun to work through and think about, since I think he is a good example of someone who was doing really interesting work in forging new ground and pushing new ideas.
But reading the daily news, and following the ever-changing landscape of climate politics, its hard to see how we get out of this philosophical rut we are in where progress = consumption, and more and bigger is somehow always better. It’s as if humans as a species have become so totally blind to the world around us that we’ve forgotten there really is a wild world around and not of our making.
Yes, humans are great tinkerers when it comes to our habitat, no disputes there, but as Berry so eloquently said in another part of this same book, humans only make sense as part of a universal whole. Without a perfectly balanced cosmic universe to support us, there would be no humans. So why do we seem so indifferent to the local manifestations of this awesome universe–and especially planet Earth–that we are a part of? It really has something to do with this human-nonhuman dichotomy, a theme I have been wresting with and writing about in my current work tracing the debates over the “end of nature” and the rise of post-natural politics.
A good object lesson in the depth of our problems can be found by browsing current news:
“At home, coal-fired power plants are about to get a little bit cleaner, due in large part to President Barack Obama’s executive actions on climate change. Congress, however, could undo some of the environmental gains from Obama’s plan by resuming financing for the world’s dirtiest plants abroad…If Congress passes this exemption for foreign plants, it will reinforce America’s role as one of the world’s biggest public financers of coal, even as organizations like the World Bank have cut funding for such projects.”
“Knowing that conservatives will never listen to liberals—or to President Obama—on climate change, many well meaning, science-minded people have sought to identify other messengers who might possibly sway the right….This weekend on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, two former treasury secretaries, Henry Paulson (a Republican) and Robert Rubin (a Democrat), went on the air to discuss climate change and, in particular, the new “Risky Business” report with which they’re closely affiliated. The report, emerging from a partnership that also includes Michael Bloomberg and the environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, makes the case that climate change will have dire economic costs. On the air, Paulson said point blank that climate inaction entails “radical risk taking.” Rubin added that the risk is “catastrophic”.”
“There is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage. For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets. When the credit bubble burst in 2008, the damage was devastating. Millions suffered. Many still do.
We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked. This is a crisis we can’t afford to ignore. I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course…
This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.”
We could find dozens more, but the essential point of all these stories is the same–our world is moving rapidly towards the brink of a major collapse and crisis, yet the commanding heights of industry and government are blazing ahead full steam as if tomorrow was just another day. This business as usual logic is a cancer on the planet we can no longer afford to endure. As Paulson made clear regarding the lessons from the 07-08 crash, there is a climate bubble looming, and when it explodes–and it definitely will, we are all going to be in for a world of hurt!
Despite a variety of efforts, like the upcoming IPCC final report, high profile tv shows like Years of Living Dangerously, former heads of state and industry like Paulson coming out in support of climate action, and organizing what may be the largest US climate mobilization in history on Sept 21 in New York, we are still stuck in the same climate denial rut as we were 25 years ago–which is basically lots of talk and very little action.
The problem is made even worse since most of the solutions mentioned above still tend to operate from essentially the same Liberal humanist premise that Berry and others have called into question. And sadly, this includes a lot of the climate folks too.
So this begs the question, are we as an modern, industrialized species (Homo technicus) still capable of making the radical changes necessary to evolve and adapt to the transition from the Cenozoic Era to the Ecozoic Era, as Berry posits, or from the Holocene to the Anthropocene–or perhaps the Technocene, as more recent debates have argued?
At this point, I’m not convinced the answer is “yes we can” change, even if we wanted to. It’s not that solutions don’t exist out there, they do. There are models for how to live a different life, and organize politics, education, economics and religion differently, but the current global middle class would never accept the changes required of such a lifestyle shift (it would be seen as a downgrade and backwards step), which makes it even more unlikely to be embraced by those striving to step up into the American Dream of more consumption and affluence, not less.
As each year passes without any major changes to the world, it becomes increasingly clear that it will take the globalized American dream of progress and civilization crashing and burning in flames before people will realize it cannot be sustained. It never could, of course, which is why it was always a dream and never a reality. It’s no accident that people have taken to calling it the American Nightmare–and it’s become our biggest export product.
Until next time…go see the penguins in their native habitat while there is still some left.