Climate activists argue that the effects of climate change are too immense to be remedied by individual actions, no matter how heroic. The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh agrees. His engaging new book The Great Derangement warns against framing climate change as a “moral issue.” Not only does he pronounce appeals to the “individual conscience” beside the point, given the massive social, indeed global, changes necessary, but he also cautions against emphasizing the “politics of sincerity.” It sows cynicism about the hypocrisy of climate activists, encouraging us to snicker at “the number of lightbulbs in Al Gore’s” mansion or the use of private jets by bigwigs to go to demonstrations.
The last thing we need is cynicism, and we certainly need more than moralistic sincerity. If the polar ice is melting steadily and the seas are rising, if extreme flooding and droughts wreak havoc with agriculture, spread disease, and cause large-scale dislocation of population, then climate change is indeed a more urgent threat to civilization and culture than terrorism or war, as Ghosh argues. The causes of massive natural disturbances cannot be stopped by a last-minute conference or even national mobilization. It doesn’t matter whether these changes result mainly from human activity or from natural cycles. Mitigating the threat requires timely action; it is too late to step on the brakes once we come close to the abyss. For believers in disastrous climate change, and even for those who merely are convinced it is a likely possibility, the widespread failure to respond appropriately causes immense exasperation. Why the indifference and delay? Why do people deny the undeniable?
Some say that human beings are hardwired to fight particular enemies in motion but not to mobilize against large, impersonal natural phenomena. Tangible threats provoke us, but not statistics about increasingly extreme weather. Or, they say, evolution has programmed us to react to sudden movements of predators but not to gradual, insidious change. The “storm of the century” soon becomes an annual event, and we reconcile ourselves to the new norm instead of seeing in it the monition of a progressive, hard-to-reverse perturbation that will have dire global consequences.
All true, perhaps, but Ghosh thinks cultural blindness is at work as well. He argues that the popular scientific outlook itself anesthetizes us against taking climate change seriously. That is because science is associated with stability. Belief in evolution is commonly taken to be virtually synonymous with faith in gradual, step-by-step change. When change occurs, science tends to emphasize continuity rather than revolutionary upheaval. Nature, we assume, makes no leaps. Theories of punctuated, dramatic species change cause discomfort, and even when advocated by reputable evolutionists, these theories are often shunned as vaguely unscientific.
So it seems our secular scientific culture, at least in its popular forms, prevents us from seeing our situation with appropriate clarity. Even the authors of sophisticated science fiction appear unable to treat the imminent crisis of climate change with the urgency it demands.
By contrast, Ghosh, drawing on his Asian heritage, observes that traditional societies, living closer to natural realities, know that nature can be violent and often hostile to human hopes and plans. Unanticipated upheavals are the rule, while in a modern scientific culture that imagines it has mastered nature through experiment and explanation, they become impossible exceptions. So traditional societies ready themselves for the worst, and when it happens, they endure. Modern society and modern technology are not prepared to adapt and suffer in the same way.
There’s something to be said for Ghosh’s provocative analysis. Sometimes, however, the simple explanation is the best. True, we lack the imagination of a future so radically at variance with the familiar present. But this is mainly because, as the old moralists never tired of repeating, we discount the future. Present pleasure and convenience are vivid to us; the price to be paid tomorrow is remote. The iron law of shortsightedness affects the average climate activist who knows better no less than the climate denier who hopes that what he doesn’t believe in won’t occur.
This stubborn fact about our humanity should sober us. Whatever we think of the science of climate change, the activists are certainly right: Countering the effects, to say nothing of addressing the causes, transcends individual agency. But the aversion of activists to individual responsibility leads them to deny the undeniable. Any realistic approach to climate change will almost certainly require us to sacrifice significant elements of our self-indulgent lifestyles. The lowered thermostat in winter, the higher setting in summer, and other, perhaps more serious, hardships and deprivations—we will not be spared. And there will be a psychocultural suffering as well. Many of us believe that the vital health of a society is bound up with ever-increasing material comfort. To the degree that addressing climate change will demand an ethic of less rather than more, this faith in material progress may end up shattered. As we lose confidence in our culture’s ability to deliver on the promise of ever-greater wealth and comfort, so too will the sense of solidarity decline, making us far less likely to be able to cope collectively with the prospect of doing without.
This prospect should be more frightening to conservatives than to liberals, because we have more to lose. A demoralized and destabilized society is one in which the survival of the civil and spiritual life, not to mention its preservation and propagation, is threatened. We may suspect that the activist program of combating climate change masks an appetite for intrusive, centralized government engineering, as it has in the past. But if the environmental menace is real, putting off the day of reckoning will only make government intervention less effective and thus more heavy-handed. Should we not seek strategies now, ones that appropriately use government to ensure collective action, but in ways that minimize intrusion, and the sooner the better?
Most of us are not technologically competent. It is hard for us to judge among the various solutions being proposed. Supporters of a market economy lean toward incentives like carbon taxes, and this in spite of the recent encyclical Laudato Si, which disparages them as inadequate and susceptible to corrupt manipulation. All of us, however, are capable of recognizing that the habits of temperance and the capacity for material sacrifice may be indispensable in days to come. How to make the practice of these habits widespread, palatable, even honorable, is a task for all.
In Ghosh’s opinion, the scientific parts of Laudato Si are free of wishful thinking about the power of technology to meet optimistic goals and deliver us from the need for significant material sacrifice, in a way that the Paris Agreement is not. Perhaps that is because the former document proceeds from a more sober, hopeful, and realistic conception of individual responsibility. Those who are formed by traditional religion value and cherish temperance and self-discipline as expressions of lives dedicated to the service of God. Others, who place their confidence in impersonal utilitarian methods for promoting human welfare, may yet be forced to accept that the future of our societies relies upon our capacity for sacrifice just as much as our scientific understanding and technological ingenuity.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.