Introduction: Creating a Shared Moral Vision
It is different for people to grasp just how extreme our ecological crises really are. Problems such as climate change, loss of species, water shortages--are a type of problem that human beings have never faced before, because the problems are global. Personal behavior has never before had global weather consequences. Therefore, there is no historical precedence in this type of problem solving to help us form useful responses. In understanding these problems there are three realities that need to be understood:
1. Our ecological crises are enormous and quickly getting worse.
Our Ecological Crises are Enormous
Scientific research now demonstrates that global warming is real, catastrophic, and created by humans. Science has settled the debate over whether or not global warming is happening. Now the debate is over economics and equity. Yet, even though scientists know global warming is happening, they cannot say exactly how much it will warm, or how fast it will warm, or what the local effects will be. These issues will depend on how soon we convert to renewable energy, as well as what chain reactions are set off by the warming.
Global warming is the issue facing the world today. Scientists knew, 20 years ago, that global warming was occurring because of the real world evidence of melting glaciers, changing weather patterns, increased temperature, droughts and floods. However, the political fight over responding to global warming was dependent on scientists creating models capable of demonstrating statistically that warming was the result of human behavior. Since global weather is extremely complex, scientists had difficulty developing computer models that were able to model this complexity.
At last, the 2001 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) presented models that could establish statistically that global warming is happening and humans are largely responsible for it. Already, with just 1°F of warming, seas are rising, the timing of seasons is changing, glaciers are melting, diseases are migrating, and the oceans are warming. Because of the inertia built into the Earth's natural systems, the world has so far only experienced the result of CO 2 emitted in the 1960s. Much greater effects will occur as the increased pollution of later decades works its way through the system. Therefore, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts there will be an increase of between 2.5 -10.4°F.
In November 2004, a multi-year study by 300 scientists concluded that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and that its ice-cap had shrunk by up to 20 per cent in the past three decades. The ice is also 40 per cent thinner than it was in the 1970s and is expected to disappear altogether in the summers by 2070. In fact, Dr Pachauri, head of the IPCC, said in January 2005, that parts of the Arctic were having a January "heat wave," with temperatures 8-9° C. higher than normal. He concluded: "Climate change is for real. We have just a small window of opportunity and it is closing rather rapidly. There is not a moment to lose. We are risking the ability of the human race to survive."
In addition to global warming, species extinctions have reached catastrophic proportions. In the history of the Earth, there have been five mass extinctions; the last one was the dinosaurs. Biologists are calling what is happening now, the sixth mass extinction, and they are warning that we could lose more than 25 percent of the species on Earth by the end of this century, creating unknown cascading effects throughout entire ecosystems.
Worldwide, there are severe shortages of water. The world now drains more from rivers and aquifers than is returned by the Earth’s annual rain and snow fall. We are drawing down underground aquifers faster than they can be replenished, and many major rivers are so over-tapped that for part of the year, they run dry before they get to the sea. Agriculture uses 70 percent of fresh water, and it takes 1000 tons of water to grow one ton of grain. Therefore, these water shortages will cause food shortages. Water shortages also threaten the lives of all the Earth’s plants and animals.
No matter how fast we respond, the world will soon be radically different, perhaps in as little as one decade. Ross Gelbspan says in Boiling Point, “There really is no choice. One way the other, this world we inhabit will not long continue on its historical trajectory. Like it or not, we are facing a massive and inevitable discontinuity. Discontinuity is a systems term in which a system suddenly and radically shifts.
If we commit to a worldwide crash program to convert to renewable energy, the change could be less disruptive. If we cannot create the political will for radical change, then at some point, the world will hit a brick wall as the global weather system spirals out of control.
We need to begin by accepting that the Earth is finite. The Earth’s carbon cycle and hydrological cycle have limits. We must learn to live within the Earth’s limits or we will overrun our environment, and cause massive ecological collapse.
Our Ecological Crises are Urgent
Many of those who realize how serious our ecological crises are, do not realize how urgent they are. Our response needs to be total and immediate. We must make these changes, not over 30 or 40 years, but over the next five to ten years.
On January 25, 2005, the International Panel Climate Change (IPCC) Taskforce issued a new report called Meeting The Climate Challenge.The report says, “With climate change, there is an ecological time bomb ticking away. . .” They say that the point of no return with global warming may be reached i n as little as 10 years (or less) with widespread drought, crop failure and water shortages. They feel the run-away point is when atmospheric levels of CO 2 reach 400 parts per million (ppm). In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution, the level was 280ppm. In early 2004, it was 379ppm. Atmospheric CO 2 is now rising more than 2 ppm a year, therefore, atmospheric CO 2 will exceed 400 ppm within the next decade and the level, they say, “could rise far higher under a business-as-usual scenario.”
The debate over global warming is no longer over whether or not it is happening; it is now over the degree of urgency and the scale of the problem. If we only need to reduce the use of fossil fuels by the 5-7% in the Kyoto treaty, we have one kind of problem. However, most scientists consider this a very inadequate first step. The IPCC has said we must reduce carbon emissions to 60 to 80 % below the 1990 level, just to stabilize global temperatures at their present, already high, levels. If this is the level of change needed, we have a very different problem.
Scientists have found that CO 2 may warm the Earth even more than originally thought, and that this warming can occur suddenly. Previously, scientists assumed warming could only occur gradually and that climate change was never abrupt. However, a 2002 report by the National Academy of Science, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, shows that, in the past, major and widespread climate changes have occurred in a few years, not decades or centuries, which they say have locally reached as much as 10°C change in 10 years.” William Nordhaus who worked on the report, says that the impact of gradual global warming would be relatively manageable. However, the “abrupt stuff is more dangerous. What we are triggering is, in a sense, irreversible. If we flip into that mode, it may be like that for 5,000 years.”
When the North Atlantic warmed after the last ice age, half of the increase happened in only a decade. Similar events, including local warmings, as much as 16 ° C, occurred repeatedly during the slide into and climb out of the last ice age. The National Academy of Sciences concluded recently that global warming could cause environmental collapse suddenly and without warning. The sudden change is the result of feedback loops and threshold effects. Our options depend on how soon we change (and we should have started 30 years ago). The longer we wait, the fewer options we will have and the more we risk creating catastrophic consequences.
One possible consequence is that the warming could create a much colder climate in Europe. In t he Atlantic Monthly article, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," William H. Calvin calls this possible consequence “a particularly efficient means of committing mass suicide.” (See Global Warming)
People have trouble getting felt-sense of how close we may be to triggering run-away chain reactions in the global weather system. The public has little awareness of this urgency, because politics and the media continue to minimized the problems. To demand action, people need the truth—that we must not only reduce emissions by 60-80%, but do it now, not over a few decades. This then creates a profoundly different problem--but it is a political problem, not a scientific one, or even a technical one.
An Adequate Scale of Response
This urgency means that the needed response must be on an adequate scale. In his book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress & a Civilization in Trouble, Lester Brown, (former Director of Worldwatch, now Director of Earth Policy Institute) offers an example of the needed scale and speed of social change. He compares the scale of what we need to do now to what the country was able to do after Pearl Harbor:
Early in the year , the production and sale of cars and trucks for private use was banned, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. . . A rationing program was also introduced. In addition to an outright ban on the sale of private cars, strategic goods—including tires, gasoline, fuel oil, and sugar—were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up resources to support the war effort.
Brown says that in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, one month after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt announced very ambitious production goals, saying that the United States would produce 60,000 planes; a feat no one thought was possible. With the production and sale of cars banned, the entire automobile industry concentrated on producing airplane engines. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, the United States turned out not 60,000, but 229,600 aircraft, “a fleet so vast it is hard to visualize.” Brown then says, “This mobilization of resources within a matter of months demonstrates that a country and, indeed, the world can restructure its economy quickly if it is convinced of the need to do so.”
This is the level of response needed. After Pearl Harbor, people did not organize to encourage people to voluntarily reduce their use of gasoline, tires etc. Instead, the federal government mandated these changes; nothing else would have created a sufficient response, and Americans responded to the challenge and agreed to the sacrifices because they understood the necessity.
Environmental Advocacy Is Inadequate
This urgency means we need to redefine ecological activism. In every community, concerned individuals and organizations are working to contribute solutions to this crisis. Their work helps to raise awareness and create a political base. However, in Boiling Point, when Ross Gelbspan discusses addressing global warming, he says, “though many environmental problems can be addressed through lifestyle changes, climate change is not one of them.” He says, national environmental groups “are trapped in a ‘Beltway’ mentality that measures progress in small, incremental victories.” People also choose these small changes because of America’s intense individualism. We assume the choices of individuals will be enough, and resent mandatory collective solutions. Local and national environmental groups address global warming by focusing on incremental increases in renewable energy and conservation by individuals, specific policy changes, or isolated technical fixes.
Gelbspan says this enormous disconnect between the severity of problem and the minimalist responses result from the “seductiveness of easy—and illusory—solutions [which] reflect a degree of denial among even the most earnest advocates.” He calls this focus on these limited goals of making people more energy efficient, a form of “blaming the victim:”
People are made to feel guilty if they own a gas guzzler or live in a poorly insulated home. In fact, people should be outraged that the government does not require automakers to sell them cars that run on cheap fuels, that building codes do not reduce heating and cooling energy requirements by 70 percent, and that government energy policies do not mandate decentralized home-based or regional sources of clean energy.”
He adds that “Activists compromise. Nature does not.” Creating adequate responses to climate change is not a conflict between two political groups with different opinions, who need to find some compromise. This is a conflict between human beings and nature. There is no possible “middle ground” in relation to abrupt warming or a sudden cooling in Europe. They either happen or they don’t, and we have no way of knowing how close we are to setting off major chain reactions. The situation requires us to go full out as in WWII, and just hope it will be enough.
Alternatives are Possible
Creating solutions requires a total system response, which ecologists are trying to create. To some degree, there is a distinction between environmentalists and ecologists. It’s a fuzzy distinction, but when I use the term ecology, I’m referring to ecology as a new social theory, defining all aspects of social interaction and choices in our relation to nature and to each other, with an emphasis on both equality and democracy.
Ecology was originally a part of biology--the study of the interconnections and interdependencies of ecosystems like a swamp, prairie, or forest. Now it is also a system of social, economic, and political thought that sees environmental destruction as only one more symptom (along with poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth and power) of our entire unhealthy modern world-view and belief system. This emerging field focuses on the goal of environmental sustainability, using the biological concepts of healthy eco‑systems as metaphors for a healthy society. The primary idea in ecology is that healthy, stable (biological) ecosystems manifest interdependence, diversity and responsivenessto feedback, and that sustainable social systems will do the same.
In contrast, environmentalism focuses on each problem individually, and is very action-oriented. It concentrates on solving problems piecemeal, and assumes new technologies and/or new polices will manage our ecological crises without needing to challenge the basic system. The actions of environmentalists have been very effective in the past, but now they are dangerously inadequate. The needs of the current system determine what solutions are considered unrealistic, impractical, or impossible. It is only within a new worldview, that the choices we need to make become practical, rational, and possible.
In response to these limitations in environmental programs, two controversial papers suggest that environmentalism is “dead.” One was called The Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, and the other was a response in a talk by Adam Werbach called Is Environmentalism Dead? All three authors agree that we need to reduce emissions by 70 percent as soon as possible, but they feel the environmental movement is simply incapable of addressing this large a problem. These authors suggest that, as a result, the environmental movement needs to become more generally part of the progressive movement.
However, I feel this still underestimates the scale of the problem. Progressivism is not adequate either, and you can’t blame environmentalism for not having an adequate frame of reference, when no one else does either. None of our current theories are adequate to deal with the enormity of our ecological crises. In thinking about global warming, no one goes far enough. No one takes the basic logic of global warming and follows it to the end. Even progressives still accept the same basic economic assumptions. In addition, no one puts the issue of global warming in a time frame of 10 years. We do not have 30 or 40 years to respond. Ross Gelbspan describes the problem:
I think the environmental establishment is inherently incapable of truly addressing the climate challenge in all its magnitude because we cannot achieve a rapid, world-wide transition to clean energy within our current market-based economic structure. If one honestly acknowledges the scale and urgency of the problem, it becomes clear that it cannot be effectively addressed without major structural changes to global economic dynamics. And, from what I've seen, the major environmental groups - and especially their funders - are not prepared to address that reality.
However, liberals (or progressives or environmentalists) have little experience thinking in terms of an entire worldview and value system. The Rockridge Institute is working to change this by reframing American politics. They say that o ver the last three decades, conservatives, have defined the language used in politics. They have:
have set the parameters of the political debate, even though a majority of Americans continue to reject much of the conservative worldview and its policy implications. The right has used the support of a dense network of think tanks, intellectuals, and policy analysts, to articulate its moral vision, disseminate it to the public, and translate it into public policies.
Creating a new Worldview or “frame”
Liberals/progressives think about politics as marketing campaigns for fragmented issues, and allow polling to name the main issues. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff (who works with the Rockridge Institute) says the reason conservatives have been so successful is that they say what they idealistically believe. Liberal and progressive candidates worry about polls and move to the right in order to become more “centrist,” but the conservatives never move left and they still win. They win, Lakoff says, because ideas come first, and they “come in the form of frames; when the frames are there, the words come readily.”
For liberals, there is no established frame, no conceptual language. Instead, they focus on providing direct services to the people who need the services, and on grassroots funding. Therefore, they have no money for developing infrastructure or talent, for supporting intellectuals or for creating a coherent vision of what they believe in and allowing that to define their politics. What liberals propose, he says, is only a laundry list of prescriptions for improving things—a laundry list that may follow naturally from their frame, but is not intrinsic to that frame. On the other hand, conservatives generate policy from the very core of their frame: the need to restore the “natural” order of things and the right way to function in the world.
Liberals and progressives need to look at the integration of issues into a consistent worldview. The environment, at this point, is primarily a liberal/progressive issue. The essential task now, is to create a new frame based on the new moral vision required to preserve the Earth, to create equity and to preserve genuine democracy. We need to use this new language of values rather than the language of policy. When the focus is on policy, the argument is over how much to limit the negative results. When the focus is on a commitment to develop in harmony with nature, the argument is over how not to create the problem in the first place.
This book tries to describe this fundamental frame of reference into which all issues can fit, with the requirements of the Earth at the center. It is directed to liberals—except that it is quite different from current liberalism. Sustainable economics does not include free trade and globalization. The politics is not focused on the rights of autonomous individuals, but rather the needs of sustainable communities. It also is not afraid of religious language--not in the sense of requiring obedience to a set of rules--but in terms of naming the Earth as sacred and pursuing the values of care, mutuality, and equity (both nationally and globally). This ecological worldview is a moral vision based on a nurturant morality and an ethics of care, centering on empathy and responsibility. This includes creating a moral politics and a moral economy, with the requirements of the Earth, and democratic, equality at the center.
These moral values are inherent in our approaches to our ecological problems. These values include our mutual responsibility for how we live in the world, our commitment to each other, the right of everyone to an adequate minimum, and the sanctity of the Earth. It also includes the practical realization that we are destroying the Earth’s ability to support life (our own and that of other species).
Social Systems Can Change Quickly
We already have the technical solutions we need; we just have to agree to use them. However, the problems are fundamentally not technical, but are conceptual. Ecologists believe the world is running toward environmental collapse. They are racing against time to try to create a coherent description of what is wrong with the systems we now have, why these current economic and political systems are wrong, and what alternative systems would look like. Old categories are collapsing, "left or right," "capitalism or socialism" “progressive or conservative” are no longer relevant. The questions and possible solutions are now outside these original categories, which mean we have no language with which to define new categories. Ecology is creating this new language and new set of categories.
Creating the needed changes can bring a message of hope. I believe we really are capable of making a profound positive shift in our thinking over the next few years. The primary restrictions exist only inside our head. The new world we need will actually be a better world. It is possible to create a higher quality of life, one with less stress, exhaustion, and isolation—although with less “stuff.” This involves redefining our concepts of success, and increasing the growing commitment to breaking free of consumerism. It also means learning new skills such as the skills of dialogue, and renewing our commitment to each other and to the natural world.
It is still possible that we will fail to adapt sufficiently. Because the problems are extreme, the changes needed are extreme. This level of change can be very emotionally threatening. Without a clear sense of urgency, we may wait until it is too late. In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz says that people can fail to adapt, even in the face of a threat to their own survival, because the necessary changes cause people too much distress. People resist the pain, anxiety, or conflict that facing these problems causes. He says that in reaction to enormous problems, in order to restore stability and feel less stressful, people often use avoidance mechanisms. They use mechanisms such as holding onto past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions, or finding a distracting issue.
Understanding how extreme our environmental crises are and creating solutions, requires learning, even though it will generate conflict and distress. Therefore, Heifetz says a key question is “How can one counteract the expected denial and avoidance and help people learn despite resistance?” With adequate education, we can at least avoid failure to survive because we never saw it coming.
Just as climate systems can change abruptly, social systems can also change suddenly—either for the better, or for the worse. Any system can hit a threshold, causing the system to suddenly reorganize and jump to an entirely new level--one that cannot revert to the previous level. For example, since apartheid began many South Africans maintained a tenacious hold on the shared vision of freedom and equality, but with little effect on the system. Then, after 27 years in prison, the South African power structure agreed to release Nelson Mandela. This event forced the entire social system over a threshold, and in only four years, apartheid was over and Mandela was elected president. The Berlin Wall collapsed very suddenly, and communism in the Soviet Union crossed a threshold, and the entire country simply imploded. We are at the point where massive positive change can happen. We have lost sight of the fact that the potential of humans is extraordinary.
In creating this vision, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson in Cultural Creatives say that we do not realize the enormous number of people who actually share these concerns and want to create solutions--in fact, we are probably a majority. We do not recognize each other because there are no “media mirrors.” If you read the paper or watch TV, you could assume that “shop till you drop” makes sense and globalization is the only possible alternative—yet neither is true. We need to create ways to find each other, and define the opportunities and potentials now available. This in turn requires that we be creative and use our imagination. In addition, one reason this transformation is now very possible, is the new opportunities created by new technologies like the Internet and cell phones.
An alternative world is possible, yet in responding to the ecological crisis, we need to remember that there is a deadline—at some unknown time, it will be too late. We do not have long to figure this out, because we are beginning to trigger run-away changes that are irreversible. Gelbspan says
What is true is that it now appears very likely that it is too late to avert a cascade of major and destructive impacts of climate change. A great many signals indicate that events are outpacing our ability to contain them. This is the conclusion one reaches from a steady flow of scientific findings and a succession of warming-driven impacts around the world. But the honest truth is that we really do not know.
We may not be able to avoid all the destructive impacts. Yet, if we act now, the solutions available will reduce these negative impacts, and in the process, we will create a more humane, equitable world. Responding to nature out of balance will require a new sense of common purpose (nationally and globally).
Creating Alternatives Democratically
The conversation in ecology is also about the nature of power and authority, and about creating genuine democracy. Multinational corporations now have more power than nations and they are answerable to no one. Corporations and their money have overwhelmed our democracy. Ecologists also call this movement, a movement to create a living democracy, or “deliberate democracy.” Learning methods to create consensus and participatory democracy are therefore a central part of the theory. We need to create a moral economy and we need to create participatory processes for learning and choosing. When people work together to meet local needs, they take control of their lives, their economy, and their environment, and they become aware of, responsible to, and attached to a particular place.
The United States Needs to Lead
The US alone, with only 4% of the world’s population, creates more than one-fourth of the entire global warming problem, therefore, if the United States became part of the solution, the impact on the world would be enormous. The US can also bring imagination and creativity to finding solutions. American history makes us particularly suited for creating a new, shared vision and making it a reality. Exploring the “unknown” is in our blood.
If the United States ever had Manifest Destiny--this is it. Creating this new future requires a wide-open, highly diverse society, with little tradition of how things must be done, a willingness to openly share information, and a belief that we can do whatever we commit to. Americans have a history of innovation, and creativity, of storming off into the unknown--it's what we do. Once we commit, no other country could invent this new world as well as we can. I think Americans, if given the chance, are very well-meaning and really do want to create a good (rather than merely a rich) society. People choose self-interest only because our culture does not offer a meaningful alternative. The concepts in the ecological worldview offer a new way to understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives together.
The Ecological Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis
T he primary issue in our ecological crises is a re-definition and clarification of our values, beliefs and behaviors--which is inherently a religious process. Many people will resist using any religious language in this conversation, but I don’t think any new worldview can be sufficient without it. In fact, once I decided the primary issue is religious—that is, a definition of the meaning of life—I enrolled in a Seminary for a Master’s degree in theology.
However, if religious communities are to lead in this social transformation, the God they proclaim in a political argument must be democratic in method (non-authoritarian) as well as pluralistic in content (capable of working with all religions). Otherwise, we are not making religious statements about meaning and reality, but only political statements about power and dominance. When the religious message is about a particular claim to authority with a hidden power agenda, we are left without any public message that affirms the reality of the sacred or the language of the Spirit, which can inspire compassion and cooperation. This requires rethinking everything—including the very nature of faith. This effort focuses on a sense of the Earth as sacred, an idea that can both include and transcend all religions. This allows the needs of the Earth to create a natural shared value system, and become the new measure of our values. By advocating ecological issues jointly, all religions become more effective in creating change, without any of them being seen as politically coercive.
In addition, what are currently called “religious values,” address individual behavior and obedience to the correct rules or beliefs. Now, to address our ecological crises, we need to measure morality by our collective behavior and the frequent unintended, yet immoral, consequences. Economic growth has reached a dead-end and we can no longer achieve salvation through material progress, and being enslaved to a materialistic definition of the world has left us spiritually impoverished. To pull away from materialism and consumerism, we need to find non-material forms of fulfillment, and shift our spiritual focus from individual salvation to planetary salvation This will require us to see the planet as one global interrelated community of people, animals, and plants.
Choosing the values of life and care, and overcoming materialism, requires that we respect the mystery in human life and resist the secularization of experience. Even though our culture is completely secularized—the sacred has not disappeared. We need to recognize and name concepts of the sacred so that they can again determine social action. Economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb Jr. describe this transformation i n For the Common Good:
The changes that are now needed in society are at a level that stirs religious passions. The debate will be a religious one whether that is made explicit or not. The whole understanding of reality and the orientation to it are at stake. . . . [The solutions will be created by] those who can draw forth these deepest energies of the centered self and give them shape and direction. Getting there, if it happens at all, will be religious event. . . .[X]
Social transformation will require personal transformation, and personal transformation is always as religious task.
Many people are now ready to challenge the current conventional wisdom. They want to make sense of their own lives and their world, and they want to discover that in company with other knowledgeable people of goodwill. This effort is creating a new public theology, which will protect the Earth and each other, by creating a moral politics and a moral economy.
Our future depends on how creative we can be together, and how quickly we can learn.
“ Global Warming Approaching Point of No Return, Warns Leading Climate Expert” by Geoffrey Lean lndependent/UK January 23, 2005 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/environment/story.jsp?story=603752
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