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Climate change is our grand narrative now

"The damned" by Lorenzo Paolini: a metaphor of consumism and culture's barbarization. Jailed where they think to freely run, they can't stop because a delay means death. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I_dannati.jpg

There is the story of our personal lives: our family, our friends, our jobs, our hobbies. There is the story of our communities: our civic, religious, business, artistic and recreational lives. There is the story of our nations: their internal political struggles and their struggles with each other.

But now, there is one grand narrative which ties us all together, whether we want to be connected or not, whether we are preoccupied with our personal, community or national narratives or not. That is the narrative of our changing climate and the resulting threat to the continuity of our world civilization. The upcoming climate talks in Paris this week are but one expression of this new reality.

Even people who oppose doing anything about climate change are forced to talk about it. Even people who somehow have convinced themselves that climate change is not happening and oddly, in the same breath, claim that humans have nothing to do with this thing that is not happening--even those people confirm by their very framing of the issue that they are firmly situated inside this narrative.

Climate change is now the grand narrative because what happens to climate and what we do about it will be a worldwide story which no one can ignore. As such there will be few people without an opinion on the issue of climate change. Increasingly, it will reach down into our national, community and personal lives in ways we had hoped would wait until we are gone. The droughts, the heat, the floods, the damage to crops, the lengthening summer, the late fall, and the early spring--none of them can escape our notice.

We are forced to incorporate the changing climate into our everyday conversations. It is already a big topic among anyone who gardens and certainly anyone who farms. Among those in touch with plants the evidence of a changing climate is incontrovertible.

The grand tension will be how to address climate change without giving up the abundant energy, food and technology that have given us such comfort, ease, mobility and opportunity. Neither side in the debate over what to do wants to relinquish the hope that we will have to give up almost nothing.

One side says we should continue to burn fossil fuels, to raze the forests, and to farm the fields in ways that release carbon from the soil into the air...and that we will continue to be able to live the modern industrial life we've become used to. Any consequences of climate change will be manageable (an argument that becomes less plausible with each passing day).

The other side implores us to embrace carbon-free energy sources, move toward better care of the forests and the soil, sip what energy we use instead of gulping it, adjust our habits and lifestyles...and we will continue to be able to live a green version of the modern industrial life we've become used to.

But underneath it all, we fear and suspect that either path will involve some loss, some sacrifice. And, it is that fear and suspicion which prevents us from committing to do what we must do to save the best parts of our culture and society while letting go of the worst. It is the fear of change and the fear of loss which is holding us back from truly addressing the existential threat of climate change.

If someone were holding a gun to our heads, it would be clear that we were in danger. But, climate change creeps into our lives gradually. Few people can see that climate now has a seat at every negotiating table, that climate has become a political actor with an unyielding, non-negotiable position. We can choose to think of climate change as a brutal, remorseless malefactor with no sympathy for humankind. But we can also choose to think of climate change as a messenger, a symptom like a recurrent fever, telling us that our society has overstepped its bounds and needs to rethink its way of life to regain its health--or face worse consequences.

It is in the evolutionary makeup of humans to seek to maximize their power intake. In fact, it is in the evolutionary makeup of every organism to do so. By maximizing the power available to us we increase our chances of survival as individuals and as a species. But, this impulse is at the heart of our climate difficulties.

Like a pioneer species in a clearcut forest, humans expanded rapidly after the broad deployment of fossil fuels. But, pioneer species ultimately give way to mature forests which reach optimum rates of energy, mineral and water cycling--rates that can maintain the balance of the forest over very long periods. The forest enters a less dynamic, but stable equilibrium that makes longevity possible.

To borrow from economist Herman Daly, we now live in a "full world" and we must come to grips with that new reality. Human society cannot grow its consumption of energy and resources forever. But we can grow in our social, artistic, intellectual and spiritual lives indefinitely.

Climate change is giving us the first universally understood signal that it is time to reconsider our collective future. Will we risk the destruction of all that we hold dear in exchange for a few more decades of a fossil fuel party that is undermining our health and the health of the planet? Or will we choose to embrace not only changes in the physical infrastructure upon which we base our material lives, but also a new vision that can endlessly engage our hearts, minds and spirits in the kind of growth that has no limit?

Our answers represent the climax in the new grand narrative of climate change--essentially a choice that will be reflected in our individual daily acts and in the collective acts of our communities and our nations.

"The damned" by Lorenzo Paolini: a metaphor of consumism and culture's barbarization. Jailed where they think to freely run, they can't stop because a delay means death. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I_dannati.jpg

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