As the climate change debate continues, in communities all over the world, we must ask ourselves the very serious question: what could possibly account for so much denial and lack of action at all levels of society? The short answer is that it's not a data and evidence problem. While it may be true that there are still a few scientists that question the idea of man-made climate change, this is a red-herring. It's also possible to find scientists who question HIV as the cause of AIDS. While they are free to pursue their science, in the meantime we take precautions, encourage the use of condoms, administer anti-retrovirals, and make policies on the basis of a high degree of certainty and consensus within the scientific community. The data around climate change should warrant an equally aggressive course of action, and yet it hasn't.
So if it's not data or science that is the problem, what is? The ongoing climate-change impasse is, at its core, a crisis of imagination. While presented with accumulating evidence of catastrophic potential, from scientists all over the world as well as national television coverage, many of us still find it easy to ignore. In fact we are guilty of two imaginative sins. We imagine our ingenuity and our technology will be able to solve all our problems, no matter how out-of-control they become. And we fail to imagine how our actions now will impact the lives of those who come after us.
There are various reasons for this and several groupings. Some are easy to understand. A coal miner in West Virginia might be concerned about losing a job in an economy that has not shown itself adept at offering other options for gainful employment. It's easy to have empathy for a person in this type of situation. The behavior of industrialists and oil tycoons may appear more short-sighted but is also understandable. Those who have made a fortune from fossil fuels are of course reluctant to undermine the source of their income. They are going to be prone to come up with wildly imaginative scenarios to justify an ongoing source of profit. Yet, let's not throw the stones too quickly and too harshly, because we, the consumers, are equally responsible.
The fact of the matter is that oilmen in the last century and energy producers in general before them have hardly always been villains. In fact, they have fueled our way of life, in a serious and sustained manner, at least since the Renaissance, a point in history during which the individual consumption patterns we are so familiar and comfortable with today started to become grounded in both elite and popular culture. For most of our more recent human history, we have followed a dual path: we have increased our numbers as a species, multiplying and expanding across the globe, and we have increased the level of our consumption, allowing us greater ease, more leisure, and greater opportunities for cultural expression. All of these are, with nuances, good things and we can thank energy producers for helping us create them.
The simultaneous crises of increasing and unsustainable population levels, rising energy consumption, and global warming have come acutely to our awareness only recently, in the last three decades. So it is not surprising that we are having such a difficult time reformatting our thinking and behavior. After all, we are being asked to re-imagine our entire role as consumers, producers, and builders of vast family dynasties.
Beyond what the science says with its consensus, the key to decisive action is in modifying how we use our imagination to envision our life and our civilization. The data is out. What we need now are more convincing storytellers who will help us conceive alternatives to the scorched earth consumption patterns of 21st century advanced industrial societies. The solutions are in sight: disinvest from fossil fuels, invest in alternative energy, curb population growth, and consume more conscientiously. All we need is the imagination and motivation to pull it off. Because let's face it, even those of us who have accepted the science are guilty of not making the lifestyle changes necessary to stem the coming disruptions.
Writers like Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry, and before them Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Aldo Leopold have led the way. We need to dig deep from this heritage of environmental writing treasures, while creating new dreams, new visions, new metaphors and paradigms that actually reshape how we think of our relationships to nature and to each other, and that will sustain us for the next millennium.