Finding the right metaphor to treat climate despair
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The dominant narrative of environmental writing — humankind's 'fall' from Nature — along with its cautionary tales about future apocalypse, are the opposite of what we need to deal with ecological crises.
Don't call it the end of civilization as we know it, they say; call it "the politics of possibility."
Cognitive psychologists might diagnose the problem as counter-productive "framing": How one responds to a given challenge — a flat tire, say — is greatly determined by underlying assumptions and beliefs about the world and one's place in it. Change those underlying assumptions, and you can change your reaction to the blowout from a side-of-the-highway temper tantrum to good-naturedly getting it fixed.
The point is, we seem to suffer from a dearth of productive metaphors in the climate discussion.
So here are some new ones:
Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity and a kind of futurist on sustainability issues, has an informal poll on his website. In it, he asks, "What life stage is the human family currently in?" Sixty-three percent of the 2,134 respondents so far have voted for "teenager." Nearly 22 percent, the next largest block, voted for "toddler."
These are huge generalizations, and any generalization warrants a healthy dose of skepticism. But Mr. Elgin's idea — and many others have independently espoused this "coming of age" idea — is quite useful. A large number of people — natural scientists and economists included — are calling for some variation on a "shift in consciousness." (More on that in a later post.)
But what this "growing up," or "graduation from adolescence to adulthood," really means is somewhat less abstract if you look at it from a resource scarcity perspective. Earth is a closed system. Barring not-yet-invented affordable and efficient space travel, there's a limited supply of everything on our planet.
Until relatively recently in human history, the human population was small enough and untapped resources vast enough that we could treat Earth as limitless and infinite.
Now we're realizing that's not true, that we can't keep treating it that way and that our increasing consumption has consequences — for example, the accumulation of co2 in the atmosphere and the degradation of Earth's ecosystems.
Robert Costanza of the University of Vermont has called it a "full world" phenomenon. The human sphere, which exists within the biosphere, has expanded to the point that it's finally bumping up against the limits of the biosphere.
On a video on his website, Elgin ticks off the pros and cons of teenagehood. The pros: enthusiasm and energy. The cons: a tendency to live beyond our means, an emphasis on immediate gratification, and what you might call a "me-first" attitude.
Adulthood, presumably, means a more adultlike approach — long-term rather than short-term thinking, an ability to resist the temptation of instant gratification, and a "we're in this together" approach to problem-solving.
Sounds good to me.