Changing the Climate Change Narrative

A challenge to our obsession with climate change at the expense of all other values.

| Winter 2014

  • What would happen if we revalued the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful? We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons.
    Photo by Flickr/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • It doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t dangerous or that humans aren’t causing it, but it does suggest that our approach to the problem could be strengthening the psychic and ideological substructure of the system that is devouring the planet.
    Photo by Flickr/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I’ve noticed some parallels among three defining institutions of our civilization: money, war, and mainstream religion. All three demand, in one way or another, the sacrifice of the immediate, the human, or the personal in service to an overarching ulterior goal that trumps all. Disciplined by economic exigency, millions of people sacrifice time, energy, family, and what they really care about in pursuit of money. Disciplined by an existential threat, a nation at war turns away from culture, leisure, civil liberties, and everything of no utility to the war effort. Disciplined by the promise of heavenly rewards or hellish punishments, believers distance themselves from unimportant worldly things.

Anyone who is wary of these institutions might also be wary of the standard climate change narrative, which lends itself to the same mentality of sacrifice to an all-important end. If we agree that the survival of humanity is at stake, then any means is justified, and any other cause—say reforming the prisons, housing the homeless, caring for the autistic, rescuing abused animals, or visiting your grandmother—becomes an unjustifiable distraction from the only important thing. Taken to its extreme, it requires that we harden our hearts to the needs in front of our faces. There is no time to waste! Everything is at stake! It’s do or die! How similar to the logic of money and the logic of war.

That climate-change alarm sits so comfortably within our culture’s familiar way of thinking should give us pause. It doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t dangerous or that humans aren’t causing it, but it does suggest that our approach to the problem could be strengthening the psychic and ideological substructure of the system that is devouring the planet. This is especially relevant given the near-universal agreement among activists that efforts to limit carbon emissions have failed miserably.

This failure comes not because the movement is too radical and needs to “work more closely with business” or embrace the oxymoron of “sustainable growth.” It is rather that it is not radical enough—not yet willing to challenge key invisible narratives that drive our civilization. On the contrary, the movement itself embodies them.

One thing that war, money, and religion all offer is the simplification of complex problems. In the case of war, there is an identifiable enemy—the source of all evil—and the solution is simple: to overcome that enemy by any means necessary. In the case of money, it invites the subsumption of a multitude of values into a single standard of value; money becomes the universal means to all good things, and therefore the pursuit of it becomes a universal end in itself—if only we had enough money, all our problems would be solved. In religion too, one thing becomes the key to everything.

Following this template, greenhouse gases are the enemy, and the solution, the way to “fight climate change” or “combat global warming” (common phrases both), is to reduce emissions (or increase sequestration). Or to use the money metaphor, CO2 emissions become the standard of value, a number to minimize, a metric upon which to base policy. This approach also sits comfortably in our culture: It is the epitome of rationality to make decisions by the numbers. To decide something scientifically, you gather data, make projections, and evaluate the likely
results according to some metric value. Doing that creates three problems: (1) the unmeasurable and the qualitative is necessarily devalued; (2) the metric applied encodes and perpetuates
existing biases and power relationships, which themselves implicate ecocide, and (3) it fosters an illusion of predictability and control that obscures the likelihood of perverse unintended consequences.

1/5/2015 12:32:20 PM

"...we operate from a narrative that values each species, each person, each forest, each river in its own right and not for its instrumental utility" - the solution looks so simple and yet it seems impossible! Thank you, Charles Eisenstein, for another illuminating essay that gives us hope and shows us what we all can do - here and now. We don't need to wait for the pol's to see the light...

Graham Ross Leonard Cowan
12/18/2014 4:52:12 PM

In nuclear power advocacy circles, I run into people who make a remark similar to Eisenstein's: they say that most of the reasons for supporting it would still be true if CO2 were globally harmless. Kharecha and Hansen, in their "Prevented Mortality" paper, present it as having provided two parallel, similar, but independent benefits. One is the prevention of 64 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, giving us two years' grace in the Keeling curve's rise. The other is the saving of 1.84 million human lives that the fossil fuel that would have made that CO2 would have taken, even if the CO2 had been harmless, with other pollutants and with accidents.

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