As in Part 1: The Year in Health, I want to write about something that I don’t typically write about but is so important. Since so many of us have experienced climate disasters and emergencies, how are we doing? And what can we learn from where we are at? If we believe the news, we will be tempted to be largely pessimistic. Summarizing the way and the why things are the way they are, and suggesting some manageable approaches going forward, is daunting. It is so complex, and the scope of such an endeavor makes reductive oversimplification seem inevitable. But let’s try, because at a time often reserved for resolutions, having some rules of thumb based on values will provide some baseline from which we might approach some environmental challenges. And perhaps we will see some aspects of life that, while not entirely optimistic, might be appreciated as offering some foundation for thriving. This is where such a summary might be useful: it can offer a baseline for thriving.
In the following, let me break up this summary and reflection into many parts to make it more manageable. Perhaps we can underscore some common values that buttress rules of thumb that, while contestable, may provide some way forward toward ways of thriving rather than away from it. Each section will summarize, illustrate with an example, and then reflect. In advance, let me ask your forgiveness for using some examples that are local to me. Since it is such a large task, this article will be broken up into parts.
Part 1 – The Year in Climate
It seems that disaster overwhelms us. I am writing this from North America, which has just gone through a 4-day cold snap, with 20 degrees colder than normal temperatures caused by a polar vortex that is now a more frequent occurrence. With all the talk of global warming, this example of colder-than-usual temperatures seems to contradict the very concept of global warming. However, it doesn’t. Briefly, a warming climate intensifies the jet stream in the North Atlantic, and air movement in the Eastern Pacific, to weaken atmospheric barriers to the movement of polar vortices. The results are, among many others, increased movement of vortices that cover the majority of North America in significant cold blasts in Winter, and increased rainfall (and therefore, flooding) in Europe in the spring and summer. This forces human-made systems to undergo strain that they just can’t seem to handle, such as a failing Texas power grid in 2021, and the collapse of Southwest and Sunwing Airlines during the Christmas travel period now in 2022. It seems that the winter climate disasters in North America are not anomalous anymore.
Some further examples of disasters that extend beyond North America are indeed becoming so common that the Boomers and the “X” generation would be foolish to rely on their memories of the way the climate used to be as a completely reliable predictor of how to prepare for the future. In 2022 alone the following sampling of major climate-related disasters occurred: major storms and a cyclone consecutively hit southern Africa and Madagascar; June to September floods in Pakistan that affected 33 million people; record heatwaves hit the UK and wildfires devastated much of Europe and North America; and record-intensity storms hit the US, Japan and the Philippines. Let us not also forget that rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of island in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, including the Maldives. The climate of 2022 is not merely a tale of global warming, but of humanity’s efforts to mitigate its devastating effects.
The COP15 conference (recently held in Montreal) is a continuation of the collective and conscious effort to become aware of the human impact on a warming climate, and it offers some regulatory framework by which to corral unrestrained human activity.
Among the major initiatives it undertook was to restore indigenous voices to the decision-making process. The indigenous voices are essential since they best represent a history of stewardship of the environment that is integrated with human beings living within creation rather than as dominant over it. And this is the first major spiritual point that needs to be learned: we need to live as both stewards and as a part of the Earth’s ecosystems. The dominance of nature, and of indigenous peoples for that matter, is a sinful and destructive legacy of colonial political regimes since the early modern period – now more than 500 years. These colonial structures have, almost inevitably, been the source of our major destructive industrial tendencies that most significantly create global warming: Industrial capitalism, environments manipulated around technological inventions and industries such as the car, and resource-intensive housing. Indigenous perspectives, which have been dominated, have almost treated creation as a person, and not an object of manipulation and control. While as a legal entity, this may be controversial, the idea of protecting the “rights of nature”, although a poorly-phrased concept, at least gets to the essential framework of treating the natural environment as sacred and combatting one of human beings’ main types of alienation – alienation from nature.
Another major initiative of COP15 was the commitment to protect 30% of both land and water resources from human development. This at least provided a ground of sustainability from which human beings can thrive. As I encouraged us back to real food in my review of the Year in Health, acknowledging sacred nature and constitutive of our well-being is perhaps the single greatest realization we can attain in our relationship to a changing climate.
The last emphasis worth understanding in COP15 was the in-general demand to reduce the consumption of planet-destroying consumables. By far the largest reduction in this is the wasteful agricultural production of meat. In fact, next to industrial production, the mass production of industrial agricultural produce both our carbon footprint and greenhouse gases. In short, our diet needs to change, and this reveals the interconnectedness of our health and our environment. By reducing our gluttonous desire for meat, we will not only improve our health but also our climate. We already have enough; our desire for more is killing us.
The year in climate is thus filled with lots of room for optimism, provided we can take home these three points: 1) that we are stewards of creation and not dominators of it; 2) that we are constituted for thriving by a sacred relationship to an environment that sustains our wellbeing; and 3) that we reduce our desire.