American common sense and courage in the face of climate change

Update on 10.27.2016

“But there is a part of me–call it naive, if you like–that can’t help but believe that somewhere out there in America, all but drowned out by the din, is a native strain of reason that could be cultivated, a peculiarly American kind of common sense and courage that would give us the strength to at least begin an honest discussion about the challenges we face.” Seamus McGraw, Betting the Farm on a Drought

That line and the stories that follow it sum up why I’m having my students read McGraw’s book and why we invited McGraw to join our class last month and in November. That optimism and hope–naive as it may seem–is what drives my work every day at the university, in government, in writing and in what remnants of activism I’m able to take part. It’s my hope that my co-teacher and my students will see not just that climate change and other sustainability changes are real. We will get into the basic science of course. But it’s more than that.

It’s that that ordinary people in the United States are living with climate change. It’s part of the fabric of life today. And whether you fish for a living off the New Jersey coast, farm in the midwest, live with rising king tides in Miami, hunt game in Montana, analyze data from over a thousand years of tree rings or hundreds of millennia of ice cores or live in the Bald Eagle Valley or Baton Rouge where record storms hit, human-caused climate change has become part of life. The very fabric of our world is being restitched and there’s not really that much distance between you and them in either space or condition. And when something changes your life that much, you too will be changed. But how?

That question is a question of both sustainability and leadership. It relates well to David Orr’s ultimate question for the ecologically literate: “What then?” If we live in a way that consumes so much that it’s raising sea levels fast and high enough that it “threaten[s] to erase from the map some South Pacific Island [most people] have never heard of,” as McGraw says, well what then? What then for them and what then for us? What then for the geochemical cycles that ceaselessly and unthinkingly move nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and water around the planet without sentiment? What then for the creatures with whom we inhabit the planet?

What then for the personal choices or political representation or even the art of a high-consuming Pennsylvanian? What then for a citizen and consumer whose choices have made it more likely that s/he will get Lyme Disease today than twenty years ago and will make it more likely that a Quebecois will in twenty years? What then for their energy choices? Their food? The avalanche of questions rolls down a mountain of potentially bad news. But perhaps with many of us observing the avalanches and thoughtfully and collectively responding, there’s something we can do.

Today, the questions above are essential questions for leaders. Of course presidents, military, and corporate moguls need to consider them. But those folks can be insulated by their power and privilege. More than that, it’s us. What then for those of us who see something that both holds a promise for hope in action and a grave moral hazard from inaction. In some sense, the question comes to another: “Whom do you serve?”

Our students will be talking with Seamus about that “American kind of common sense and courage that would give us the strength to at least begin an honest discussion about the challenges we face.” Let’s hope they get a little closer to serving one another, our democracy, and our biosphere.


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