Photo by Dogs & Not Dogs Photography
Critical Conversations, a lecture series at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, is designed to facilitate civil discourse on important current events. On February 25th, the series featured the topic “Responses to Climate Change.” The interdisciplinary panel included author and activist Bill McKibben, journalist Karenna Gore, Vice President at Rare and head of the Center for Behavior & the Environment Kevin Green, environmental psychologist Mirele B. Goldsmith, and behavioral economist Katherine Milkman. The panel was moderated by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth. Our editor Dana Dunham was in attendance.
Discussions of climate change often illustrate the severity of the problem through a recitation of numerical data. Near the beginning of the Critical Conversations panel I attended on February 25th in Chicago, attendees listened to a terrifying but familiar litany:
- More than half the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone.
- Oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were 40 years ago.
- The imbalance in the hydrological cycle has resulted in massive floods and devastating fires like those that recently engulfed 20 percent of the forests in Australia and killed billions of its animals.
“We’re running Genesis in reverse,” observed Bill McKibben, the longtime climate activist and author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.
Yet despite these hard numbers, McKibben framed our inadequate response to climate change as a problem of imagination. He turned again to the Old Testament to explain, citing the Book of Job (a “great piece of nature writing”) as a way of understanding our inaction.
After challenging God and getting an earful in response, a contrite Job stands down, newly complacent in his role as a small and insignificant part of a world controlled by powerful and mysterious Divine forces.
According to McKibben, images of the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have disallowed Job’s complacency and forced us to reckon with our own powers of destruction brought about by scientific advancement. He argues that because we can imagine a world destroyed by nuclear war, we have thus far taken the steps necessary to prevent it.
The destruction of climate change certainly rivals that of the mushroom cloud, but here we have been less successful in preventing our demise because, McKibben said, we cannot imagine that the millions of personal, economic, and political decisions we make every day will add up to a similar apocalypse, even while it has already begun to happen all around us.
So what to do to counter this problem in the narrow window of time that we have left to act?
Despite the enormity of the issue, Kevin Green, head of the Center of Behavior & the Environment, affirmed that individual actions such as buying electric vehicles, using renewable energy sources for your home, and reducing and composting food waste can make a difference if enough people do them.
Green and behavioral economist Katherine Milkman discussed how to hack human nature to maximize participation in these types of activities. Some aspects of human psychology work against the kind of mass action needed to combat climate change: people frequently focus on their own self interest, struggle to look beyond the present moment, and reject facts contrary to their beliefs.
However, both Green and Milkman highlighted the social aspect of humanity as the good news in the battle against climate change.
“We’re really social creatures. We care tremendously about others and what we see other people doing,” said Milkman.
This deep-seated need for each other’s company forms the basis of the communities that may be our salvation as the effects of climate change unfold. On a practical level, environmental psychologist and activist Mirele Goldsmith pointed out, communities make climate-friendly behaviors more visible and provide an easy source of education and encouragement towards these practices. Communities also offer cultural and spiritual resources to help us examine our values and cope with the environmental devastation in our present and our future.
“There is so much more on offer in this world culturally than what the current landscape of consumer culture presents,” theologian Karenna Gore said. For example, faith traditions like the Jewish community have “spiritual resources we need now and will need all the more as these climate impacts start to come in,” such as dealing with the grief of saddling our children with this “unspeakable burden.”
In these ways our connections to each other may prove to be more important than our connection to the Earth, even as we fight to save it.
But why haven’t these social connections been enough to mobilize us against the threat that promises to take us all down? Here, too, it may be a failure of imagination that holds us back.
Panel moderator David Wallace-Wells expressed concern about “our capacity to collectively imagine our shared humanity,” noting that the suffering of distant climate change victims may be too abstract to provoke empathy and motivate action. But Milkman proposed solutions: using powerful examples like Greta Thunberg, vivid imagery, and identifiable victims to “make [the effects of climate change] more vivid and more real.”
While the numbers that track the effects of climate change are necessary, they may too easily lead us to numbness or despair. Rather than this external data, it may be our inner ability to identify and extrapolate that helps us shake off our complacency.