A few months ago, I had a date with my dentist for the tedious and unpleasant process of a root canal. Like dentists everywhere he knows that no one comes into his office with eager anticipation so in an effort to put his patients at ease, he chats for a minute or two before he gets started. My visit came in the middle of February which, as you may recall, was a kind of wild time weather-wise for parts of the Northeast, where people found themselves digging out from record levels of snowfall. So this was the topic of my dentist’s chat, and he ended his commentary on the weather by stating, with absolute conviction, “I guess this finally proves that global warming is a myth.”
I, of course, begged to differ, and though I was at a physical disadvantage with my head already tilted toward the ground and a very bright light shining on my face, I started in on climate change and the scientific consensus that three feet of snow in Washington DC is irrelevant to the overall rising of the earth’s temperature and the devastating consequences. My dentist replied, with a touch of irritation, that there are just as many scientists who think the earth’s climate is doing just fine.
At about that point I realized that he was poised to put some very sharp things into my mouth and that it was probably not the best time to continue the argument, so I murmured something placating and he went about his work.
But it got me thinking about the whole realm of denial when it comes to climate change. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s quite literally undeniable. So why is there still so much denial? Part of the reason surely has to do with politics, on the largest scale. Of the one hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-three are corporations. Exxon-Mobil is larger than 180 nations. Corporate interests have enormous power to influence policy and public opinion, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.
But part of the problem also has to do with the simple, powerful human tendency to not want to see or know or feel what is painful. We are all together in this. Even among those of us who are absolutely convinced about the threats to our environment, most of us don’t live as though this were true. For instance, despite how far apart we are in our perspectives on the environment, my dentist and I may not be far apart at all in how we’re actually living on the Earth. He drives an SUV, but I drive an aging mini-van, which is not much better when it comes to fuel efficiency. We both live in a small town that has absolutely nothing in the way of public transportation, and there are no economies of scale for energy supply.
I don’t know whether or not my dentist recycles or hangs out his laundry on a line instead of using the dryer or puts his garbage into compost instead of the dump or uses energy efficient light bulbs or keeps his heat turned down in the winter. I do all of these things, and I know that they weigh almost nothing on the scales of climate change. What we’re up against requires much more of me than I have so far been willing to give: more of my attention, more focus on what I can change in how I live, more will and determination to make those changes, more advocacy and agitation at the policy level than what I have given. To what can I attribute these truths about my own life except some form of denial?
It is disturbing to turn and look squarely at the toll that industrialized human life has taken and is taking on the Earth. It is painful to accept the truth about what is already happening: to know how rapidly the deserts are growing, how steadily the rainforests are being destroyed, how vast the dead regions already are in the oceans, how imperiled are the glaciers, the coral reefs, the polar bears, the bats, the wild tigers, even the lovely little peepers, the frogs that cry out the sound of spring all around us here in New England.
And it is heartbreaking almost beyond the bearing to let in the information about where all of this is leading us, the steep slope down which we are already tumbling pell-mell.
So even though the information is all around us, even though we might make ourselves read it or listen to it, it’s very hard to make ourselves really take it all the way into consciousness. We know, but so many of us don’t live as though we know. We watch ourselves instead live as though all is well, as though it’s okay, as though somehow these enormous problems will solve themselves. We are living in a dream.
In his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Gus Speth writes, “People have conversion experiences and epiphanies. Can an entire society have a conversion experience?” He doesn’t know the answer to his own question, and neither do we; but we know that nothing less than this kind of society-wide conversion will be enough to bring us back from the tipping point in climate change.
Culture change on this scale means a completely different orientation toward what we mean by words like success and responsibility. Success cannot mean bigger or more or richer; it has to mean less stuff, greater wisdom, and finding joy in one another’s joy rather than in winning out over each other. The focus on individual wants and preferences has to yield to a sense of solidarity.
And the long human habit of seeing ourselves as somehow outside of nature, in control of it, has to yield to the truth about our place in the scheme of things. We are part of the Earth: a part that has consciousness, so we have a lot more responsibility than a rock or a tree. We have to use our minds to figure out how to protect and preserve the planet.
And infinitely more challenging than this, we have to use our minds to change our minds: to take charge of our own endless desires and to finally stop our grasping and our using up, our dumping and our reckless speed, our denial and our indifference. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t hopeless either. As Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy puts it, “Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”