Our species is threatened. How will we respond?
Throughout his life, Socrates famously asked six questions: (1) What is justice? (2) What is good? (3) What is piety? (4) What is courage? (5) What is moderation? (6) What is virtue? In this short essay, I address the first question on the list, with a particular focus on the intergenerational inequity produced by climate change.
Spend a few minutes online, and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid articles claiming contemporary climate change is “normal” and therefore nothing to worry about. It’s small wonder most Americans view climate change as a distant and largely irrelevant threat, as echoed by results of a recent poll.
Contrary to polls, politicians, and many pundits, the science of climate change is clear. Anthropogenic climate change is under way, as expected from burning fossil fuels that accumulated over milennia and as predicted by naturalist and diplomat George Perkins Marsh in 1847. Nearly 50 years later, Swedish chemist and Nobelist Svante Arrhenius spelled out the dire consequences likely to result from burning fossil fuels in a refereed journal article. Then in 1990, the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases reported, “Beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” Planetary instruments indicate Earth has warmed about 1 C since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, numerous self-reinforcing feedback loops have been triggered, indicating climate change is irreversible.
Climate change is a social justice issue because it lies at the heart of intergenerational inequity. We take for granted the ability to survive and prosper on a climatically stable planet, while rarely contemplating the world we are leaving in our wake. Indeed, our will to live — rooted in the evolutionary drive to survive — makes us shortsighted and self-motivated (and, in the case of many of us, self-absorbed). It seems we are inherently incapable of considering, much less empathizing with, our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’s why we are willing to bake the planet beyond the point of habitability within a very few generations. The Socratic question of justice comes to the fore when we consider the justice associated with leaving the world worse than we found it.
It seems evolution dealt us a bad hand — it gave us the big brains, but they’re not quite big enough.
Evolution drives us toward “flight or fight” — that is, to survival.
If we survive, evolution drives us to procreate: Nearly 4 billion years of evolution are screaming at us to breed. Evolution has some bad company on this one, in the form of the world’s largest religious group, and the world’s fastest-growing one.
If we clear the first two hurdles, evolution prods us to acquire material possessions. And these three outcomes of evolution — the drives to live, procreate, and accumulate possessions — are disastrous to the common good as well as for the future of our species.
When individuals are threatened, they respond. Often the response is unexpectedly heroic. Our species is threatened. How will we respond?