Industrialized human societies have been living a reckless and destructive lifestyle that has had terrible consequences, but habits are hard to change, and the forces of greed are strong. Climate is like a terminal prognosis with conditions – if we don’t change our ways now, we won’t survive very long. It may seem strange to say so, but it’s possible to feel gratitude for the climate crisis as a wake-up call and opportunity for humanity.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Humanity’s Broken Relationship with the Natural World
Climate Change as a Terminal Prognosis and Wake-Up Call
Climate Crisis as Opportunity


Humanity’s Broken Relationship with the Natural World

It was obvious to me from a young age that the way industrialized human societies used and abused the natural world was insane. All I needed was the most basic understanding of cause and effect: If we voraciously use up and discard non-renewable resources, we will run out of them. If we use renewable resources too quickly and carelessly, we will run out of those too, and damage their capacity to be renewed. Infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. If we use the earth as a dumping ground, we will soon be living in poison and filth. If we treat other species as if they are optional window-dressing, we will eventually find ourselves morally bankrupt and alone except for cockroaches and rats. If we thoughtlessly dismantle living systems in the interest of short-term profits, in the long term we will realize, to our horror, that our lives and well-being were dependent on those living systems and now it’s too late to get them back.

I wondered, as I’m sure many people have, how the modern human relationship with nature could be so utterly and obviously broken, but how business as usual could proceed, nonetheless, at breakneck speed. Human ingenuity and determination have been turned toward how to remove entire tracts of forests efficiently and quickly, stripping them right down to the soil. How to blow up entire mountains to extract minerals. Squeeze natural gas out the depths of the earth. Draw whole populations of fish out of the ocean in giant nets, right onto massive ships that double as processing factories. Exterminate a majority of insects in the world in the interest of maximizing yields in industrial monocultures. Imprison thousands upon thousands of livestock in tiny cages on factory farms in order to extract products from their bodies at minimum cost.

On a human scale, these kinds of activities are natural and can be sustainable – timber production, mining, fishing, farming, animal husbandry. Indigenous peoples and non-industrialized societies continue to do these things in a sustainable way today. But when these activities are mechanized and scaled up for maximum profit, it’s difficult to describe the results as anything but obscene.

If you can imagine watching humanity from another planet, objectively observing how we are conducting ourselves, wouldn’t you be shaking your head?

Climate Change as a Terminal Prognosis and Wake-Up Call

Sometimes I think of humanity as a person who is slowly killing themselves with really bad lifestyle choices. Imagine someone who subsists on steaks, cupcakes, and potato chips. Someone who drinks way too much alcohol, smokes, abuses drugs, and never exercises. This person’s health inevitably deteriorates, but the process is gradual enough that consequences fail to inspire behavior change.

If we have to watch someone we care about compromise their health and well-being and shorten their lifespan this way, it can be very frustrating and painful. If we ourselves live this way, in at least some senses, we know how difficult it can be to make a substantially different choice in this moment based on an intellectual understanding that the cumulative impact of hundreds of such choices will probably make a difference in the future.

Industrialized human societies have been living an increasingly reckless, destructive lifestyle over the last 100 years. We sit in the middle of the mess we’ve made like a bunch of drunks sleeping off an all-night bender, surrounded by the tell-tale signs of their debauchery: empty bottles, pizza crusts, overflowing ashtrays, and vomit. Our soils are degraded, our ecosystems are collapsing, our oceans are acidifying, and we ingest our own plastic with every sip of water. However, bad habits are hard to break, and bad systems are even harder to change. Chances are we’ll wake up in the morning, brush off the debris, step over the garbage, and continue life more or less as we have been.

Terminal PrognosisNow imagine our person with a desperately unhealthy lifestyle finally goes to the doctor. Maybe they’re having some new kind of pain. The doctor runs some tests and delivers a terminal prognosis with conditions: Either radically change your lifestyle now, or you’ll be dead within six months. Such a wake-up call may or may not actually motivate the person to change their ways, but if it doesn’t, it’s unlikely anything will.

Climate change is like a terminal prognosis for humanity. In a way, there’s nothing that makes global heating caused by human greenhouse gas emissions more terrible than all the other abusive things we’ve been doing to the natural world. What makes climate the paramount issue of our time is that it’s the crisis that demands immediate change if we’re going to survive.

You might argue that all the other stuff – unbridled resource extraction, soil depletion, pollution, etc. – also demands immediate change, but apparently things have to be really obvious and extremely short-term for most of us humans to connect our behavior to consequences. We need a dire, concrete prediction like the one delivered by the IPCC that we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. We need a prognosis of terrible suffering or death, and a timeframe we get our minds around, preferably ten years or less. And, frankly, we need ongoing painful symptoms – like killer heatwaves, catastrophic floods, and freak tornadoes – to motivate us to make the changes the doctor recommends.

Climate Crisis as Opportunity

Sometimes people end up feeling grateful for a terminal prognosis that finally motivates them to change their ways. Even if they aren’t able to delay their death all that long, they end up being glad they learned to live a healthier, more fulfilling life while they still had the time.

I feel strangely grateful for the climate crisis. Of course, I would rather humanity lived in harmony with nature and that there was no climate and ecological emergency. But given the destructive and insane way industrialized human societies have been living, and given our biosphere’s resultant miserable state of health, I’m grateful for the wake-up call of climate. I thought I was going to have to watch humanity slowly but surely kill itself and almost everything else on this planet. I thought the habits of greed and consumption and arrogance would prove too strong, and that real change wouldn’t happen until it was too late. I pictured future human beings – if they lived at all – packed into sad, grey, apocalyptic bunkers on a planet denuded of all other living things.

But now humanity has a terminal prognosis so simple any of us can understand it. Any of us can comprehend the changes that are required if we want to extend the life of humanity and ensure that life involves some measure of peace and satisfaction. If enough of us heed this wake-up call, ending the use of fossil fuels will only be a beginning. You might think of getting off fossil fuels as being like getting sober if you have an addiction – an essential first step to healing your life, but just a first step.

Once we make the massive and disruptive effort to stop greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll start to sober up and look around us. We’ll have to reckon with the fact that our relationship with the natural world is broken. We’ll have to decide whether we actually want to live. If we do, we’ll have to change our ways.

Fortunately, every change we make to fend off our terminal prognosis and extend our life will end up being positive. Greater health, happiness, and peace of mind awaits the patient who starts eating a balanced diet, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep. It may not be easy, but it will ultimately be rewarding when they seek moral and emotional support from others and find healthy alternatives to drug use in their search for fulfillment and relief from stress. Similarly, as humanity responds to the climate crisis, our lives will depend on creating or strengthening healthier ways of living – ways based on values like sustainability, recognition of interdependence, cherishing all life, and deep appreciation for all the wonderful gifts we receive every day that money cannot buy.


Picture Credit

Image by Darko Stojanovic from Pixabay



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