Sunday, November 29, 2015

Climate change is our grand narrative now

There is the story of our personal lives: our family, our friends, our jobs, our hobbies. There is the story of our communities: our civic, religious, business, artistic and recreational lives. There is the story of our nations: their internal political struggles and their struggles with each other.

But now, there is one grand narrative which ties us all together, whether we want to be connected or not, whether we are preoccupied with our personal, community or national narratives or not. That is the narrative of our changing climate and the resulting threat to the continuity of our world civilization. The climate talks in Paris are but one expression of this new reality.

Even people who oppose doing anything about climate change are forced to talk about it. Even people who somehow have convinced themselves that climate change is not happening and oddly, in the same breath, claim that humans have nothing to do with this thing that is not happening--even those people confirm by their very framing of the issue that they are firmly situated inside this narrative.

Climate change is now the grand narrative because what happens to climate and what we do about it will be a worldwide story which no one can ignore. As such there will be few people without an opinion on the issue of climate change. Increasingly, it will reach down into our national, community and personal lives in ways we had hoped would wait until we are gone. The droughts, the heat, the floods, the damage to crops, the lengthening summer, the late fall, and the early spring--none of them can escape our notice.

We are forced to incorporate the changing climate into our everyday conversations. It is already a big topic among anyone who gardens and certainly anyone who farms. Among those in touch with plants the evidence of a changing climate is incontrovertible.

The grand tension will be how to address climate change without giving up the abundant energy, food and technology that have given us such comfort, ease, mobility and opportunity. Neither side in the debate over what to do wants to relinquish the hope that we will have to give up almost nothing.

One side says we should continue to burn fossil fuels, to raze the forests, and to farm the fields in ways that release carbon from the soil into the air...and that we will continue to be able to live the modern industrial life we've become used to. Any consequences of climate change will be manageable (an argument that becomes less plausible with each passing day).

The other side implores us to embrace carbon-free energy sources, move toward better care of the forests and the soil, sip what energy we use instead of gulping it, adjust our habits and lifestyles...and we will continue to be able to live a green version of the modern industrial life we've become used to.

But underneath it all, we fear and suspect that either path will involve some loss, some sacrifice. And, it is that fear and suspicion which prevents us from committing to do what we must do to save the best parts of our culture and society while letting go of the worst. It is the fear of change and the fear of loss which is holding us back from truly addressing the existential threat of climate change.

If someone were holding a gun to our heads, it would be clear that we were in danger. But, climate change creeps into our lives gradually. Few people can see that climate now has a seat at every negotiating table, that climate has become a political actor with an unyielding, non-negotiable position. We can choose to think of climate change as a brutal, remorseless malefactor with no sympathy for humankind. But we can also choose to think of climate change as a messenger, a symptom like a recurrent fever, telling us that our society has overstepped its bounds and needs to rethink its way of life to regain its health--or face worse consequences.

It is in the evolutionary makeup of humans to seek to maximize their power intake. In fact, it is in the evolutionary makeup of every organism to do so. By maximizing the power available to us we increase our chances of survival as individuals and as a species. But, this impulse is at the heart of our climate difficulties.

Like a pioneer species in a clearcut forest, humans expanded rapidly after the broad deployment of fossil fuels. But, pioneer species ultimately give way to mature forests which reach optimum rates of energy, mineral and water cycling--rates that can maintain the balance of the forest over very long periods. The forest enters a less dynamic, but stable equilibrium that makes longevity possible.

To borrow from economist Herman Daly, we now live in a "full world" and we must come to grips with that new reality. Human society cannot grow its consumption of energy and resources forever. But we can grow in our social, artistic, intellectual and spiritual lives indefinitely.

Climate change is giving us the first universally understood signal that it is time to reconsider our collective future. Will we risk the destruction of all that we hold dear in exchange for a few more decades of a fossil fuel party that is undermining our health and the health of the planet? Or will we choose to embrace not only changes in the physical infrastructure upon which we base our material lives, but also a new vision that can endlessly engage our hearts, minds and spirits in the kind of growth that has no limit?

Our answers represent the climax in the new grand narrative of climate change--essentially a choice that will be reflected in our individual daily acts and in the collective acts of our communities and our nations.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Joe said...

Well said, but wrong about one assertion. Our ability to "grow in our social, artistic, intellectual and spiritual lives" also depends on our energy consumption. Without the energy to support the specialists who concentrate on the advance of intellectual pursuits, those arts will fade away. Knowledge contained in books that are never read has vanished.

Anonymous said...

Well, people must have their doom. And with the success of drill-baby-drill, I suppose all we have left is waiting around for some form of climate doom. Just takes way too long though, it will be decades before property owners on the Outer Banks of NC will need to even think about it. Climate change just doesn't have the kick of peak oil.

Michael Dowd said...


I love virtually everything you write, but this one is one of my favorites. It hits all the right notes.

I'll be recording this post and, probably tomorrow, adding it to my "Grace Limits" page:

Keep up the great writing!

Warmly, and getting warmer every year,

~ Michael

Anonymous said...

Insightful piece, hence the name "Resource Insights", I suppose! This line caught my eye, in particular:

"It is the fear of change and the fear of loss which is holding us back from truly addressing the existential threat of climate change."

And so one must ask why loss and change send such reverberations of fear into our society? I think it has to do with collective self-identity, which is a fragile construct in need of constant affirmation. We are good, we are right - look what we've accomplished. And so change per se is tantamount to the acknowledgement that we are wrong and have been wrong all along. Progress, as currently understood, is supposed to be a one-way street, deterministic, inexorable. Clive Hamilton, in his book "Requiem for a Species" deals with with this psychologically induced affliction of character in an entire chapter entitled "The Consumer Self".

The current interpretation of progress is firmly rooted in material progress, and that is the heart of the issue, because as we of the choir all well know, the relentless acceleration of material progress is simply incongruent with limits. This is so simple to acknowledge (notice I did not say "believe"!), yet this acknowledgement itself is seen as an existential threat. We can spill as much well-intentioned ink or transmit as many electrons as we might in the name of reasonable argument and discourse, but we are unlikely to penetrate the solidified amber of current societal consciousness.

This is why, in most public discourse, all the legitimate and approved discussion swirls around within the circumscribed frame of abstraction, number and measure, statistics, data and metrics. Even as climate change is a "wicked problem", nestled within a hierarchy of other wicked problems (overshoot itself being the patriarch of the family!), we approach it from a limited, insufficient perspective, as though it was simply an engineering or managerial issue.

I find it ironic and strangely revealing that in recent public chatter regarding "refugees" or "terrorists", out comes the "values" card. But somehow, in equivalent discussions about climate change, it's all number and measure and certainly not "our values". What kind of publicly embodied schizophrenia is this? If we did invoke "our values", we might run the risk of seeing that "our values" are in large part the root cause of the apparently insoluble problem. And so we rationalize obfuscation, extend and pretend, and carry on with our lives such as they are.

Chris Kuykendall said...

Personally, I don't think climate change is or should be our grand narrative. Rather, unchecked overpopulation is a grand narrative that drives increased fossil-fuel use (thus CO2 and methane emissions), accelerated mineral extraction, forest clearing, species endangerment, aquifer depletion, and so on. U.S. environmentalists have tended to adopt climate change conceptually as THE overarching anti-conservationist bogeyman, while having almost nary a peep to say constructively about three billion becoming four billion becoming five billion becoming six billion becoming seven billion with more on the way. The climate change focus seems to me a way to blame oil companies, Keystone pipeliners, climate denialists, Republican presidential candidates, etc., thereby avoiding Pogo blaming. ("We have met the enemy, and he is us.") Climate change is very much a big deal, but it's not the only big deal. (We were very fortunate, for instance, to get the ozone layer issue reasonably under control.) 1970s environmentalism had a much better and broader conservationist perspective than we have now. In my humble opinion.