In the run-up to the publication of my next book, I’ve been monitoring sources across the spectrum of opinion on climate change. The other day I happened upon this piece, which describes recent measurements of ice mass and ice extent gains in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland, along with cool surface and tropospheric temperatures. My heart sank. This is what I’ve been worried about for several years now as I’ve seen cracks spread in the global warming consensus.
Before I explain why I am worried about cooling, let me offer an opposing article, from Nature, stating that Antarctica is losing ice mass faster than ever, and another article predicting 10 degrees (Celsius) warming by 2021. For more dissonance, read this and this. Partisans of each side will no doubt hasten to explain to me how I’ve been duped by the other, but my purpose here is not to establish the correctness of one viewpoint over another. Instead, I intend to illuminate something that gets lost in what has become a highly polarized and politicized debate.
Why on earth would I be concerned about global cooling? Given the dangers of global warming, one would think that signs of a cooling trend would be welcome news. Phew! Ecological catastrophe averted! Now we can go back to business as normal.
This is precisely my concern. Business as normal is ruining the planet – regardless of whether the climate is warming or cooling. Here are some of the changes that have happened just in my lifetime: Fish biomass has decreased by more than half. The number of monarch butterflies has dropped by 90 percent. Deserts have expanded on every continent. Coral reef extent has declined by half. Mangroves in Asia have declined 80 percent. The Borneo rainforest is nearly gone, and rainforests globally cover less than half their former area. And all over the world, flying insect biomass has plummeted, by as much as 80% in some places. Have you noticed that there is less bug splatter on the windshield than when you were a child? It isn’t your imagination. This should be alarming whatever the trend in global temperatures – insects are crucial to every terrestrial food web. The insect die-off means the planet is becoming less alive.
None of the above can be directly attributed to climate change. Most are caused by “land use changes” and resource extraction. Forests have been clearcut. Mangrove swamps have been drained for development. Coral reefs have been blasted, bottom-trawled, and suffocated by sediment released by soil erosion and deforestation. Climate change may be an exacerbating factor, but it is not the primary cause (the reefs, for example, suffered catastrophic losses before bleaching was widespread). In the case of the insect holocaust, we also must consider the ongoing 90-year experiment we have performed by regularly dousing vast areas of land with insecticide.
It would be nice to attribute all ecological problems to a single, quantifiable cause – greenhouse gases. Then to be “green” all you have to do is use solar power and offset your emissions. Then, collectively, all we need to do to “save the planet” is to switch to carbon-neutral energy sources. Certainly, that would be technically challenging, but in principle, it wouldn’t require a fundamental shift in the course of development or humanity’s relationship to the planet.
Over the last twenty years practically every environmental issue has either been hitched to the climate change wagon, or relegated to secondary status. Issues like offshore oil drilling or forest conservation used to be about preserving the forests we love and preventing oil spills. Now it is: “We have to stop drilling and clearcutting because... climate change!” Meanwhile, causes like plastic in the oceans or elephant conservation (which have little obvious relevance to climate change) become boutique issues, since after all what do they matter compared to the momentous goal of saving the world?
For at least twenty years we have been saying, “Stop the pipeline because it will contribute to global warming,” “Stop the tar sands excavation because it will contribute to global warming,” “Stop fracking because it will contribute to global warming,” “Implement soil conservation measures because exposed soil organic matter oxidizes into CO2 and contributes to global warming,” and so on. If it becomes apparent that global warming isn’t happening – or even if one can plausibly argue it isn’t happening – then these issues lose their grounding. Environmentalists might come to regret tethering so many issues to climate change. They might regret building the equation “green = low carbon.”
The skeptic websites I scan do not hesitate to use any sign of global cooling to discredit environmentalism generally. Their skepticism about global warming accompanies skepticism about biodiversity, toxic waste, plastic in the oceans, and virtually every other environmental issue. With a few notable exceptions, their message is basically, “Everything is fine! Those enviros and greenies hate progress and are concocting issues like global warming as a way to implement their agenda of totalitarian socialist world government.”
In most polarized debates, evolutionary truths are revealed by questioning the tacit agreements that both sides share. In this case, both sides agree to stage the fight on the matters of greenhouse gases and temperature. This agreement sucks the oxygen out of the room for any other issue. It also usurps the other, non-climate reasons for opposing things like fracking or pipelines – reasons that do not require adherence to a highly politicized and hard-to-prove scientific theory.
At one point I realized that every practice that one might oppose on climate grounds, I oppose for other reasons too. Pipelines leak oil and gas, tar sands excavation destroys entire landscapes, fracking contaminates groundwater, coal burning emits harmful pollutants, offshore oil drilling creates horrible oil spills. Even if global warming were a hoax, I would want to curtail them all. In a way the skeptics are right about me – I do have “an ulterior agenda.” It isn’t to implement a totalitarian one world government (sorry), it is to change fundamentally the human relationship to the rest of life. It is to consider, in conducting any human activity, how we affect the beings and places where we act. In testing navy sonar, it asks, “How will this affect the whales?” In building a pipeline, it asks, “How will this endanger the river?” In mining for gold in the Amazon, it asks, “How will this affect the forest and the people indigenous to it?” In developing new pesticides, it asks, “How will this affect the soil, the earthworms, the birds, the insects, the river, the estuary, the bay, and the ocean?”
Another article I read today describes efforts to save seabirds on the remote Lord Howe Island in the South Pacific. Marine biologists are there performing lavage on the chicks to wash plastic from their stomachs, often hundreds of pieces of it, that is preventing them from absorbing nutrition. The chicks are starving. I can think of no convincing argument that these painstaking efforts will mitigate climate change or bring any quantifiable benefit to humanity. But looking at the video of the tender rescue effort, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to the biologists. It seemed obvious to me that they are rendering Earth and humanity an important service. Who can say through what mysterious causal pathways their work will bear its impact? Who can say how the morphic field of care they stand in will propagate?
The skeptics accuse environmentalists of caring more about seabirds, whales, and spotted owls than about people. It may sound here that I too care more about the seabirds than about the economic benefits of cheap plastic, that I care more about “the soil, the earthworms, the birds, the insects, the river, the estuary, the bay, and the ocean “ than I do about human beings; that I would sacrifice jobs, sacrifice the “benefits of modernity,” and even sacrifice human lives for the sake of “the environment.” Voicing this critique, the Japanese skeptic Kunihiko Takeda says global warming is a hoax by those who want to “keep developing nations walking barefoot.” What he means is that if we stop expanding the use of fossil fuels, “development” will halt, and the benefits of modernity will be lost to the world.
In the end, this objection can only stand in a mindset of separation that sees human wellbeing as separable from that of all beings. The Story of Separation says: What happens to nature need not affect ourselves. I subscribe to a story which says the contrary: that self and other, human and nature, inner and outer, are not really separate. That everything that happens to the world happens, in some manner, to ourselves as well. That with every extinction, something dies in us. That with loss of biodiversity comes cultural and spiritual poverty. That environmental pollution inevitably coincides with the spread of moral, mental, physical, social, and spiritual poisons.
Besides, are we really benefiting from all that plastic? Are we happier than our grandparents for having plastic bags rather than cloth, plastic bottles rather than refillable glass, plastic drinking straws rather than paper? For that matter, is it so bad to walk barefoot? Is it so bad to be without cars, cheap air travel, broadband, air conditioning, abundant consumer goods, convenience foods, and cheap throwaway stuff? In the context of the current society built around these things, it is hard to be without them. If we take cars for granted, it is progress to have a nicer one. If we take roads for granted, it is progress to have a wider one. If we rely on digital communication devices, it is progress to have a faster one. The houses are built for air conditioning. The towns are built for cars. The pressures of life demand conveniences and time-saving technology. Exercising different choices as an individual consumer is not the whole answer. We need to explore forms of development and economy in which humans thrive without extracting more and more from the world.
The specter of global warming asks us to rethink the direction of civilization and the human relationship to Earth. No wonder many people want to deny it is happening. My point here – actually, my plea – is that whether or not it is happening, still, let us rethink the direction of civilization. Let us change our relationship to Earth. Let us explore a different conception of wealth, measured in relationships, not products, participation and not extraction. My fear is that a cooling trend will abort that inquiry. My fear is that it will quell what the idea of climate change has awakened: the disturbing realization of the mutual dependency of human and natural wellbeing. My fear is that it will sabotage our awareness that the welfare of the soil, the insects, the trees, and the whales, is our wealth too. It may not be the kind of wealth visible in GDP statistics. It may not register as an increase in kilowatt-hours of power consumed per capita, or miles driven or megabytes downloaded, or any of the other things we normally measure and count.
I think we already have enough of the quantifiable (although it is poorly distributed, a separate though deeply related issue). What we need more of are the things that are hard to quantify. The rising tide of suicide and depression in the developed world is not caused by shrinking residential floor space or lack of access to 4G cell service. It probably has something to do with the disintegration of community, the withering of connection, loss of purpose and meaning, chronic pain and unresolved trauma, unprocessed grief, ambient anxiety, and the other accoutrements of Separation. This point seems obvious here at my brother’s farm where I write this, because my life is rich here; rich in relationship to the natural world through my hands, my senses, my labor, and yes, my bare feet, and rich in relationship to the human world as well through shared labor, common purpose, and mutual reliance. And the point seems equally unobvious when I’m separated from all these things. In the busy world of cars and clocks and screens, faster and more of them seems like progress.
The richness of life around me enriches my own experience of life. That is the realization of non-separation. It is also the fundamental realization of ecology. In my book research, I confirmed again and again that climate science has, over the years, consistently underestimated the effect of biology on climate. While appreciation of carbon sequestration by forests and other ecosystems has grown, a covert geomechanical bias holds sway, seeing life as a hostage to random or manmade fluctuations in atmospheric components. A rival view, which I call the living planet view, holds that fundamentally it is life itself that maintains the conditions for life. Accordingly, the depletion of life is the biggest threat to the climate and the biosphere generally. Unless we stop degrading ecosystems, clearcutting forests, draining wetlands, decimating fish and land vertebrates, and dousing the land with insecticides, then even if we cut carbon emissions to zero, the planet will still die a death of a million cuts. There is indeed a horrifying crisis underway – and cooling will not signify that it has abated.
In the last ten years, science has gained a new appreciation of the ways living beings and systems affect temperature, weather, and climate. Whales transport nutrients from the depths to the surface, and from nutrient-rich feeding grounds to nutrient-poor birthing areas, allowing life to thrive there and ultimately affecting carbon sequestration. Ice-nucleating bacteria stimulate the formation of clouds that reflect sunlight and bring rain, where otherwise there would be heat-trapping haze and so-called “humid drought.” Forests generate a biotic pump that draws moisture-laden air from the oceans to the interiors; their destruction causes many of the droughts blamed on climate change. Healthy soils, grasslands, and wetlands absorb water that would otherwise run off, buffering against flooding (also blamed on climate change) and recharging aquifers that feed springs that nourish life through the dry season. A healthy climate comes from a healthy biosphere. Gauging health by temperature alone obscures this truth.
In the living planet view, no longer can we cut down a virgin forest here and offset the carbon with a tree farm there. No longer can we dam the Niger, thereby destroying vast wetlands, while assuring ourselves that the planet will benefit from the “climate-friendly electricity.” No longer can we convert the Carolina forests to woodchipping plantations (again for “climate-friendly electricity”). No longer can we blithely assume that some ecosystems or species are expendable. Why? Because they are the organs and tissues of a living Earth.
Will the planet warm or cool? I have no idea. Over my years of book research, I became less confident, not more, of the inevitability of greenhouse-gas-induced warming. Slowly, cracks are spreading in the dominant narrative. We could very well see cooling, or warming, or even both – worsening gyrations like a top spinning out, like an animal with organ failure that can no longer regulate its body temperature. Wild fluctuations in temperature and precipitation are inevitable as the living systems that maintain homeostasis lose their vitality.
Regardless of whether the planet warms or cools, the things we need to do to maintain ecological health are the same. The key words are conservation, protection, regeneration, and repair. Conserving forests, stopping pipelines, repairing ecosystems, regenerating agricultural soils, and so on will, as a side effect, reduce greenhouse emissions and increase biotic carbon uptake. But they do not rely on that result for their motivation. The motivation is to serve the flourishing of life – biological and human. This commitment should not depend on the trend in global temperature.