What Will It Take?

Parents and grandparents tell me that the teenagers and young adults in their families fear for their futures. In fact, many of them believe that they will have no future, at least no future worth living. Why plan for the future? Why take their educations seriously? Why bother to hope and dream? I hear so many complaints about the irresponsibility of young people nowadays. What we clueless adults must realize is that this is a generation which is aware that their future may mark the beginning of the end of civilization as humans have known it since the dawn of history. Wars, pandemics, genocides and all the other evils and disasters of the past pale in comparison to the destruction of an environment which allows for human life and that of much flora and fauna.

My generation feared nuclear catastrophe which could have ended much life on this planet. However, such a catastrophe was not inevitable. Today, climate scientists tell us that an environmental catastrophe affecting the whole earth is unavoidable. Our only hope is to mitigate that catastrophe by radically changing our way of life–a way of life which relentlessly and insanely poisons the earth’s atmosphere with the emission of greenhouse gases. The catastrophe will come. The only question is how devastating that catastrophe will be. In other words, how much life on earth can we save from extinction amid that global disaster?

CNN on July 25, 2023, interviewed climate researcher and retired professor Eliot Jacobson regarding a trio of climate records set over the last month. Those records included:

  1. Record high temperatures (the highest going back 100,000 years)
  2. A dramatic rise in the temperatures of the North Atlantic Sea
  3. A foreboding change in the standard deviation for Antarctic Sea ice (a deficit of 2.5 million square kilometers of sea ice, an area equal to eight Britains)

So, what does this record-breaking trio mean? Jacobson was blunt in his assessment and prediction regarding the significance of these three phenomena occurring all at once: “We are witnessing the sixth great extinction as well as the collapse of global industrial civilization.” The interviewer asked if this meant the extinction of humankind. The scientist said, “Not necessarily.” He then defined “mass extinction event” as the extinction of 75% of the species on this planet and observed that we currently have ten times the background rate of extinction compared to the past. Historically, “the timeline for a mass extinction event is 2.8 million years. We are going to do it in 100 years”.

If he and other scientists are correct regarding the severity of the climate crisis, one might wonder how feasible or desirable it may be for humans to live on the planet where 75% of the earth’s species have become extinct. Such a future does not bode well for most of the billions of people who will populate the world. Already people in the poorest areas of the world (those closest to the equator) are suffering and dying because of the climate crisis. The future destruction of the environment could only compound and expand that tragedy. If past patterns of human behavior are projected into the future, “survival of the fittest, wealthiest, and most powerful” will continue in the apocalyptic ways that characterize dystopian movies and novels. Obscenely wealthy individuals and nations will hunker down, hoard, and violently protect their own. And even in the “more fortunate/lucky” societies, there will be a gradual whittling down of survivors as resources become less and less. The greedy individualism we so prize will result in our self-destruction as we painfully learn that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” and that greed is a root of all evil.

So, what will it take for us to wake up and recognize the hell we have created on this exquisite and sacred planet? We would be foolish to trust science and technology to save the day. Advances in those areas may slightly postpone the inevitable. However, such technologies will probably be available only for the benefit of the elites. Future methods of survival will be reserved for those who can afford such “luxuries.” That has been the pattern for millennia and has been compounded in our day by a relentless, exploitative, and oppressive form of capitalism.

A society based on the exploitation of limited natural resources, harmful production, and obsessive consumption is ill equipped to plan for a radically different kind of life allowing for survival in the future. Our whole society is based on a “growing economy” which requires an expanding exploitation of the earth–the very exploitation which has produced the climate crisis which threatens the existence of much of our planet.

The survival of the planet which would allow for human habitation as well as flora and fauna should be the number one concern of every person on earth.

No politician will propose what will be required to mitigate the coming catastrophe. And that’s not their fault. We elect them, and we are too selfish, blind, and irresponsible to demand the changes only governments can require and implement. We would rather listen to the climate crisis deniers who are motivated by an insatiable desire for profits made possible by current practices which compound and multiply the crisis. We would rather live in comfort and pretend there is not a problem than “repent” for the sake of our children and descendants. The survival of the planet which would allow for human habitation as well as flora and fauna should be the number one concern of every person on earth. No other issue facing the world is as important as our mitigation of the coming catastrophe. Because of our reckless irresponsibility and selfishness, avoiding this catastrophe is no longer an option. The most we can hope for is to mitigate its destruction. I suggest that such hope may depend on two sources:

  1. All world religions have the wisdom and depth to nurture an appreciation and valuing of the earth as the sacred work of a Creator. The change we so desperately need is spiritual in nature. By spiritual, I am referring to an awareness of how connected everything is in creation. All of life depends on a sacred harmony which must be respected, valued, and embraced. This cosmos is the work of a Divine Artist who is committed to Her creation. Only as we come to value the earth more than our accumulation of things and the “rewards” of our self-centered individualism can the human race survive in the future. We could learn so much from the “primitive” cultures which managed to live on this earth for hundreds of thousands of years without destroying their environments. Until we can find “heaven” on earth and “eternity” in time and learn to value the entire matrix of God’s good creation, we are doomed to devastation brought about by a utilitarian and ruthless abuse of the exquisite paradise with which we have been gifted. Every church, synagogue, mosque, and temple should join hands and hearts to mend this world. The earth is the one thing we all have in common. We are all earthlings. Together we must rediscover the wonder, beauty, and eternal value of creation. We must come to love our planet. Love, not knowhow, will save what we can of God’s good creation. 
  2. Our children and grandchildren should not have to shoulder the burden of their future. Their future will be largely determined by the unfortunate legacy we leave them. However, the children and youth of today may find ways to force us to change our way of living. Some years there was a movie about a young boy who was terrified by the prospect of nuclear annihilation. In protest of that possibility, he stopped speaking. Over time, other kids joined him in this protest of silence. News spread and children all over the world became mute. Even the children of world leaders joined this nonviolent effort to bring sanity to the world. Finally, adults “listened to the silence” and demanded that their leaders address the danger of nuclear war. The movie reminded me of that verse in Isaiah regarding cosmic peace: “And a little child shall lead them.” Perhaps a massive movement on the part of children, teenagers, and young people who are acutely aware of the probability of ecological catastrophe may alert apathetic and distracted adults to the immensity of the climate crisis. We need more Greta Thunbergs who care profoundly about their and the earth’s future. If we are oblivious to the pleas of our children for a humane future for this earth, then perhaps we grownups don’t deserve to survive. But unfortunately, as far as power, influence, and resources are concerned, their future is now in our hands. And we adults need to get off our apathetic and self-centered butts and demand change as we develop the maturity and wisdom to accept the sacrifice required by that change. And perhaps with such sacrifice will come the needed and unexpected gifts of community, purpose, and a recovery of our humanity. 

The clock is ticking, and we are fast approaching the midnight hour. 

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