“Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children”
— North American Proverb
I am privileged to be mentoring an environmental education program at a local high school. As I began preparing for another school year, five of my new students approached me and asked that I focus some of my classes on issues involving climate change. I was overwhelmed with delight by this spontaneous and unsolicited request from our youth. I regarded it as a precious responsibility that I must develop with great care.
As I focused on how I might describe the reality of climate change to my students, I knew I had to think about two things:
- We adults have left a horrible ecological mess for our young people to clean up.
- Without much positive guidance from we adults, we have left our young people to define how to take action to clean up the mess.
It would be easy for me to write a few lectures about human induced climate change impact on our planet. After all, there are large collections of online information and books available for that task. But, the real problem with human induced climate change is not the technical facts. The real problem rests with the reasons for decisions that we adults have made. Our youth cannot find viable solutions to the climate change issue until they first understand the erroneous worldview of the adults who shaped the problem in the first place. For, in understanding the adult worldview, our youth have the potential of forming new moral guidelines that will reverse the current deadly trends.
Why did we humans allow this mess to happen in the first place? What factors drove us to choose the directions that we decided to take?
Author Jeremy Lent suggests that humans have been trapped in an erroneous worldview about Nature for a long time. He says:
“Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.
The Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age.., many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.
Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is seen as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming Nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. The world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.
These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of human disconnection. In our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from Nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.”
This Western world view has led mankind to the extremely flawed idea that humanity can control Nature. Indeed, the Bible gives humanity the mandate to have “dominion” over Nature. However, the truth is that Nature is our home upon which we humans completely depend in order for our life to be sustained. Furthermore, systems science has taught us that any human impact upon Nature’s ecosystems (like human population growth, fossil fuels, agricultural emissions, and human over-consumption of our Earth’s resources) can lead to unexpected and far reaching results that cannot easily be changed. Add to all of this the human-created fallacy that our intelligence and our future technology will save us. These impacts caused by human beings are what have created the climate crisis — a crisis that may not be reversible.
The late Rachel Carson offered a powerful, message as a precursor to a major paradigm shift in Western science that took place around 1960. Her message is also the answer to curing our current environmental ills about climate change by changing mankind’s incorrect and misguided current view of control over Nature to one of interdependence of all living and nonliving things in Nature. In her “Essay on the Biological Sciences” written in 1958 she said:
“Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.”
Because ecological relationships are a fundamental necessity for all forms of life, the idea of conserving Nature’s relationships becomes a moral issue. Philosopher’s like Kathleen Dean Moore look upon climate change as a moral issue. Morals are ethical guidelines that help us decide what pathway to follow when action is required. Dr. Moore says:
“Many times, the American people have created dramatic and rapid social change — the War of Independence, the emancipation of the slaves, the mobilization during World War II, the civil rights movement. In every case, while economic and political considerations were undeniably at play, the change itself was powered by widespread public affirmation of great moral principles of justice and human decency. Action on the greatest of our challenges — climate change — will require the same moral resolve. The essential questions are not what is politically feasible or what is profitable, but what is right and what is deeply, devastatingly wrong.”
Moral guidelines for climate change action are particularly important at this juncture in human history because we adults have left our young people with the huge problem of resolving the climate crisis. The current trends of political expediency and economic growth will destroy the human habitat. Our youth must create a new moral foundation based on interdependence between and within all creatures on our Earth including ourselves. It is the responsibility of environmental educators to help our youth develop a consciousness about Nature that embraces the rules by which Nature operates rather than the invented rules of previous human generations where control and predictability were prevalent erroneous concepts. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy suggests that a “great turning is required where our consciousness must shift from valuing individualism to humbly embracing interdependence on a vast scale”. As a minimum, this great turning must contain these moral guidelines :
- We live in a world of nested systems. All living things are created by and are dependent upon their interdependent relationships to others and to the environment,
- We humans are completely embedded within a more-than-human world where many other forms of Nature such as animals, plants, and landforms are at least as necessary as humans for the ongoing flourishing of the biosphere. We are most human when we are moved in a humble relationship to these things around us.
- Nature does not need humans. But, humans need Nature. Humility is an essential quality for adapting to change. Philosopher Mary Midgley suggests that acknowledging our own littleness does not easily fit our current image of human status. While humility is not a fashionable virtue, this sense of our own inadequacy is surely something our ancestors must always have had because it is an essential element in adapting to change. If we ask how those hard-pressed ancestors managed to survive so many disasters, so many shocking changes of place, food, and climate, we can see that they certainly did not do it by having superior scientific knowledge. Nor did they have the encouragement of believing that they were exceptionally powerful. They survived by using qualities of humility that actually lie at the root of science itself—open-mindedness, versatility, realism, the willingness to learn.
- With all of this, and above all, we need to have a passion for Nature. We need to be in love with Nature. Love implies a close interrelationship and interdependence. Like our predecessors, we need to look upon Earth as our mother. We must be grateful to her for our very being. With this kind of love, we become capable of caring for her and for all of her creatures, including our fellow human beings. As a result, climate change issues disappear.
In addition to basic ethics, Kathleen Dean Moore suggests some ideas for human adaption to a changing Earth:
“As global warming forces a fundamental re-imagining of how we live on Earth, we have the chance to choose adaptive strategies that create justice and honor life, and refuse those that protect and perpetuate injustice and destruction. To that end, I offer five essentially moral questions that I believe we should ask of every plan for adaptation to climate change:
1. Does the adaptation effort take urgency or resources away from the immediate, overriding moral necessity of stopping the fossil fuel-based destabilization of the climate?
2. Does the adaptation plan impose unjustified costs on future generations?
3. Does the adaptation effort privilege the wealthy and powerful, at unjustified cost to the poor and dispossessed?
4. Does the adaptation effort protect and honor species other than human?
5. What does Earth ask of us?”
You are strongly encouraged to add your own moral guidelines in the comments space below.
My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.