There are times when, in order to succeed, we must suspend rational thought.
I say this in response to a word that has come up a lot with people I’ve talked to about climate change: ‘Powerless’. Now, this is not a Nike ad – I am not a lifestyle guru. But I need to explain why we should remove the word ‘powerless’ from any further discussion about climate change.
Okay, so we live within limits. For a start, even those of us living in democratic societies are not actually free to do whatever we want . . . and in truth, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want complete freedom and what comes with it. We are not free to live as we like because, as social creatures, we have chosen to accept responsibility by placing constraints on our behaviour. We live our lives according to sets of values and rules of escalating severity. Social skills, traditions, notions of respectability, maintenance of reputation, honour, the rule of law and ultimately, physical capability. We accept these restraints because they protect us from extremes of behaviour and channel our efforts into maintaining and improving society.
And our society, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is improving. Progress is, at times, excruciatingly slow and sometimes events occur that seem to pull us so far back that you think your heart would break with the injustice of it, but mankind is dragging itself forward. As a race, we should not allow ourselves to be deluded by nostalgia for a better time that never was.
Ask yourself where and at what point in history you would rather live. Pick a time when things were more just, more fair, more enlightened. A time when government was more democratic, when there was more equality, when you had a better chance in most countries of a fair trial, a decent meal, access to life-saving medical expertise or relatively painless dental treatment. The cost of this progress to our planet and many of its people has been almost unfathomable and we are still capable of horrific acts, but our tolerance of such things is far less than it used to be. Our awareness is greater than it has ever been before. Our empathy has a far wider reach. On the whole, our world is a better place (for humans at least) than it has ever been.
While the constraints our society places upon us may limit many of the things we could or would do, they also enable us to do far more together than we could do individually. But this structure has also resulted in our granting a great deal of importance to political, religious and business leaders and, in doing so, we have given them a large degree of influence over our lives.
We are prone to thinking in terms of those who have power, and those who have none. Given the way power is distributed, this is a very rational way to think. It is easy to believe that those in ‘authority’ make all the important decisions – and that those who have neither power nor money in abundance are excluded from those decisions. It is a very reasonable assumption to make.
As the other writers and I on the Weather Stations project seek out the knowledge, opinions and viewpoints of the experts, the word ‘powerless’ keeps arising in our conversations. Because this is seen as the greatest obstacle to making the changes that will help us overcome the challenges that face us as our climate transforms our world. It’s not the lack of power, but the inertia this belief instills.
Where our weather, our environment is concerned, most people believe themselves to be powerless. It is too big, too much to take, too overwhelming. Higher tides drown coastlines, storms uproot giant trees, dry heat triggers bush-fires and rain-swollen rivers flood farmland. And it would be a mistake to consider this attitude to be an ignorant position. Many of the people who know the hard facts of our situation, who have fought for years against the causes of climate change, are oppressed by this belief. You know an environmental campaigner has descended into despair when they start looking to nuclear power in the hope of reducing the amount of carbon we’re spewing into our atmosphere.
Something else that kept coming up in our discussions was the idea of ‘being positive’. I think this very phrase is problematic. ‘Being positive’ can suggest that you’re merely looking on the bright side, putting a brave face on it . . . turning that frown upside-down. Those who have a good understanding of the facts, but have little hope, regard the phrase as a superficial attitude to a crippling problem. Many of those who have little comprehension of the facts, but feel even more powerless as a result, have even less regard for the notion.
As far as our response to our changing environment is concerned, ‘being positive’ is not a facile attitude. It’s the only one we can have. Either we take action to meet this challenge or we accept our fate. And given that we’re looking at events that will inevitably lead to mankind having less land to farm, less food and therefore experiencing more conflict; given that some pretty sober, intelligent and well informed people are now talking about the possible collapse of our civilization within the lifetimes of our children, then accepting our fate isn’t really an option, is it?
Any rational person would be right to feel overwhelmed by the scale of this problem . . . Which is why I need to make an argument against rational thought.
The progress of our society has, from the outset, been driven by people who defied reasonable expectations of failure. Humans have a proven history of attempting things that reason suggested could not succeed . . . and confounding this belief by succeeding.
This kind of irrational ambition is something I – along with almost every other professional artist – have a bit of experience in.
If you want to make a living as a writer in Ireland, statistics would suggest that you have more chance of winning the lottery. And if you want to devote your life to an art form, it takes a lot of time and effort to develop the skills you need – diverting you from investing in other careers that offer far more chance of success, and certainly security. And yes, your chances of becoming a full-time writer are very slim . . . but the statistics are a bit misleading.
For a start, you have to count all the people who tried, but didn’t try hard enough; who failed to put in the work, or develop their technique, or their thought processes. All the people who didn’t try enough different approaches, who took too narrow a view. All the people who simply didn’t persist long enough. If you can crack all of that, you’ve substantially increased your odds, though there’s still a good deal of luck involved.
It is extraordinarily difficult to become a professional artist of any kind, but people still go for it all the time . . . and every now and then, someone actually makes it through. But nobody who took a completely rational view of it would ever try in the first place, because in terms of time, money and emotional trauma, the risks don’t make sense. And imagine a world without people who have the passion to defy those odds.
It is the very definition of truly historic achievement that some succeed where others think it impossible. Whether it’s in exploration, science or medicine, in sport or the arts, engineering or humanitarian work or social justice, ignoring good sense is part of what makes us what we are.
The apathy, this lack of belief that we can rise to the challenge of climate change, is not a fact, it is an attitude. And attitudes can be changed.
And I don’t accept that it’s just the powerful people who are in the position to take action. Even those who are driven by greed and self-preservation can, despite sometimes enormous power, be forced to change their path. They may be determined that we burn every last crumb of coal, or drop of oil or breath of gas (and there’s every chance we’ll do just that), but when you get right down to it, these people are small-minded giants who will go with the tide in order to follow the flow of money and protect their positions. Because tides do turn, and I have faith in these giants’ dedication to self-preservation.
Ireland has its fair share of corrupt, greedy and small-minded leaders – though like any country, we do have some people in power who look at the bigger picture too. And the writing of new laws to make change concrete has as much to do with what the majority of people will refuse to tolerate any longer, as it has with the demands of the powerful.
Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental changes that have happened in Ireland, just within my lifetime:
We no longer tolerate beating children in schools, or drink driving, or secondhand smoke. Religion has a steadily decreasing influence over our politics. Where the environment is concerned, we have made huge improvements to the levels of pollution in our rivers, around our coastline and in the quality of our air. We dealt with the plastic bags that littered our country. We cut our use of CFCs because of the damage to the ozone layer. Solar power is becoming a practical option for home-owners (this in a country not known for its levels of sunlight) and we are setting standards for wind-power, with nearly 20% of our electricity now coming from wind, with occasional levels capable of supplying 50%. The target for 2020 is to be able to produce 40% of our electricity with wind farms.
All this in a country that, despite a lot of economic growth, is not wealthy by the standards of many of its neighbours. And each of these things has been achieved often because of changes in legislation, not because one person in power decided it was necessary, but because ordinary people who cared enough campaigned for it until attitudes changed, the public began demanding it and the law-makers judged the time was right and carried it through to the legislation that finally provided the tipping point.
Each time, because of a change in public attitudes, the new law became desirable, then necessary, then inevitable. We need to, we can, we will do the same to tackle the changes in our environment, because we have no real choice in the matter. This has to get done.
Even the world of business is coming round, with investors looking increasingly towards renewable sources of energy because fossil fuels are seen for what they are: a dead end. They are a resource we are completely certain will run out, while the alternatives are, effectively, limitless. The prices of oil, gas and coal have nowhere to go but up. It is absolutely clear to those who are crunching the long-term numbers that we have to end our reliance on these dwindling resources, because scarcity will lead to conflict, conflict makes for an unstable market and markets don’t like instability. It gets in the way of making money.
But beyond all of this, there is one utterly compelling and persuasive fact that makes me believe that we can meet the challenge of climate change, that we can reduce the damage we’re doing and adapt to the changes past damage has caused. There is a reason we should stop referring to ourselves as ‘powerless’, a reason we should have hope and be forthright and energetic in the action we take. A reason why we should promote a positive attitude among ordinary people, and even an expectation of success. And is it this:
Human beings are so powerful that we fundamentally changed the weather on our world . . . and we did it by accident.
Imagine what we could do if we actually put our minds to it.