The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on Monday. According to the head of the United Nations, this devastating report is a ‘code red’ warning for humanity. And Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will preside over the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, said “If ever there was going to be a wake-up call to the world when it comes to climate change, this report is it”. But will it be? What are the chances we just press the snooze button? What if the comfort of the bed we are currently lying in is just too familiar to get out of? The duvet too comfortable? The thought of all we have to do when we get up just too over-whelming?
The report, the sixth from the IPCC since 1988 and eight years in the making, found that human activity was “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the Earth’s climate. These changes include the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the resultant rise in sea levels, and the increased frequency of extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts. The upshot of all this is that only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade can prevent climate breakdown – a breakdown that will render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable through either floods or extreme heat. The result of this will mean a major reduction in land available and capable of growing food, and a massive number of people fleeing their current homelands in order to find a place of relative safety. Ultimately, if nothing is done at all, the Earth will become uninhabitable to humans.
So, can we pull back from the brink? Probably the most pessimistic answer to this question is supplied by John Gray. In Straw Dogs he says that “the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd.” His criticism is aimed the “doctrine of salvation” he terms humanism: “the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny”; “the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free”. This pessimism is a critique of what he sees as the unfettered optimism associated with the humanist idea of “progress and enlightenment”. He admits that there has been progress in knowledge, that we know and understand more about the world we live in, but argues that there has been no progress in ethics. Science, he argues, “enables humans to satisfy their needs”, but it “does nothing to change them.” Bottom line here is that humans are just too needy; that our needs, particularly our material needs, could well be our Achilles Heel.
For Gray, humanism’s cardinal error, adopted from Christianity, is “the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals”, guided by our ability to use reason. On this point he sides with David Hume in arguing that reason is, and can only be, the hard pressed servant of the will – a will driven by our emotions, by our needs. Our intellects are not, as most of us believe, “impartial observers of the world but active participants in it”. In pressing this point Gray is only restating the point made by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding thinkers of the environmental movement. In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ he argues that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
The way to avoid the bleak future predicted by the IPCC report, therefore, may be through ethics rather than science, technology or reason. Perhaps we need to not only understand our being part of a land-community, a community of all living entities sharing a single environment, but start to feel this connection, and start to feed this connection into our ethical behaviour. We need to start understanding and appreciating the effect of our needs upon other members of the land-community. We need to understand, truly understand, that believing humanity to be something separate from the other life forms sharing this planet is an error; that all life is intrinsically linked and interdependent; and that believing these other life forms and the planet itself are there as a resource to satisfy our insatiable needs will lead to our extinction. But most of all we need to allow this new understanding to feed into our ethics. If we do this perhaps we can steer a path between the pessimism of Gray and the optimism of humanism and survive as a species a little while longer. But if we do, we will need to seriously curtail our consumerism and freely abandon many of those luxuries we associate with modern life.