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The Age of Agency: Seventeen Years…..Starting Now

A looming problem becomes urgent before it becomes inevitable. That line, not so thin after all, is where we still stand now.

Despite its universal presence in the human heart, cognitive dissonance is generally considered an uncomfortable state; when a person holds views that sit uneasily with one another, and the person is forced to confront this fact, it can cause disturbance: if you believe that Americans are smarter or better educated than other people, for example, and then learn from a trusted source that we perform below average on most tests, then until you can find a way to persuade yourself that your more deeply held belief is still actually (if not apparently) true (perhaps you assure yourself that we are more creative or independent-minded, for example, and that the tests penalize this), or until you abandon that belief, you might feel frustrated and unhappy.

Sometimes, though, cognitive dissonance is more comfortable than the alternative. Holding incompatible views can keep us from moving forward; if you can keep from bridging the gap between the belief that your marriage is excellent and the nagging sense that your husband is hiding something important from you, you don’t need to confront a reality you don’t want to confront, and perhaps make a choice you don’t want to make. To the mind (which can be strangely neutral to facts), the problem arises not from the opposing views, but from being forced to see that you hold opposing views.

And we all do, and most of them are reasonably harmless (at least to anyone but us). But not always.

Many people believe that the threats of climate change are not so urgent that they need to change their lives today to account for this fact, and at the same time that those threats are so overwhelming that it’s already too late anyway. It’s as though they believe that we straddle the time of agency, with one foot firmly in the moment in which it’s not urgent (and is thus dismissable), and the other foot firmly in the moment in which it’s too late: the line between the two, it seems, must be vanishingly thin.

This makes no sense, of course: a looming problem (as opposed to one that’s entirely unforeseeable) becomes urgent before it becomes inevitable. That line, not so thin after all, is where we still stand now.

Dissonance is doubly embedded here, because in choosing to believe that it’s not so urgent, we hang on to the belief that we get to have the first-world lives we always imagined—working, falling in love, traveling, perhaps having children, retiring when we’re old and spending our time with friends or learning to paint or playing golf—choosing each step, more or less without guilt or fetters. We also have an uncomfortable foreboding that climate change may be about to upend everything, and fill our screens and even some of our own neighborhoods with droughts, wildfires, floods, hunger, extinctions, and political and economic instability. This is not the future we imagined for ourselves, and we assuredly (quite sanely) don’t want it. So that half—the side we can call the oh gosh, the sky never has fallen, so it’s probably not falling now either¹—of our mental construct is classical dissonance: we don’t want to believe terrible things of the future, yet the drumbeat gets ever louder (for those with ears to hear).

We don’t want to believe in that future for two reasons—because it’s so troubling, and also, critically, because it makes us feel guilty and defensive; it’s things we’re doing every day, after all, that have brought this reality into being, and we want to keep doing those things every day. By definition, our lives consist of doing those things every day: we don’t want to invent new lives, because it seems like a lot of work. So it’s particularly adept (if insane) of our minds to also find a counterweight to our desire not to feel guilt, by acknowledging that the threat is vast and real, only to hastily conclude that it’s well outside of our powers to change. That’s a slightly different dissonance, because it’s not about whether climate change is real and urgent, it’s about whether we have done and can yet do anything about it, for better and worse. When we spend another day driving and working and shopping and texting rather than massing in the streets and demanding that our political leaders immediately face facts and set us on the moon-shot path of saving as much as we can of what we treasure and need, we’re a little like dieters on a binge who decide that since we’ve already blown the carrot-sticks-and-grapefruit diet by having ten cookies, we might as well have a few more: what’s the difference?

Our mental loop-de-loops keep us from seeing that we’re squarely in the time of agency: we know the truth, and we can still do something about it—not fix it, no (it is too late for that), but we can surely make it much less terrible than it will be if we don’t act. And as with the cookies, the truth is that there is always a difference: another few hundred calories will only make us a very little bit fatter, but a few more years of fossil fuel business-as-usual will cause the extinction of innumerable more species. In both cases, that result is incontrovertible. Now is where we choose.

But now is, in fact, the only time there ever is, for this kind of shift; you can’t do it yesterday, and you can’t do it tomorrow: when it involves changing habits, doing is a strictly present-tense activity (not for nothing one day at a time): it only happens in the slow motion of standing there with the cookie in your hand, suddenly aware of two worlds. The dieting metaphor—however handy for its description of a familiar thought process that’s both self-destructive and plainly delusional—is ludicrous, really, because one is only ever hurting oneself, and perhaps a few loved ones, by eating the extra cookies; when we continue on with business as usual in a fossil-fuel-fed world, we allow ourselves to be part of the destruction of all that we know.

But as any recovering addict or sadder-but-wiser lover can tell us, there’s a deep power in facing the truth and choosing to move forward. When we give up the delusion of a guilt-free life focused on personal and family happiness, we gain a spiritual truth: we’re all in this together, our planet is a precious place, and we have great strength for good as well as for our previous (largely unknowing) destruction. For all of our hemming and hawing, most of us have a deep desire to know something true and find the courage to be part of something meaningful. That desire may have more scope for fulfillment in the coming years than ever before.

In his recent book Feral, George Monbiot talks about kidnapping in early America: the record is clear that if kidnapped settler children and women were held by Native Americans for more than a few months, they seldom wanted to return, even if “saved” by their own families; the reverse was not the case for the kidnapped Native Americans, even if they developed ties of affection to their captors. Given the prejudices of the settlers, this is extraordinarily revealing: modernity wears off fast. Monbiot’s point, like that of others before him, is that the ways in which even early modernity removed us from the natural world took a profound and mostly unacknowledged—but not irreversible—toll on us. The problem has two interwoven parts: first, our removal from the sheer physicality of the world—its breezes, its beasts and plenitude of ways of being, its unadulterated nourishment, and our own physical engagement with our surroundings, to start—and the related removal from evolutionary consequence. With greater automation and specialization, human labors—and thus to some degree human lives—have become ever less important. If you needed to hunt with spears or arrows to feed yourself and your family, then hunting was an incontrovertibly essential skill, absorbing all of your attention and intelligence, and involving you deeply and sensually in your ecology; a seventeenth century miller or seamstress might be working towards the same goal (selling grain or making clothing to feed their families), but the complexity of the task was lesser, and it was indoors, and suddenly there was only that one piece of it, repeated all day long. A twenty-first century cubicle worker, of course, might have a job that’s complex in many ways, but none of those ways have a direct evolutionary relevance; all are abstracted in the extreme from the clear, bright, wind-scented immediacy of eating, not being eaten, and keeping one’s family safe and warm.

One of the few circumstances under which modern humans have been regularly thrown into a situation of such immediacy, in fact, has been war…and for many soldiers, their wartime experiences provide a vivid relief next to which the rest of their lives—comfortable and safe—pale by comparison. They felt alive in war.

For anyone paying attention, climate change has ceased to be abstract: what’s at stake is not “life as we know it” (that’s on its way out, one way or another), but the very existence of a vibrant world, abundant enough for human life. What’s at stake is whether there is a vanishing of ten percent earth’s species, or of ninety percent—the deaths of hundreds of millions of vulnerable people, or of half or more of the human community. Each of these is the difference between tragic diminishment and utter devastation, and together, we still have the power to stave off the hellish further reaches. If we need meaningful struggles to feel alive, well: we’ve got one.

For how long do we have that power? Will we still have it, when this fact becomes obvious enough to motivate everyone? Presumably, it’s always better to make the changes than not; some people quit smoking when they’re in the hospital with lung cancer. But scientists are mostly agreed that because of the likelihood of our hitting one or more devastating tipping points soon, if we don’t start making deep emissions cuts now, and carry them out with moon-shot ambition and military resolve for the next decades, there will be much, much less that we can do with each passing year. According to retired NASA climatologist James Hansen (graph here, derived from this report) , if we start deep cuts immediately, CO2 concentrations will peak in about 2030, and then move back down to sane levels reasonably quickly. (The same report says that if we wait until 2030 to start deep cuts, we’ll likely have at least 500 years of mass extinctions.)

So, give or take, that’s how thick our line is: less than seventeen years, starting today. Do you have kids or grandkids? What we do today and for the next seventeen years will determine whether their lives are devastated. Care about other species? Same thing. It won’t be over after that, not by any means; the changes are front-loaded and some will likely be with us for thousands of years. But if we don’t focus on them above nearly all else for the next seventeen years, then our door of opportunity will have slammed shut, and we will be left on the ugly side.

Many people have argued optimistically that when something terrible looms, people do indeed rise to the occasion. As Paul Gilding has said, “we do love a good crisis…and this is a monster”. We may hope fervently that they’re right, but we can’t wait till this is any more obvious.

The low-hanging fruit is clear: drastically reducing fossil fuel use, especially coal and “extreme energy” like tar sands and fracked gas and oil; instituting a steep-and-rising carbon tax so that this becomes a matter of obvious economics and not of moral attention; helping developing nations leap-frog dirty energy; demanding that our leaders lead; and never, ever kicking the can down the road again by choosing a “solution” that’s actually an uncontrolled experiment on the future. Ideas that are not environmentally sound have no place in a world that is as fragile and tempestuous as the one we unknowingly have created.

Look at it this way: for the next seventeen years, give or take, you not only have the chance to save lives and whole species; you also have the chance to exert a measure of control over how your own life changes. It will change—we have no choice in that. But we still have some say in how; we can wait passively—driving and working and shopping and texting, looking the other way—till things begin to fall apart, or we can be part of the renewal of the human project: take to the streets, talk to our neighbors, reshape our daily lives, and start building a vibrant world. Not only in our own communities—we don’t have time for this to happen one community at a time: above all we have to act, immediately and without backing down, in the political sphere. If it is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, be brave; we will all need all the practice we can get at being brave.

This has never been about light bulbs (or electric cars, or any other killer app); it’s about making sure there’s no daylight between the truth of the earth and the way we live our lives. We can’t fight the laws of physics and win. We can vanquish our own worst tendencies and emerge from our suicidal dissonance long enough to do things differently—not in every moment, perhaps, but certainly in every day.

We can, and will, be brave. Our lives, after all, are at stake.


1. Of course, it has fallen before, if you were in Europe in 1348/9, or if you were a denizen of Easter Island, or were Mayan or Anasazi at the wrong moment; the sky has repeatedly fallen: just not all over the world, for all creatures, at least not since the Great Dying, or the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Never so fast, though.

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