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Big Goal for 2018 and Beyond

What is a credible long-term goal, for 2018 and beyond, for men who want their grandchildren’s world to be as comfortable as the world they know?


There are at least three overlapping roads for pursuing that goal: political, religious, and pain.

POLITICAL. The obvious mechanism for slowing and reversing man-caused deterioration of land, air and water resources is political, that is, using the powers of government to require people to act more responsibly, more kindly, towards their natural environment. In the United States, the 1970s and 1980s had legislation like the federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Action, the National Environmental Policy Act which pushed individuals and businesses to do better. Those laws had some success: rivers no longer catch fire from industrial pollution and the air in parts of the country is less toxic. Mileage requirements on motor vehicles have reduced CO2 output below what it would have been without federal mandates. Unfortunately the environmental activism under Presidents Nixon and Carter was curtailed under President Reagan with his “It’s morning in America” mantra encouraging more consumption and less government regulation. President Trump is a direct heir to the Reaganite assumption that the Earth is a bottomless candy store and dumping ground, with his flip dismissals of global warming, and with his commitments to cut laws which restrict “freedom” to do whatever one wants to do.

While politics in America has taken wrong turns on climate change and consumption, in politics no victory is final and no defeat is without possible remedy. President Trump callously suggests more global warming as a cure for cold weather temporarily gripping the East Coast; in response we should remember the Dalai Lama’s axiom that hope is greater than optimism. Politics in the United States currently gives ample reasons for pessimism, but the situation is not so bad that hope for much better should be extinguished.

In the rest of the world, there is some broad agreement that human activities need to be regulated to protect natural systems. The Paris Climate Agreement adopted by international consensus in 2015 has signatures of over 170 nations. It commits those nations to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and to take other steps necessary to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industial levels. President Obama was a leader in creating the Paris agreement, while President Trump has signaled that the United States will break its Paris commitments, will walk away because the agreed restrictions might limit economic growth.

There are admittedly very strong obstacles to political actions, like a very high tax on burning hydrocarbons, that could significantly slow ongoing CO2 buildup and pollution of the ocean. It’s human nature to discount the future heavily, and to do whatever is comfortable now, even in the face of the best science telling us that long-term effects will likely be bad. That will not change.

RELIGION. World religions have strong commands to act as good conservators towards the world we are loaned for our short lives. Pope Francis magnificently capsulized ethical and spiritual reasons for limiting human consumption in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato si” subtitled “On Care For Our Common Home.” Those 200 pages are treated in two posts in this blog,, titled “Laudato Si and Consumption” (July 13, 2015) and “Pope Francis and David Brooks” (June 27, 2015). Pope Francis affirms that concern for the health and preservation of the natural world is an integral part of the Church’s teachings on social justice. He adds that global warming is one symptom of the developed world’s collective indifference to destruction of the planet as we pursue infinite economic growth.

But in the 16 months I campaigned for election to Congress, I talked with religious potential voters who had very different opinions re preservation of the world’s natural systems. One man told me that “God did intend the world to last forever,” another that “I believe the Rapture will happen in my lifetime, so I don’t care about anything political,” and yet another that “Only God can change the world.” Right now Pope Francis’s efforts are analogous to Winston Churchill’s aggressive words in the 1930s, warning of the huge threat of Nazi Germany, to a public which did not want to understand or to act.

PAIN. Mother Nature will continue to respond to unsustainable consumption with more heat, rising oceans, greater storms and declining food crop yields. Most of us are slow to get her messages; recent flooding in Houston, Texas, has not led to much discussion about the needs to move people and businesses to higher ground. Some heat and ocean-rise changes are already baked into our world’s future by what civilization has already done; feedback loops are in play, such as more heat melting more ice, allowing the Earth to retain more heat from sunlight, which will amplify changes we are seeing. Pain is a universal motivator for action, and mankind will surely respond eventually.

Climate change deniers are correct that there is uncertainty in the science about the precise effects of more greenhouse gasses and other pollution, but they dangerously take that uncertainty as justification for continuing man’s unsustainable consumption of Earth’s resources. Modern chaos theory offers both warning and some comfort to the deniers. Science tells us that when a very complex system, such as the Earth’s biosphere, is pushed beyond some breaking point, there is a period of chaos where components of the system rearrange themselves in unpredictable fashion. It is possible that a post-chaos world will be even friendlier to man than the world she has experienced since civilizations began 10,000 years ago. But that’s like taking a watch that is running a little slow and slamming it against a wall, in the hope that a heavy blow will fix it.

Happy 2018, and let’s be grateful and joyful, while doing what we can for ourselves and for those who will come after us.


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