I once listened to a Ted Talk that made me think for days.
The subject of the talk will not be the leading topic of my article. Nevertheless, I find it quite useful to introduce the perilous concept of indifference that we observe in our societies concerning compelling and (more than ever) urgent topics, nonetheless perceived as secondary and not worthy of our attention. The talk is “The danger of a single story”, a speech kept by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and deals with the risk of misunderstanding and underestimation of complexity we run when given one single version or interpretation of a story, whether it is the story of a person, of a culture, of a people, of a situation. The speaker pointed out the vulnerability our mind is subjected to because of the human incapacity of preventing the mind from creating stereotypes (partial, narrow perspectives) and unfair impressions about something which is far more complex and requires extensive comprehension in order to be granted the right dignity. We usually do this when we deal with something that feels very far and unknown to us. To be true, as she acutely underlined, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are “incomplete truths”.
What made me reflect around her statement was that I reluctantly found myself in her words and I believe each one of us have experienced something like this, at least once. My deduction was that it is probably a human tendency, the one to go through an oversimplification of opinion and loss of empathy towards those matters that we feel distant or not that urgent as we cannot completely relate to them, because, at least apparently, they don’t seem to affect our lives. I might sound unfair to you, politically active reader, but in the end we all live in our bubbles. It’s impossible to do otherwise. We are human beings and demanding to be the omniscient narrators of the Story of the World is an unachievable task, a bit too pretentious even for you. Indeed, we specialize, we become experts or doctors of some specific subject, and in some way, we forget all the rest.
There are, nevertheless, meaningful pieces of that rest which cannot be ignored or forgotten, because they are crucial.
The carelessness that indifference produces can overlook essential matters that affect each person’s life, even if there is no constant perception of them, by putting them aside and tagging them as “foreign problems”. One of these essential matters is climate change. It is essential and compelling because the safety of our planet depends our existence. More concretely, human right preservation, developing countries economy, eradication of extreme poverty are all deeply linked to the “climate crises”. The pity is that the public opinion on climate change is widely corrupted by the same underestimation and underrating problems I was introducing before.
This is due to the fact that humanity’s locally-restricted perspective, tends to make us forget that we are minuscule drops of water in a majestic ocean, and that we truly should regard ourselves as “citizens of the world”, sons and daughters of what the ancient wisely called Mother Earth. Our narrow glance, focused on a national, regional or even local level is something that conceals real dangers and that we need to overcome, in order to recover from that blindness which makes us ignore the deep connection each one of our (apparently) insignificant life has with the life, destiny and future of the entire Planet.
We need to go back to the beliefs of the ancient chthonic civilizations, when people’s centre of existence revolved around the inner relationship that each person experienced with Mother Earth. A profound, deep and spiritual connection, characteristic of all the different peoples, even macroscopically manifested in different ways. Indeed, if many civilizations felt the instinctual and spontaneous need to worship Nature, to regard it as something divine and worthy of the highest respect and devotion, it was because their eyes were not blinded by the absurd humanistic, anthropocentric belief that man is a god capable of anything and depending on nothing else but its own reason and ability.
Our ancestors felt the need to pay homage to the Earth, to make her a Goddess, to build her temples, to capture her magnificence and glory through songs and rituals because they lived in an historical moment that showed the incontrovertible truth that the survival of man directly depended on natural fruits. A moment in which the fact that it was Nature which gave life to humanity was an undeniable and accepted evidence. Over the centuries nothing has changed. What have changed are the means through which humanity exploits the gifts Nature gives to it.
Machines, industries, technologies don’t prevent our roots from still sinking in the essence and in the power of the Earth.
Nevertheless, we no longer perceive our Planet as our ancestors used to. This is partially due to the evolution of our societies, which have increasingly become more complex, controversial and interrelated. Both local problems and global crises have multiplied and the time for spirituality and connection to Nature got lost. We have progressively forgot that sense of smallness, of subjection, of limitedness and humility of the ancient. We forgot how to feel respectful towards what has given life to us. We forgot where we come from. Gradually, those parietal paintings telling the story of Earth and Man lost their meaning and became a distant memory. The Earth has transformed into something we walk upon, something we can exploit without limit; its resources into something producing wealth; the soil into something on which we build our industries; the sea into a big pool where we throw our rubbish. We furthermore forgot that our carelessness is killing us, because it is killing our home.
The evident consequence of such dumb blindness is that we believe climate change a randomness which it is not. As long as governments keep caring about their own interests and don’t develop a compact front of action, no improvement will be made. As Al Gore, climate advocate and former Vice-President of the U.S. has frequently said, “as important as it is to change the lightbulbs, it is more important to change the laws”¹. Entering a path of awareness cannot be considered a discretionary task depending on each citizen’s sensibility towards global and environmental issues, because there is the future of the environment at stake.
There is a need for governments to implement stronger measures of prevention and adopt environmentally-friendly agendas to guide the change and monitor the evident macro-consequences of our climate crises: among all raising global mean temperature (indeed, global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1°C over the last century²), diminishing snow cover, melting glaciers, accelerated sea level rise, increasingly larger and more intense heat waves. At a much more invisible and local level, changes in the distribution of climate belts are challenging and putting many smaller species in danger of extinction. These species cannot develop a rapid response to changes by moving to new areas and whose situation, although being essential for the survival of specific and peculiar ecosystems, is often obscured by the more popular “megafauna”.
There are concrete proofs indeed, that the extensive fires that have destroyed forestry areas in Indonesia and in the Amazon depend on phenomena of unusual drought in usually humid forests, which in turn results from a significant reduction of rainfalls due to global climate changes and microclimatic alterations. Global biodiversity is threatened by these climatic upheavals and cannot restore its natural balance because of the rapidity of such changes. Even more dramatic is the situation of the Coral Reefs, threatened by the rapidity of temperature’s rise. An increase of 1,5 °C, would imply a reduction of the extension of barrier reefs of the 70-90%. By 2°C more, almost the totality of it will be lost, and with it the amazing number of ecosystems that have developed in the coral reefs.
What is the role of man in all of this?
Man is responsible for accelerating natural processes that would need much more time to take place. This man-made acceleration is challenging the natural capacity of elasticity and adaptation and is therefore unsettling delicate ancient balances. Just think for a second to the extreme quantity of CO2 that human activity is releasing into the air. The US alone releases 6.1 billion tonnes of Carbon Dioxide per year into the sky. This being equivalent, according to the Alliance for Climate Protection, to 1.2 billion elephants raining on American cities each year. This is something we need to put the spotlight on right now, because it is happening all over the world at the expense of the environment, and consequently of our future.
What is more, the effects of climate change are not perceived the same way all over the world. This is because, especially global warming, is not a uniform phenomenon, affecting each corner of the planet the same way, the unluckiest in this sense being the Arctic, where a higher increase of the annual mean temperatures is registered. Generally, the consequences of our indifference will be toughly perceived in the continents more than in the seas, and even more intensively in over-populated and poorer areas.³ This entails tough consequences on the side of human rights preservation, because the damage caused (mainly) by higher income countries is severely affecting lower-income developing countries, which have less resources to face and respond to such a huge crisis.
Putting a price on carbon, introducing CO2 taxes, working on extensive renewable energy projects would just be some ways of working towards a better, and more breathable future. It is something that the Earth is desperately asking for and that needs the enlightenment of our governments to be enacted in a way that can reach extensive and massive improvements. We need this for ourselves.
In order to step back from this culture of indifference that makes us, “deny, deny, deny, panic”, to use Paul Nicklen’s words. We are still in the denial phase. We should stop ignoring those 1.2 billion elephants in the room.
¹ Gore, A. (2008). New thinking on the climate crises, Ted. https://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_s_new_thinking_on_the_climate_crisis
² CSSR, (2017). Executive Summary, Highlights of the Findings of the U.S. Global Change Research, Climate Science Special Report (CSSR): https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/executive-summary/
³ Agostinelli, M., (November 8, 2018). Cambiamenti Climatici, gli scienziati (…), Il Fatto Quotidiano. https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2018/11/08/cambiamenti-climatici-gli-scienziati-mandano-un-messaggio-terribile-ma-i-governi-non-ascoltano/4750518/
Light, J., (April 22, 2017). Paul Nicklen’s new images carry a dire warning about climate change, Ted Blog. https://blog.ted.com/paul-nickens-new-images-carry-a-dire-warning-about-climate-change/