Last month, I issued an invitation to a dozen members of our neighborhood Green Team to join me in a discussion of Lester Brown’s new book about climate change, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. Having just read this important book, I was eager to share it with others.
Lester Brown is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and past founder of the Worldwatch Institute. In World on the Edge, he explains how climate change has brought our planet to the brink of irreversible changes that threaten human survival. Brown calls for a “massive mobilization at wartime speed” in order to slow and eventually reverse our present course. Yes, this book is a sobering read. I had to grit my teeth to make it through the first half, which lays out current trends that will worsen unless we act fast: drought, diminishing harvests and widespread hunger; the loss of arable land through desertification; more frequent and severe heat waves, storms and flooding; sea level rise and the resulting displacement and migration of whole societies; failed states, poverty and political upheaval.
The second half of the book, in which Brown outlines “Plan B,” a response to the crisis, is easier going. In fact, I found it deeply encouraging. Here is a plan to divert the nightmare. Most of the tools to mitigate climate change are available, if not already in use. We need only ramp up the speed and scope of their deployment. Brown calculates the annual cost of implementing Plan B – which would reduce global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 80% by 2020 – at $185 billion, a figure equivalent to 28% of the U.S. Military Budget.
Nobody responded to my invitation. When I followed up with two of my friends, they shook their heads simultaneously and said, “We don’t read the depressing stuff.”
According to behavioral psychologists, people can’t handle (and will choose to ignore) information that is overwhelming and frightening. They say it’s critical to balance any message of urgency about climate change with messages of hope. I would argue that World on the Edge strikes this balance. Still, my friends won’t read it. Sadly, their stance reflects the prevailing attitude of U.S. citizens: deny the implications of climate change (or deny its existence) and feel better.
Human civilization is on a dangerous course. Dire global changes, linked to a warming climate, are already in progress. Left unchecked, they will truly wreak havoc on our world. But how are we to mobilize a society like ours that has wrapped itself in the fragile illusion of denial? We can’t rely on a trigger like Pearl Harbor to shock society from complacency into action at wartime speed. Modern day Paul Reveres – figures like Lester Brown and Bill McKibben – bravely sound the alarm, but most people aren’t listening. My three sons are 17, 15 and 13 years old. Their future doesn’t look good. What is our excuse for denial when the future of every living child and young adult is at stake?
No one wants to feel scared. But what the psychologists don’t tell you is that fear is a sure catalyst to action, and taking action will make you feel better. Show some courage. Read this book. Get scared.
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