I am writing this two and a half weeks after an election and one day
before the end of the year. The New Year is generally a symbol of
hope and I’m still idealistic enough to think that elections can be too.
One of the striking aspects of the election campaign for me
was that ecological issues were at least discussed far more than in any other campaign
which I remember. More than that, the BBC’s flagship news programme on the radio
this morning featured items about the climate crisis, ice-melt in Antarctica and
disinvestment from fossil fuels. That probably owed less to any of the politicians
who featured in the British election and more to the Swedish teenager who initiated
the school strike protests, Greta Thunberg. She was the guest editor for this morning’s
Perhaps it may seem strange given what I have just written to go on to say that I don’t
want to concentrate too much on Greta as an individual. There are two reasons for that.
One is that so much of our news reporting takes it as read that the cult of personality
is the major issue (as it was in so much of the election coverage). In the case of Greta
Thunberg, this provides an easy way to dismiss her concerns - for example, what
perspective can someone who has lived almost all of her life in the warmest years
scientifically monitored on our planet possibly bring to this set of complex problems?
The other issue is even more important. The whole point of Greta Thunberg finding
her own voice is that she has enabled millions of her generation to discover that they
each have a voice to challenge their elders for the lack of action when it comes to the
dangers that we have been aware of for decades. If the climate crisis is going to be
faced squarely and if it is to teach us anything, it is that individual concern, response
and behaviour is not going to be enough, however important they may be.
Finding some form of consensus about making huge changes to our society is an
enormous undertaking, but I don’t believe that anything less will make the difference
that is needed. We can each make a difference as individual visionaries, prophets
or activists, but I believe it is only when we can find something that unites us that
we will move forward in a substantial way.
My sense is that this can only happen when something captures our imagination.
I believe that this has to happen with an actual image. The only image I have found
in thinking about this for some years is that of the Earth seen from space. The
climate crisis is a global issue. So what if we take seriously the image of that
great blue-green globe, which somehow turns where we live into somewhere
Spheres have no hierarchy. Chris Hadfield, perhaps space travel’s favourite
son in recent times, puts it like this:
“Being in space,” Hadfield says, "you recognise the unanimity of our existence.
The commonality." (Interview in The Guardian 28th October 2013).
Modernity has helped to foster in us a sense of self which emphasises each
person’s uniqueness. This is by no means a bad thing, but we seem increasingly
to risk the sense of commonality to which Hadfield refers by this concentration
on our own personality. The ecological crisis which we struggle to address is in
many ways a practical problem, as it concerns physical processes in our world
and the way in which humanity impacts collectively on those processes. But the
way in which we as human beings react to such a crisis depends equally on
elements of personality and indeed philosophy which need to be integrated with
the practical. Maybe the biggest challenge of climate change is that it forces us
not just to consider our environment and our economic systems but to look at
ourselves. I can’t help but believe that it is only if we succeed in responding to
all these levels that we will find a way forward for the race which inhabits this
ball of beauty twirling in space.