of the most disturbing ways that climate change is already playing
out is through what ecologists call "mismatch" or
"mistiming." This is the process whereby warming causes
animals to fall out of step with a critical food source,
particularly at breeding times, when a failure to find enough food
can lead to rapid population losses.
migration patterns of many songbird species, for instance, have
evolved over millennia so that eggs hatch precisely when food
sources such as caterpillars are at their most abundant, providing
parents with ample nourishment for their hungry young. But because
spring now often arrives early, the caterpillars are hatching
earlier too, which means that in some areas they are less plentiful
when the chicks hatch, with a number of possible long-term impacts
in West Greenland, caribou are arriving at their calving grounds
only to find themselves out of sync with the forage plants they have
relied on for thousands of years, now growing earlier thanks to
rising temperatures. That is leaving female caribou with less energy
for lactation, reproduction and feeding their young, a mismatch that
has been linked to sharp decreases in calf births and survival
are studying cases of climate-related mistiming among dozens of
species, from Arctic terns to pied flycatchers. But there is one
important species they are missing – us. Homo sapiens. We too are
suffering from a terrible case of climate-related mistiming, albeit
in a cultural-historical, rather than a biological, sense. Our
problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment
in history when political and social conditions were uniquely
hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude – that moment
being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the
crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world.
change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes
of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered
mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being
waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.
regulation became a dirty word
deeply unfortunate mistiming has created all sorts of barriers to
our ability to respond effectively to this crisis. It has meant that
corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to
exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to
protect life on Earth. It has meant that regulation was a dirty word
just when we needed those powers most. It has meant that we are
ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and
starve public institutions just when they most need to be fortified
and reimagined. And it has meant that we are saddled with an
apparatus of "free trade" deals that tie the hands of
policymakers just when they need maximum flexibility to achieve a
massive energy transition.
these various structural barriers to the next economy is the
critical work of any serious climate movement. But it's not the only
task at hand. We also have to confront how the mismatch between
climate change and market domination has created barriers within our
very selves, making it harder to look at this most pressing of
humanitarian crises with anything more than furtive, terrified
glances. Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by
both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the
observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate
change is real – let alone the confidence to believe that a
different way of living is possible.
little wonder: just when we needed to gather, our public sphere was
disintegrating; just when we needed to consume less, consumerism
took over virtually every aspect of our lives; just when we needed
to slow down and notice, we sped up; and just when we needed longer
time horizons, we were able to see only the immediate present.
is our climate change mismatch, and it affects not just our species
but potentially every other species on the planet as well.
good news is that, unlike reindeer and songbirds, we humans are
blessed with the capacity for advanced reasoning and therefore the
ability to adapt more deliberately – to change old patterns of
behaviour with remarkable speed. If the ideas that rule our culture
are stopping us from saving ourselves, then it is within our power
to change those ideas. But before that can happen, we first need to
understand the nature of our personal climate mismatch.
consumers is all we know
change demands that we consume less, but being consumers is all we
know. Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by
changing what we buy – a hybrid instead of an SUV, some carbon
offsets when we get on a plane. At its core, it is a crisis born of
overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the
world's most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.
problem is not "human nature," as we are so often told. We
weren't born having to shop this much, and we have, in our recent
past, been just as happy (in many cases happier) consuming far less.
The problem is the inflated role that consumption has come to play
in our particular era.
capitalism teaches us to create ourselves through our consumer
choices: shopping is how we form our identities, find community and
express ourselves. Thus, telling people that they can't shop as much
as they want to because the planet's support systems are
overburdened can be understood as a kind of attack, akin to telling
them that they cannot truly be themselves. This is likely why, of
the original "three Rs" – reduce, reuse, recycle –
only the third has ever gotten any traction, since it allows us to
keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box. The
other two, which require that we consume less, were pretty much dead
change is slow, and we are fast. When you are racing through a rural
landscape on a bullet train, it looks as if everything you are
passing is standing still: people, tractors, cars on country roads.
They aren't, of course. They are moving, but at a speed so slow
compared with the train that they appear static.
it is with climate change. Our culture, powered by fossil fuels, is
that bullet train, hurtling forward toward the next quarterly
report, the next election cycle, the next bit of diversion or piece
of personal validation via our smartphones and tablets. Our changing
climate is like the landscape out the window: from our racy vantage
point it can appear static, but it is moving, its slow progress
measured in receding ice sheets, swelling waters and incremental
temperature rises. If left unchecked, climate change will most
certainly speed up enough to capture our fractured attention –
island nations wiped off the map, and city-drowning superstorms,
tend to do that. But by then, it may be too late for our actions to
make a difference, because the era of tipping points will likely
importance of the intensely local
change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is
not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain
on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early
blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a
lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of
subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific
ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place
deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local
knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one
generation to the next.
that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world. We
tend to abandon our homes lightly – for a new job, a new school, a
new love. And as we do so, we are severed from whatever knowledge of
place we managed to accumulate at the previous stop, as well as from
the knowledge amassed by our ancestors (who, at least in my case,
migrated repeatedly themselves).
for those of us who manage to stay put, our daily existence can be
disconnected from the physical places where we live. Shielded from
the elements as we are in our climate-controlled homes, workplaces
and cars, the changes unfolding in the natural world easily pass us
by. We might have no idea that a historic drought is destroying the
crops on the farms that surround our urban homes, since the
supermarkets still display miniature mountains of imported produce,
with more coming in by truck all day. It takes something huge –
like a hurricane that passes all previous high-water marks, or a
flood destroying thousands of homes – for us to notice that
something is truly amiss. And even then we have trouble holding on
to that knowledge for long, since we are quickly ushered along to
the next crisis before these truths have a chance to sink in.
change, meanwhile, is busily adding to the ranks of the rootless
every day, as natural disasters, failed crops, starving livestock
and climate-fuelled ethnic conflicts force yet more people to leave
their ancestral homes. And with every human migration, more crucial
connections to specific places are lost, leaving yet fewer people to
listen closely to the land.
we made the air our sewer
pollutants are invisible, and we have stopped believing in what we
cannot see. When BP's
Macondo well ruptured in 2010,
releasing torrents of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the things
we heard from company chief executive Tony Hayward was that "the
Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and
dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total
water volume." The statement was widely ridiculed at the time,
and rightly so, but Hayward was merely voicing one of our culture's
most cherished beliefs: that what we can't see won't hurt us and,
indeed, barely exists.
much of our economy relies on the assumption that there is always an
"away" into which we can throw our waste. There's the away
where our garbage goes when it is taken from the curb, and the away
where our waste goes when it is flushed down the drain. There's the
away where the minerals and metals that make up our goods are
extracted, and the away where those raw materials are turned into
finished products. But the lesson of the BP spill, in the words of
ecological theorist Timothy Morton, is that ours is "a world in
which there is no 'away.'"
I published No
decade and a half ago, readers were shocked to learn of the abusive
conditions under which their clothing and gadgets were manufactured.
But we have since learned to live with it – not to condone it,
exactly, but to be in a state of constant forgetfulness. Ours is an
economy of ghosts, of deliberate blindness.
is the ultimate unseen, and the greenhouse gases that warm it are
our most elusive ghosts. Philosopher David Abram points out that for
most of human history, it was precisely this unseen quality that
gave the air its power and commanded our respect. "Called Sila,
the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit; Nilch'i, or Holy Wind, by
the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing-spirit, by the ancient Hebrews,"
the atmosphere was "the most mysterious and sacred dimension of
in our time "we rarely acknowledge the atmosphere as it swirls
between two persons." Having forgotten the air, Abram writes,
we have made it our sewer, "the perfect dump site for the
unwanted byproducts of our industries … Even the most opaque,
acrid smoke billowing out of the pipes will dissipate and disperse,
always and ultimately dissolving into the invisible. It's gone. Out
of sight, out of mind."
timeframes that escape us
part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp
is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that
deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as
the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about
how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not
just the present, but generations in the future. These timeframes
are a language that has become foreign to most of us.
is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating
ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about
recognising that we are products of an industrial project, one
intimately and historically linked to fossil fuels.
just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening
to the great farmer-poet Wendell
a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our "homeplace"
more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless
people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always
seem to be shopping from home. "Stop somewhere," he
replied. "And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing
good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of
our lives, we all need a place to stand.
column first appeared in The Nation. Naomi Klein's new book, This
Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, will be published
this September by Allen Lane.