Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Climate Change?

By Kevin O’Brien

In Meeting a few weeks back I shared a message about my struggle to hold the painful tension between our growing knowledge that we are quite literally burning our own house down and the reality that nobody seems to know how to – or want to – talk about it.  How can we come to grips with the challenge that trumps all others when we can’t speak of it?  People who do bring it up in public spaces talk about it as yet another version of “We need a ‘War on Climate Change.’”  I’m about ready to declare war on declaring war on every problem we need to come together to solve.  As Quakers I hardly need to go on about the problem with using a war metaphor.  For addressing our unfolding climate disaster, it is probably the most apparent case of “we have met the enemy and he is us”, ever.

To be sure, there is and will be conflict involved in confronting our nested problems, and there are those who will need to have their foot pried off of the gasoline powered accelerator of the Mad Max Road Warrior vehicle we are all in, barreling down the road towards the end of the world.  And as Bill McKibben, who has been at this longer than most notes, sometimes a movement needs something or somebody that clearly represents what we are struggling against.

But also more than any other struggle, this unthinkably huge challenge is happening because almost none of us can live in peace with a sustainable lot in life, particularly when provided with a full menu of material goods laid out for our consumption daily.

I propose a better metaphor for coming to terms with our role in the crisis, and one that amplifies both a way forward as well as provides a measure of the pain that will accompany that way.  We are all addicts.  Our brain is hardwired to grasp for things that give us a quick hit of dopamine.  Our early survival as a species depended upon never missing an opportunity for sex, food, and status – unless the threat we faced in getting those things was greater than the opportunity.  We could talk more about the conundrum this presents in modern life, where people have learned to distill the addictive qualities of EVERYTHING to enhance their capacity to sell stuff people don’t really need in the first place.  Let’s save that for another time.

For now, I want to consider how our addiction to cheap fossil fuels parallels neatly our experience of addiction to nicotine.  Tobacco was (and still is) used as a sacred gift by Native peoples until white settlers learned how to amp up the addictive qualities to enrich themselves off of other peoples’ “habits”.  Of course, this parallels what happened with coca, poppies and hemp.  People also learned to take the gift of wood for fire to keep us warm and cook our food and then amp up the distillation of this potential into gasoline, coal and natural gas. 

After watching many people die from cancer directly caused by their addiction to cigarettes, we finally, tortuously developed the fortitude to hold big tobacco companies accountable for their profiteering off of the death and misery of others.  We will need to have the same kind of reckoning with big fossil fuel companies, and it will probably be a bigger version of the same process of denial and anger and protest and an eventual tipping point. 

Yet in the case of fossil fuels, every one of us is dying from “smoking” or from “second hand smoke”.  And every one of us is addicted.  I do not know whether this will make it easier or harder to reach the point of true reckoning with the scope of our challenge.  I do know that it will require more than a political, economic and technological response.  This crisis is one of faith as much as it is a crisis of the “environment”.  Ecology recognizes that RELATIONSHIP is the ingredient most essential for true understanding of the earth and its complex systems of life.  Love demands that we find a more sacred relationship with the earth, which of course requires the same for our relationship with each other and all earth’s inhabitants.  One of the early steps of this is to try, before it is too late, to detoxify our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits of our many addictions – fossil fuels being maybe the toughest to kick after pride.

Those who have struggled with addiction to alcohol or other substances know that they cannot control their addiction; rather, their addiction controls them.  Without a reckoning first with the powerless of our will to “defeat” addiction, every effort is bound to fail.  (That is not the same as every effort being worthless, but again, let’s save that for another discussion).  Only a higher power can save us from ourselves. 

At a recent Meeting, Roger shared that he recently re-read Thomas Kelly’s “A Testament of Devotion”.  One of the main themes is our struggle to be obedient to God.  I admit that the word obedience and its repetition as a theme throughout made me wince at first.  And yet, when I replace “God” with “Love”, I realize the inherent wisdom being shared.  As our addictions prove, we will be mastered by something.  We have small windows of opportunity throughout our lives in which we get to choose which master to give ourselves to.  It is only – ONLY -by choosing obedience to Love that we can tolerate the withdrawal symptoms that come from kicking our many addictions.  Afterall, cravings feel like we MUST respond or we will die.  Today, we must respond to Love’s call, or we will indeed die.

As I write this, I am under the shade of two massive oak trees that freely share their abundant oxygen with me as they dutifully make themselves grow, literally, out of thin air.  I am in awe of them, inspired by them.  Indeed, I love them and the higher power that dreamed them into being.  I pray today that my learning to love on this scale is not too little, too late.