What Stops Us from Prioritizing Climate Change?

Although there are very mixed reviews, I am enjoying reading Ian McEwan’s book Solar. A passage on why people may not in their lives come to seriously committing to climate change issues, precisely because these are serious and urgent, has struck me today. He describes the reaction of one of the intimate women friends of a nobel prize scientist, who through a series of plots comes to consider climate change his life mission:

She approved of his mission and loyally read climate change stories in the press. But she cold him once that to take the matter seriously would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it. And so, like everyone she knew, she could not take it seriously, not entirely. Daily life would not permit it.

I often wonder what keeps people from committing more seriously to climate change challenges, although they represent an urgent and serious threat for many human beings (particularly for the most poor and the most vulnerable of us), for life on the planet earth and for the planet itself. Even more, how can people in the face of these threats become eco-sceptics and eco-deniers? Of course, there are various reasons that can be given: people so much fear these threats that, psychologically, they have no other option left than to deny them; people do not want to deal with the fact that, to a great extent, today’s climate change is the result of human action on the environment and on the planet; people are aware that, to seriously address these challenges, they will have to change life-styles and habits that they don’t want to change; some may even feel that climate change issues are used as a tool at the service of politics that aim at changing or revolutionizing our societies; others may be convinced that a clever mix of political, economical, social, technological and maybe even military means will overcome the challenges; still others are convinced that eco-scientists are falsifying scientific results because they want to gather financial resources for their research … And there certainly will be many other reasons. They are all interesting and force us to think deeply about human beings, their creativity and their societies, about science and technology, etc. All of that is part of the ecological debate and discernment that is going on today.

Ian McEwan, in the quote above, describes another interesting attitude: we are so engulfed in the matters and concerns of our daily life, that we cannot allow ourselves to take seriously what is, indeed, the most important challenge we face today. It is a feeling that I know well, when I see that I do not fully commit to serious challenges (that I know to be serious and urgent), because so many day-to-day hassle – as for example the “administrative harassment” that has come to characterize so many of our institutions and so much of our society – focusses me away from what is really important. I may even use the hassle and the harassment to avoid to respond to the call of more important, but more difficult challenges.

This is so human and at the same time it should make us think. Are we really willing and able to prioritze for the crucial issues, a commitment to which may cost us dearly? Are we willing to look beyond our daily safe routines and to accept to transit toward other frames of thought and ways of living?

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