Monday, May 20, 2019

Wendell Berry on Climate Change

Wendell Berry, wreaking havoc again in his brilliant essay 'Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend,' from his collection, The Art of Loading Brush. Hoping this provocative teaser inspires folks to read the full thing, which is about as profound an exploration of the relationship between presence, character, and activism as I have yet come across.
I feel no discomfort in saying that to require people to 'believe in climate change' as a test of their human worth is both a pointless snobbery and a meaningless distraction....Our time's great wrongs of waste and pollution are wrong in themselves. They would be wrong whether or note they cause climate change. They are wrong according to the economic measure of thrift. They are wrong according to the measure of the sanctity of the living world, and because of their immediate practical harms to nature and to human nature. Their first damage is to the character of the perpetrators (emphasis mine).
A case very much in point is that of a large coal-fired power plant that was planned not long ago for western Kansas. Its construction was successfully opposed by appealing to people's intuitive and inherited disapproval of waste and pollution. The plant's potential contribution to climate change was intentionally never mentioned, because there was no reason to do so and a very good reason not to do so: To do so would have divided the otherwise undivided opposition to the plant. For those aware of the local particulars, the problem declared itself this way: Both the believers and the disbelievers in climate change believed in conservation, in doing 'the right thing.' Their agreement on conservation defeated the power plant. Their disagreement on climate change was irrelevant. 
In other words, if we are only concerned about our relationship to the environment when the stakes are existential, we are completely lost already. Ironically, lowering the moral bar so low requires a consensus whose absence makes room for greater environmental injury. Note: Wendell Berry is no denier of climate change - his argument is wholly practical. Nurturing and sustaining local communities capable of having character to damage in the first place is another question, which he alludes to elsewhere. Predictably, the examples to which he points are local ones, specific ones, which maybe at least occasions for us reflection on the nature of the character to which our own local communities aspire.

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