Ecological consciousness is the awareness that nearly every aspect of our way of life affects the environment so decisively that we now must choose whether to let the effects go unchecked, or we change the way we live in order to arrest the damage. It is the growing awareness that the planet Earth is a finite place we share with other peoples — and indeed with all living creatures — and that if, by our ignorance and carelessness, we destroy it, we thereby also destroy ourselves.
The basic science we learn in grade school tends to lull us into a form of complacency that blinds us to ecological problems. My earliest recollection of carbon dioxide is that it is food that plants need, along with sunlight and water. The plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and, in return, they give out the oxygen that humans need. Such, we are taught, is the wonderful self-regulating design of Nature.
Yet today we are told that this relationship between humans and their environment has not been going well at all. We are told that we have been releasing dangerous levels of greenhouse gases like CO2 into the atmosphere as a result of our furious effort to improve the conditions of human existence, and that this has led to global warming.
What seems obvious to scientists, however, is never always obvious to the rest of us. There is a reason for this. While the environment is directly affected by human activity, it does not have the capacity to directly ‘communicate’ with humans. Nature and man do not share a common language; humans hear messages from the environment only in their own human languages. On top of this, whatever messages the environment transmits are necessarily filtered by the multiple cultures and belief systems, and varying systems of cognition that characterize human societies.
Thus, natural phenomena like unusual rainfall levels, strong typhoons, rising seas, droughts, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, etc. are viewed in different lights and treated with varying degrees of concern by different societies. The responses they trigger are never the same. Indeed, even within the same society, these phenomena are not uniformly interpreted by the different institutional spheres of society. Environmental issues do not have the same resonance in law, religion, the economy, and politics, as they often do in science. Not even the most modern society can be said to have a central nervous system that is specifically attuned to changes in environmental conditions, and can control societal response. Indeed, even in an advanced country like the United States, the politicians and businessmen differ with the scientists in their appreciation of the urgency of global warming.
In view of this, it is a wonder how anyone can imagine that the 193 nations meeting in Copenhagen for the UN-sponsored summit on global climate change could arrive at any agreement on the dimensions of the problem, its causes and solutions, or, much less, on what every nation must do, when, and by what means, in order to confront the problem. It does not require any sophistication to think that every definition of the problem of climate change, every piece of knowledge that is advanced, far from being objective, is implicated in a system of power.
This is not to deny the existence of the problem. But if global warming were the self-evident and objective phenomenon it is supposed to be, there would be little negotiation about its magnitude, origins, and the shape and direction of the requisite global response. There would be no need to call urgent attention to its gravity. But the poor and the rich countries meeting in Copenhagen precisely cannot agree on what every nation needs to do to check global warming, and who will pay for the adjustments that must be made, because there is no common understanding — and there never will be – of the sources, scale, and seriousness of the problem.
The United States blames China for being the biggest producer of carbon dioxide emissions since 2006. China counters that the US remains the largest CO2 producer per capita and has been so since it became an industrial power. American scientists charge that
massive deforestation occurring in the poor countries is releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the combined vehicles and industrial plants in the world. Taking their cue from this, rich countries are offering money to help the poor countries stop deforestation. On the surface, this looks like an altruistic solution to a global problem. But critics have accused rich nations of trying to buy their way out of binding commitments to slash their own carbon emissions. Climate change is clearly not a simple scientific issue. It is embedded in political and economic questions, and is routinely used by countries as a proxy in the global struggle for political and economic supremacy.
Yet none of this diminishes the value of ecological consciousness. Indeed, it only highlights the need for every nation and every individual, as citizens of this plant, to examine their respective ways of life with a view to altering those practices that destroy the earth’s long-term viability as a place in which to live. The earth is a dying planet, but, alas, we cannot hear its gasping or recognize its morbid state except through the narrow bounds of our all-too-human sensibilities. There is no cure for this other than to allow the earth’s tears to flood our consciousness. Then, hopefully, we may see that the environment is not the other; it is us.