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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Addressing Climate Change: Innovation or Sacrifice?... or Both?

Here in the Great Lakes Basin, we can see the effects of climate change all around us – hotter, more dangerous temperatures, especially in urban areas; large fluctuations in lake and river water levels; more severe storms and rain events resulting in flooding; the loss of habitat for native species; changes in the growing season; and the list goes on. These negative effects mirror what is happening in other parts of the world, and so this week, the world’s leaders are gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to address the problem of climate change at COP26.

I’ve been reading about this moment for months, even years, hoping and praying that the world’s leaders come to their senses and take real action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. But it takes more than that, right? It takes more than me or you or any one of us hoping and praying. It takes action by each of us, including the world’s leaders.

A recurring theme of this Project is hope. Many people interviewed for this blog have defined hope not as optimism in the face of disaster but rather the belief that, as bad as things seem, we can change the world for the better if we actually act to change the world.

A View of Lake Michigan (photo by Dan Robinson)

Yes, but, HOW should we act?

Recognizing that we need to act to change the world, of course, begs that very question... HOW should we act? There are lots of examples of things we can do as individuals or as small communities to reduce our carbon footprint, our contribution to climate change and pollution, or our furthering of environmental racism and injustice.

But at this point in the climate crisis, we need a lot more than individual or small community actions. We need transformational change at the societal, national or global level, the kind of change that impacts how we live as individuals and small communities. That type of change, I find, falls into two broad categories: innovation or sacrifice.

Innovation to the rescue!

Change from innovation says that we can address the climate crisis by creating new ways to generate electricity, get rid of carbon, mitigate flooding, restore wetlands and habitats, and create more wealth so no one suffers from hunger and poverty. Innovation means we can fix climate change with new inventions and keep living the lives we’ve become accustom to. Of course, the “we” in that sentence most often are people in the dominant culture in “developed” nations, the ones who have had the biggest impact on climate change due to the large size of our consumption and carbon footprint. (In part, you can read that “we” as middle and upper class North Americans.)

I recently saw an example of innovation-as-the-solution in a piece in Canary Media by David Roberts. Roberts interviewed Kingsmill Bond, an energy strategist with the think tank Carbon Tracker. Bond clearly sees the innovation happening in the energy sector as transformational and inevitable. From that interview, Roberts writes:

Bond’s experience and research have led him to the conclusion that the shift to clean energy has become unstoppable and that it will be the dominant force shaping financial markets and geopolitics in the 21st century. He argues that we are on the front end of a massive, precipitous wave of change to rival the Industrial Revolution – one that will unfold even if policy support is weak and erratic, purely on the strengths of economics and innovation... the key to succeeding on climate change is simply accelerating what is already underway, pushing a rolling boulder a little faster.

Who wants to talk about sacrifice... anyone?...

Sacrifice, on the other hand, says that we can’t just keep living the lives that have gotten us into this crisis in the first place. Something has to give. At both the societal and individual levels, we have to sacrifice some part of how we live. (Again, read that “we,” at least in part, as middle and upper class North Americans.) Sacrifice says that we can’t keep up the levels of consumption and the size of the carbon footprint generated by lifestyles in developed worlds. These lifestyles are simply unsustainable.

The problem is, no one – including me – really wants to talk about, consider, or live out sacrifice. In a recent podcast from Ezra Klein in The New York Times, he addresses the “degrowth” movement, which (in overly simplified terms) says that we need to consume less to address climate change. To this, Klein responds:

I think that if the political demand of the climate movement becomes you don’t get to eat beef, you will set climate politics back so far, so fast, it would be disastrous. Same thing with S.U.V.s. I don’t like S.U.V.s. I don’t drive one. But if you are telling people in rich countries that the climate movement is for them not having the cars they want to have, you are just going to lose. You are going to lose fast.

Basically, Klein and others argue that the concept of sacrifice doesn’t work because, well, no one wants to sacrifice. Many of us are living like we’ve pushed all our chips to the middle of the table, betting our future on innovation coming through with a winning hand and saving the climate day.

And yet...

And yet, the reality still remains that the current lifestyle in “rich countries” (as Klein puts it) is unsustainable. We may not want to consider sacrifice a necessity, and it certainly won’t solve the problem on its own. But it seems clear to me that reducing our consumption of the earth’s finite resources has to be a part of the solution.

Our reluctance to sacrifice is very human, and also very much a spiritual challenge. In many ways, we already have the innovation we need to mitigate the worse effects of climate change. In many ways, we already have the resources we need to make that innovation a reality. For those of us privileged enough to enjoy the highest standards of living, however, it’s a spiritual challenge to give up some of the resources that pay for that standard of living in order to pay for the climate change-innovation needed by others here at home and around the globe.

That spiritual challenge of sacrificing something now for a greater good later can be found in the recent “Joint Message for the Protection of Creation” from the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion – Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Archbishop Justin Welby. In the statement, they write, “To those with more far-reaching responsibilities—heading administrations, running companies, employing people or investing funds—we say: choose people-centred profits; make short-term sacrifices to safeguard all our futures; become leaders in the transition to just and sustainable economies.”

Earlier in the statement, in a section titled, “The Impact on People Living in Poverty,” they say, “We frequently hear from young people who understand that their futures are under threat. For their sake, we must choose to eat, travel, spend, invest and live differently, thinking not only of immediate interest and gains but also of future benefits.”

Maybe we need a new word or phrase

In this Project, spirituality has been understood as seeing ourselves in the bigger picture, coming to know our place and our relationships within this world and within the Divine. That understanding of spirituality can help us see how our actions affect others and how our sacrifices make it possible for others to have what they need to survive the worst effects of climate change.

Still, I realize most people avoid sacrificing, so maybe we need a new approach, or a recycled idea. When I was younger, a popular bumper sticker had a quote from Ghandi: “Live simply so others may simply live.” As trite as that phrase might sound, it reflects an important truth. There is enough of the world to go around, if those of us who have an over-abundance don’t take more than we need, leaving some for the next in line.

We have the needed resources to mitigate climate change, if those of us with more than we need have the political will – and spiritual will – to share some of it, to live more simply, so that others may have the innovation they need to simply live.


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