I shared with colleagues recently that I fear a day some years ahead, in the inconceivable future toward which humanity is still careening, where my kids ask, “Dad, we thought you were working on this — did you know that everything everyone was doing wasn’t going to be nearly enough? Did you know we were heading for this?” And I imagine myself thinking back to today from that future place, wondering what we might have done differently. Wondering what it would take to say we’d done what we could. I think about future regrets — what do we know now that should give us a chance to avoid the worst?
It was surprising to realize that what seems the most valuable knowledge is not the latest, cutting-edge Earth Science, for all its authority and wonder. What we remember is not the objectivity underlying stark graphs, and entrancingly beautiful data visualizations of Arctic anomalies — it is people and stories. It is the recognition that at heart, humans experience life as emotional beings in relationship and cooperation, working most naturally in community for the good of others, and all.
What follows are similar realizations from the past several years — with just a few words about collaboration and process. I’m not claiming to be an Earth science expert. These are things I’ve learned about the subject matter, personal opinions from a privileged vantage point. Beliefs that might be helpful, especially for anyone who doesn’t yet wake up every day thinking about the future of life on the planet. Consistent with the wealth of insight represented in the preceding pages, these convictions could help give us a chance:
Everything is connected. “Climate” is inseparable from nature — along with equity, the economy, oceans, cities, water, justice, air, history, plastic, music, racism, food, politics, language, family, and more. The separations that exist have been created — sometimes accidentally, often for nefarious reasons. Everything Is Connected can sound like a platitude, but when the deep implications of having to consider justice and colonization along with Earth’s biophysical limits come into play, or food culture along with land and water use, it’s anything but easy.
The central dynamic of our challenge is systems. Incremental, single-issue work can be fantastic, but it’s hard to wrap your mind around what’s happening — and where things are headed — without thinking of the current moment as a product of history, constituted by deeply complex, interwoven human and Earth systems approaching significant tipping points. We have to stop greenhouse gas emissions — but they are a symptom, not the illness. How deeply and quickly can we transform our economic system? The “externalities” turned out to be big, and they’re coming home to roost. Even Earth system scientists, fiercely defensive of their traditionally apolitical reputations, are forced to acknowledge the ongoing harm caused by such imbalances of wealth and counterproductive financial incentives. And so it must be the entire spectrum of humanity, in every sense, together — difficult, but beautiful.
Lift up your head and look around. Whether implicitly or explicitly, almost everything in the world is telling you to just go about your business. According to the monastics at Plum Village, the first step is to STOP. Individually and collectively, we have a lot of social and cognitive biases working at any given moment to generalize and normalize. They have the potential to hurt deeply, especially in extraordinary situations. Try to notice them, and how they shape your experience of the world.
This moment and the future are shaped by one history — and many histories. Of course it’s necessary to observe the world as it is now, to take an honest look at what is. But it’s far too easy to give weight to the single snapshot of the present, when what’s needed is an understanding of the movie to this point, from many perspectives. Who has benefited most from the same activities that continue to seriously harm communities and the living planet? Why does the system allow the benefit and the harm to be invisible to them, or even “natural?” How many reckonings will be necessary to give humanity a chance at justice?
This is the time for difficult questions, thinking, words, and actions. What would it look like for us to treat this like the emergency that it is? More important than technology is language. Challenging the uneven history of Western science is not the same as climate denial — though today’s public fora seem incapable of registering any subtlety beyond “for” or “against.” Easy answers are almost always wrong, or at least incomplete. And yet more important than language is emotion. We need better technology and discursive tools, but not as much as we need better emotional tools.
We need to consider and center the intersection of science, communications, and the global commons. When it comes to making sense of the world, facts smash against frames like water hitting rocks. So long as the world plays like a competition — with nested layers of nations, regions, clubs, families, and individuals — it might be understandable to dismiss the planet as a constant, a field that makes space for the action, whose condition is only material in relation to discrete and disconnected contests. I still don’t have a perfectly clear view on how to responsibly navigate the current planetary science / communications / transformation discourse, or even on what the precise goal should be. How should we think about agency and global citizenship against a backdrop of systems collapse and enormous misinformation and disinformation marketing budgets? Are we better off inviting people to a richer understanding of Earth dynamics in order to create rational, systems-informed upward pressure and response — or designing and spreading the targeted messages that can most efficiently change people’s minds and actions? The choice can feel like this:
Imagine millions of people spread throughout a labyrinthine pyramid, mostly sitting down in the dark, while a royal family lounges on the top floor. Pestilence, floods, wasps, fire, and maybe a few others are coming, starting at the bottom. How should we use our only moment on the loudspeaker — what’s our one word to share? It’s tempting to yell, “RUN,” or “MOVE.” If a single word could precisely describe the processes of being starved, drowned, stung, and burned, I don’t imagine it being helpful to most of the people in this scenario — though much scientific communication takes exactly this form. Maybe “NOW?” might be better, or “CLIMB?” Perhaps, “TOGETHER?”
And there’s maybe the one message that matters most — much more important than WHAT we do, is HOW we do it.
I have had the immense privilege of working in a small team to crystallize a focus on the global commons into a community and systems-level network effort. However that effort evolves, and whatever happens in the future, the words global commons will hold a singular power for me personally, as a beautiful expression of hope. These words convey Earth and human systems, and a new set of relationships underpinning them. They speak to shared ownership, complex science, and radical action — but mostly to identity. When the global commons are understood and treated as the planet’s life support system, shared and protected for the good of all present and future life, a new, foundational identity emerges, and invites our participation. Who will we choose to be, individually and together? How will you play your part?