The fight against climate change must be powered by the people

By Benjamin Clabault

Activism-inclined actor Leonardo DiCaprio stood before the UN Climate Summit in New York on Sept. 23 urging world leaders to face the threat of climate change. His words, while certainly well intentioned, erroneously suggested a shared feeling of helplessness among ordinary citizens. The impending disaster of global warming, he asserted, “has grown beyond the choices individuals can make,” a dangerous claim that fails to recognize humanity’s main hope in the present struggle: a shared sense of universal responsibility.

While officials are unique in their ability to affect immediate change through public policy, they will remain reluctant to do so as long as they know the majority of the people they represent would oppose any drastic measures that jeopardize tangible economic interests.

A 2013 report published by the Pew Research Center found only 54 percent of people around the world even consider climate change a major threat. Perhaps more worrying is that residents of the United States, the current dominant economic power, and China, the world’s most populous nation, fell considerably below this average, at 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively. And it’s not as if these people are too dumb to understand the science; economic and cultural factors have simply clouded their views.

Referencing last month’s People’s Climate March, DiCaprio claimed in his speech, “the people have spoken.” But the majority has not. While 400,000 people demanding change represented a positive development and sent major ripples across the surface of the human community, convincing governments to act against the will of their people will never be a realistic objective. DiCaprio could not have been more wrong in abdicating individuals of responsibility in the struggle to save our planet.

In this case, as in any other, the seeds of social change lie dormant in the hearts of the people, and it is the people who must act. The necessary alterations to global society will not be easy to achieve, however, because they entail the complete overhaul of a materialist consumer culture, fermented in the stills of capitalism that promotes the ceaseless aspiration of a lifestyle well beyond anything sustainable on a wider scale.

The problem with capitalism is that it presumes, and thereby reinforces, an excessively negative view of human nature. Western thinkers have long erred in their judgments on this crucial subject because they insist on an absurd binary that categorizes humans as intrinsically good or inherently bad.

Sixteenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, batted cleanup for the “bad” team, describing humankind as existing in a “constant condition of war of everyone against everyone.” John Locke inversely insisted that people co-exist in a state of nature and act out of reason rather than their passions. To assume an “either-or” mentality is to fail to recognize the essential malleability of human nature; there exists in people the propensity to succumb to passions and delusions, but also the potential to overcome these pitfalls through the application of reason and compassion.

By attempting to harness self-interest for the sake of the public good, capitalism reinforces the most negative aspects of human nature, promoting the selfish endeavor to obtain material wealth over ideals like cooperation. Climate catastrophe is looming, and we will have to abandon our culturally imbued selfishness if we are to make the necessary societal changes to protect our very existence. This problem is not going to fix itself, and the markets are certainly not going to fix it either. As long as people prioritize their own progress in the capitalist economic system over the welfare of the planet, a solution will remain incredibly hard to come by.

Luckily, assuming that people are naturally capable of rationality, there is hope that people can realize, on an individual basis, that prioritizing the protection of our ecosystems is not only necessary for the survival of the planet, but will almost certainly lead to greater personal happiness than the maniacal aspiration for wealth.

There has been much contention over the years about the relationship between wealth and happiness. In the 1970’s, economist Richard Easterlin found that a country’s wealth does not equate to the happiness of its people beyond a certain threshold. Among individual Americans, a recent study found that once people make $75,000 annually, they feel no greater happiness on a daily basis, and I would surmise that the pleasure they derive from living a comfortable life comes from the material culture we live in that promotes external rather than internal sources of joy.

While this wealth-happiness relationship remains contentious, recent studies have proven that compassion brings an intrinsic happiness to individuals. By taking this lesson to heart, people can come to rationally accept that prioritizing the practice of empathy over the accumulation of wealth will bring greater happiness, and promoting the protection of the planet, for our generation, represents the ultimate act of compassion.

Climate change is a real threat, and taking the necessary steps to fight it might seem nearly impossible given the current state of human affairs. But by accepting the malleable nature of the human psyche, it is very possible to imagine a world united by a sense of universal responsibility and it is this train of thought that gives us reason to hope.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]