Rules of Engagement for The Environmental Century

For The Natural Resources Council of Maine

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
30 August 2016

milky-way-for-ssmulkey-1The Milky Way from the Palouse near Moscow, ID. Photo by Marie Glynn. 2016. All rights reserved.

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will be the organizing principle for humanity for the next 30 years. – Joe Romm, Founder of Climate Progress, 2016


The International Geological Congress is poised to officially designate the present as part of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. I call the 21st century simply The Environmental Century, because this is the century when our species must face the transformation of our planet squarely as a responsible adult, rather than continue our adolescent demands for special treatment by the universe. As the consequences of our actions become apparent, the cozy blanket of normalcy bias is finally being shed. Like most adolescents, coming of age for humanity will be fraught with fear, pain, and the possibility of tragedy.

Surviving our adolescence in The Environmental Century will require far more from us than simply toughing it out. The disruption of the Earth’s climate and biosphere constitute an existential threat to civilization. We must change not only our sources of energy but how we manage the Earth’s finite resources and biology — and we must make these changes within a few decades. A seismic shift in human affairs of this magnitude is a staggering challenge for developed nations. It is no surprise that building a sustainable civilization may seem like a cruel distraction to the world’s hungry and disenfranchised.

Climate change and global environmental disruption are unfolding at a time when we have an unprecedented awareness of our place in the universe. Our species is one of millions of life forms on Earth and exists in a galaxy that is one of trillions of galaxies in the known universe. This awareness renders irrelevant many earlier notions of human meaning, which served to motivate cultures for thousands of years. This awareness challenges religions and philosophies to define our place in nature in a way that reflects reality without nihilism. In the infinity of time and space, our search for meaning may seem objectively absurd, and controlling our fate simply beyond our reach. In an absolute sense, it is obvious to me that I have true control over only one thing: my attitude about perceived reality.

The neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905-1997) observed of his ordeal as an inmate in a concentration camp during WWII,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

A guiding principle for framing my attitude and my search for meaning is that I have an ethical obligation to my kids and generations not yet born to do all in my power to leave them a livable planet. I also believe that I have a similar obligation to the nonhuman life on Earth. These beliefs have no independent objective meaning or justification. They are simply the beliefs that sustain me.

I employ spiritual axioms, which here I call rules of engagement, to guide my search for meaning and my interaction with my fellows during our long emergency. Perhaps these are useful to you.

Rule 1. We need each other. We all live in the shelter of each other, and this is simply not negotiable. Working and living alone for any extended period is without exception deeply painful. I try to respect this reality at all times. This is derived from our evolutionary biology – we are obligate social primates. Natural selection acting on countless variations of the human organism has created our obligate need for one another. We have no claws, no fur, no fangs, and we don’t run very fast. Intelligence alone will not save you from becoming a predator’s lunch, or for that matter, assure your success in modern life. It is our collective power and wisdom that will determine our success as we face the most significant challenge in the history of our species.

Rule 2. All other rules depend on Rule 1.

Rule 3. Facts matter. The way that we ascertain facts is through the scientific process, which requires us to rigorously falsify hypotheses, regardless of how much we believe an idea to be true. In this sense, science is not only a foundation of civilization, it is a critical tool for assessing the nature of the universe. Nature has no compassion for our wishful thinking, and she does not have a stake in our willingness to accept reality. Physics has no need to negotiate with our political leaders.

Rule 4. Our genes do not determine who we are or what will become of us. Nature vs. Nurture is not a useful way to understand how we will respond to the transformation of our planet. We need not be driven by our instinctual fears. Instead, our ability to acclimate and reconfigure our civilization is best understood as Nature via Nurture. Our experiences and actions on this journey into the unknown will shape the expression of our instincts. This plasticity gives us the ability to at least partially guide our fate.

Rule 5. As a species, we are not evil, and we did not intentionally get ourselves into this mess. Blaming ourselves or each other is not useful. We arrived at this point in our history by doing what you might expect of any intelligent social species: we used concentrated forms of carbon based energy to build a civilization and maximize our collective Darwinian fitness. Now that we know that this will lead to a very bad outcome, it is urgent (and highly adaptive for our fitness) that we do things differently.

Rule 6. Self-awareness is necessary if we are to manage our future. Without awareness of our situation and our connections to the web of life, we will continue to make bad choices — reacting rather than taking thoughtful action. This may seem obvious, but current world trends show that it is hard to practice, given our tendency to allow our base instincts to control our actions.

We must be skeptical of simple answers to complex problems. Addressing climate change and living sustainably on this planet will require humanity to understand the complexity of the various choices that we must make as a species.

It is the responsibility of our democratic institutions and our systems of education and research to provide this awareness. In this respect, higher education is about creating critically thinking citizens, not producing graduates who have purchased the commodity of a college degree.

Rule 7. Humility must be a collective core value if civilization is to survive. Every time I have been convinced that I had the truth in a corner, I was wrong, at least to some extent. In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scholars of sustainability science concluded that we must cultivate a respect for the limits of the biosphere and our ability to manipulate it.

We have built our civilization on the assumption of continuous improvement, but our standards for what constitutes a better life are individually selfish and not congruent with the flow of energy and materials on our planet. Instead of bigger, brighter, stronger, and more, we must now fit our needs into the procession of life on Earth.

Ultimately, we are not in charge, no matter how much we think that we should be. Nature bats last. In this respect, geoengineering the climate to cool the Earth strikes me as the ultimate hubris and very dangerous.

Rule 8. Action is the ultimate antidote for the poison of despair. In the sweep and scope of history, it doesn’t matter what we think about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how we feel about what is happening. And to our politicians I say, it really doesn’t matter what you have to say. Future generations will not judge us by our intentions, but instead by our actions. The main thing that can significantly improve the quality of our lives and the lives of countless species of plants and animals is what we do now. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we may be the last that will be able to significantly mitigate its impacts.

Certainly, with acceptance of this reality comes action. I believe that we must now engage in even more vigorous but realistic development of our species in a way that progressively moves us to a sustainable relationship with our planet even as it is being disrupted. From my experience as an ecologist for over 35 years, I believe that this remains within our grasp if we choose to make the reach.

Rule 9. Be of service to something bigger than yourself.  Every generation has what Thomas Berry has called their Great Work. My father went ashore at Normandy during WWII, and I know that he viewed this, and the rebuilding of Europe, as The Great Work of his time. The Great Work of our time is the development of a sustainable relationship with the Earth, a challenge considerably more perilous than those faced by my father’s generation. I encourage you to find and develop your means to participate in The Great Work of our time, if for no other reason than it will sustain you and your kids as you face the transformation of the Earth’s ecology.

From Martin Keogh, editor of a remarkable volume of meditations about our unfolding crisis entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet:

“If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Rule 10. Learning is the foundation of our future. I recently heard an old timer say, “The older I am, the less I know.” I want to shake this guy and say, Dude, are you paying attention?!  How can you have a productive and meaningful life without constantly learning? To be of maximum service in this time of dire need, we must continue to grow in learning and understanding.

Three forces are undermining the value of learning in our culture:

First, within the academic community is the postmodernist philosophy that holds that the findings of science are a cultural construct, and thus not in any absolute sense, objective. Surely the process of science, like any human enterprise, is subject to bias. But, as a system that tends to correct its mistakes, science shows that objective understanding does exist.

Secondly, religious fundamentalism significantly limits what can be learned by its adherents, and is a threat to the free exchange of facts and ideas in any open society.

Thirdly, anti-intellectual sentiment has waxed and waned throughout American history, and it is often assumed to be an honorable, yet unexamined, tenet of democracy. Presently, anti-intellectual sentiment is widespread, and various groups proudly identify as anti-intellectual. An individual’s common sense about climate change is often respected as equivalent to my years of scholarship and to the research of legions of scientists.

Taken together, postmodernism, religious fundamentalism, and anti-intellectual tribalism feed an unprecedented political and corporate assault on science and academics.

Rule 11. We are not members of various tribes – White, Black, Asian, Hispanic. We belong to a species. We should act like it. In public discourse, I have found that too often the most important aspects of what is said are (1) who is saying it, and (2) who is hearing it. The argument itself seems to be less important than the cultural or social context. Is the speaker part of my tribe? Am I speaking to my tribe?

Tribalism is a dubious comfort that we can no longer afford as participants in a global ecology. I have contempt for any leader who appeals to me as part of a tribe, rather than to my understanding of a problem and what needs doing.

Rule 12: Nature is the source of spiritual renewal. My sense of wonder and awe is the foundation of my wellbeing, and this grounds me as a member of our species. The way I maintain my sense of wonder is through spiritual practice, which involves nature.

As often as possible, I try to go someplace where I can see the stars. The simple act of looking up on a clear night usually takes my attention away from my self-centered fears and helps me cultivate a sense of gratitude and even optimism about the future of life on Earth.

Sometimes the universe feels like a magnificent and infinite mind, rather than an exceedingly complex physical machine. Neurobiology would suggest that this is merely an artifact of the human tendency to have ideas of reference, i.e., to interpret the universe as being all about us. But, I am not so sure. This is personal and you may see things differently. I don’t know what the universe is, and an important point here is that you don’t either. Each person develops a spiritual perspective in their own way, or not. But without it, I find that there is a vacancy in my sense of self — a sense of longing.


This month, a working paper produced by The Next System Project provides guidelines for replacing the fossil fuel economy with a new system, which the authors describe as “a pluralist vision of a new economy centered around the values lacking in the current system.” Because we have such a limited time to curb emissions, they propose “drastic” actions that include the imposition of new monetary policy that would quickly shut down fossil fuel extraction. They note that as we approach what I have called the Ecological Event Horizon, we must acknowledge that the current corporate capitalist system must be replaced by one that promises a more sustainable and equitable future. They identify five drivers of our unfolding dilemma:

  • The imperative for economic growth
  • The centrality of consumerism
  • The reliance on extractive use of natural resources
  • The dominant role played by corporations
  • The weakening of democratic political control

 

I agree with their assessment and, like the authors, I note that top-down control to develop the next system is unlikely to be effective without a bottom-up change in how we each view ourselves as participants in a global ecology. The report notes that it is the disruption of the ecology of Earth, not climate change per se, that is imposing a dire timeframe on our transition to a new economy. It is urgent that as individuals and members of communities that we realign our expectations of life in a rapidly changing biosphere.

I believe that creating a new relationship with our planet must be grounded in functional, strong communities. I agree with activist Bill McKibben’s response to the question of where one might live to avoid the worst of climate change: anywhere there is a strong community.

Wendell Berry offers this wisdom:

If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbor’s prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.

Although the need for top-down systemic change is clear, I offer these rules of engagement as part of a new ethos that will support building strong communities and the regeneration of a healthy biosphere.