The Election and A Call to Service in The Anthropocene

Stephen Mulkey, PhD
4 November 2016

heather-webHeather at peace. Photo: S. Mulkey, Lakes Basin, The Eagle Cap Wilderness


“Elections have consequences.” – Barack Obama, 5 November 2008.

“Donald Trump can fool a lot of people, but you can’t fool Mother Nature.” Jacob Scherr, an attorney who is the former director of the international climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, 3 October 2016.


Climate change is complex. Within the scientific community, there is a broad consensus about its reality and cause, but experts hold a range of opinions about its impacts and how to address it. As any public scientist can tell you, it is hard to articulate a simple and compelling description of how the change of a few hundred parts per million of a trace gas can lead to potentially catastrophic consequences. Although complex in its interactions with natural systems, it is broadly correct to say that climate change presently amplifies the ongoing disruption of the biosphere driven by the forces of habitat destruction and extractive use of natural resources. By midcentury and beyond it will increasingly be a primary driver of the global transformation of ecosystems. The changes ensuing over this and coming centuries will be tectonic, but this message of scientific complexity and consequences does not play well in Peoria. Once again, the US political process has not made understanding this most critical of issues a prerequisite for the job of president.

Many of us thought that this would be the election when the electorate would require our candidates to address climate change. There have been many explanations of why the public is not responsive to the real and present danger of climate change. These include blaming the corporate sponsored disinformation campaign, the overwhelming nature of thinking the unthinkable, the failure of the media to report and educate, and our inherent bias for normalcy. I am struck that my colleagues in the humanities continue with their focus on the infinitude of the human condition without routinely including this most existential of threats. Similarly, those in the sciences will passionately defend the intrinsic worth of “pure” science, even when its relationship to our pressing dilemma is vanishingly remote. As a scientist, I have been repeatedly admonished and tutored in how I should communicate with the public. I have been told to “speak English” and that I am the wrong messenger. It is my experience that in the face of the entrenched denial of the vocal minority it makes little difference how this issue is framed.

If you are aware of the scale of these challenges, it is impossible to view this election with equanimity. The 2016 election is not just another exercise in representative democracy, and unlike the indefatigable Chicago Cubs, a comeback may not be a reasonable prospect. The Republican platform denies the need to address climate change and Mr. Trump denies its very existence and would “cancel” the Paris Agreement. The Republicans control the most powerful legislative body in the world. Because the next few years offer our last chance to prevent the warming of our planet beyond the 2˚C guardrail, their almost religious denial of climate change represents an existential threat to civilization. To be sure, Secretary Clinton has been slow to be dissuaded from an incremental approach to address our dependence on fossil fuels. Too bad it is at least two decades too late for such a strategy. Regardless, Clinton is sure to take steps to honor the Paris Agreement and to lead the global effort to tackle climate change.

Let me be clear – we have a fateful choice to make. I implore you to vote for Secretary Clinton and to vote for down-ballot candidates who will take action on the gravest challenge in the history of our species. The outstanding climate scientists at RealClimate have made a compelling scientific argument for why this election is so crucial for our future.

This moment in the history of our species is unique and has been millennia in the making. The creation of a globally connected civilization is the result of every biological and cultural evolutionary step we have taken over the last 200,000 years. At various points in human history, we have come up against severe limitations of resources, but recovery was always possible by pushing into new territory. We always found new resources or developed ways to substitute one resource for another. Now the Earth is full with us and there is no new frontier to be conquered and exploited. Clever rearrangement of the chairs on the deck will not address the underlying problem. Our best thinking got us here, and it is unlikely that the same thinking can save us.

The mightiest among us are individually trivial in comparison to these challenges. Creating a sustainable future will require globally-coordinated collective action. The terms “mobilization” and “revolution” have been applied to the need for transforming our relationship with our planet. Nothing short of a revolution in how we define our role in nature will ensure our future well-being. Full-scale mobilization is required to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable. An effective government offers the only plausible way forward, but I fear that the ability to create good governance is severely handicapped or even broken. Respect for government has been damaged by the institutionalized obstruction in Congress and the failure of our electoral system to deliver candidates with a clearly articulated higher purpose and a compelling vision for our world.

Dread seems to be widespread in the US and even abroad as we contemplate the low standards revealed by this election. Some folks that I know are immobilized and unable to concentrate on other aspects of their lives. Dread is now a quiet and pervasive feature of their being. Having grown up listening to John F. Kennedy call my generation to service, I continue to be amazed that we could have screwed up so monumentally. Daily as I continue to work for positive change, I find surcease through spiritual practice and personal surrender to my fundamental lack of power. Like my best friend Heather, I can always put my hot, tired paws in the stream and find a moment of peace.

Our situation presents the ultimate call to service. Although we can frame the current political struggles in terms of conflict, I believe that individually we must rise above this way of thinking and collaborate to create a sustainable future. Principled leadership can guide us in the mission of service to each other and to the rich panoply of life on Earth. I know one thing beyond doubt: regardless of political perspective, we need each other. It is inevitable that our fundamental interdependence will be expressed as our long emergency accelerates (see Rule Number 1). I can’t promise that there will not be much suffering before we come together, but coming together is what we have always done in the face of existential threats. In this sense, biosphere disruption and climate change are no different than any other enemy at the gates.

It is my fervent hope that we can reach inside to touch our higher selves and find a purpose beyond narrow political concerns. Our kids and future generations need us to embrace our responsibility to each other and to the future.