Climate Corner: The Science of Climate Change

Why are Americans prone to resisting it? What we must change.

by Estella Lauter

I wonder whether we’ve paid sufficient attention to cultural mythology in relation to climate change. Cultural myths are powerful stories that tell us who we are and where we’re going. 

In her book on Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood identifies the symbol of the frontier in the U.S. as “a system of beliefs … which holds the country together and helps the people in it to cooperate for common ends.” She calls the frontier a flexible idea that contains many elements dear to the American heart: It suggests a place that is new, where the old order can be discarded (as it was at the time of the Revolution); a line that is always expanding, taking in or “conquering” ever-fresh virgin territory (be it the West, the rest of the world, outer space, poverty or the regions of the mind); it holds out hope, never fulfilled, but always promised. 

Although our literature presents the gaps between frontier-inspired hope and reality, we retain the belief that “we” will overcome whatever obstacles we face. Think about our history in these terms. American settlers moved people, animals and mountains at will. The railroad enabled people and resources (including ore and oil) to move in any direction over any terrain. Wars provided new frontiers once the West was settled. Air travel has collapsed distances in once unimaginable ways, and the exploration of space has inspired us to imagine a huge, new frontier. Medical breakthroughs have extended lives, defying death itself. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television, computer and smartphone have led to the current frontier of artificial intelligence. These experiences and our belief system driven by the frontier myth have led us to believe that there is no challenge we cannot meet through technological innovations or sheer willpower. 

From this history of always finding new ways to expand and conquer, I draw two points of significance for our response to climate change. 

First, there is no new place on Earth where we can go to escape global warming. The promises of dwelling in outer space or under the sea are fantasies. The science of nuclear fusion has not yet produced usable results. Capturing carbon dioxide and burying enough of it to make a difference is futuristic. The problems we face are not amenable to solution through a cultural mythology based on ever-expanding frontiers. 

Second, we do not have to throw in the towel with end-time scenarios or bunkers. Ways to confront the problems of climate change exist, but they require us to not keep thinking of the Earth – its animals and people – as obstacles to be dominated, overpowered or conquered. What has to happen is a fundamental change in our relationship to nature. We are inescapably dependent upon it, not separate and above it. Our souls do not exempt us from its laws. We cannot save ourselves without protecting the Earth and all its creatures.

There are plenty of materials to draw on – words, phrases, ideas, figures, images, symbols, stories – to form a compelling, new cultural story. Some powerful components of that story have already emerged in recent years. We have been known to respond generously to natural catastrophes around the world. Films about the intelligence and emotions of animals; studies of human cooperation and teamwork in contemporary society; portrayals of Indian, African American and South American cultures; the words of school children – all of these elements contribute to understanding the challenge and necessity of rebalancing human beings with each other and the natural world. 

PBS, National Geographic and other media, not to mention the arts, are helping us to comprehend that, rather than conquering a new frontier, we need to focus on what is happening to the Earth that we share with millions of other creatures. Climate activists can build on these stories, inspiring empathy for plants and animals and the human communities that are bearing the brunt of global warming, and deepening our understanding that fundamental change is needed now. It is not dependent on some uncertain, technological savior – a new frontier. 

It is essential to realize that scientific arguments and actions are not sufficient to drive fundamental change. In addition to recycling, changing light bulbs, installing solar panels and traveling less, we must tell good stories about overcoming obstacles and meeting challenges right here, right now. Planet Earth is the only home that we and countless other creatures have. In relation to climate change, there is no new frontier.