The power of knowing
For more than a decade, I have ended my classes and public lectures by stating that, when looking at our future, climate change is what we know best.
Framing the issue this way is intended to help people take some control over seeking solutions to global warming. The principle is that once we acknowledge the problem, we move beyond debilitating anxiety and panic into having some control. With some understanding and control, we are better able to cope with the problem.
Coping is often related to some basic immediate need: Am I safe? Do I have shelter? Can I manage my circumstances?
Certainty, uncertainty, fear, and loathing
Uncertainty about climate change is often presumed to be at the basis of our angst. My statement that ‘climate change is what we know best’ is a response to that narrative. That is, if uncertainty is the cause of anxiety and inaction, then let’s recognize the certainty of climate change and accelerate our efforts to “solve” the problem.
For example, the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote, “What you don’t know has power over you; knowing it brings it under your control and makes it subject to your choice. Ignorance makes real choice impossible.”It is essential to move beyond merely coping with climate change. Knowing gives us the ability to bear down and seek solutions, which will be needed in every trade and profession. These solutions will have to come from within and from focused, persistent work that values our environment and our environmental security going forward.
My framing of climate change as what we know best works with many of my students. However, it is obvious that this framing does not work universally. Indeed, some construe the inevitability of a warming planet and its rising sea level with giving up and despair.
I have never entertained illusions that knowing about our warming planet and its consequences would provide a comforting or even a welcome public message. Indeed, the warming planet tells us that there will be loss. Sea levels will rise, and large populations will be displaced. Some island nations likely will disappear. Species will die out and we will not be able to preserve and conserve as we have in the past.
Jiddu Krishnamurthi in Freedom from the Known, maintains that our fears, rather than being anchored in the known and unknown, are anchored in knowing that things will be coming to an end.
The nature of humans
When we know that something dangerous is coming, it generates fear.I know people who express dread about going to the doctor for fear they will be diagnosed with cancer. They figure if they are ill, let the disease come and take its course. That seems preferable to spending time undergoing what they see as torturous treatments and losing quality of life.
Take the case of the manager who remains blind to the fact that one employee is sexually harassing another. If the manager is aware of the harassment, they are obligated to address it. This creates discomfort.
Knowing unwanted and dangerous truths portends responsibility, perhaps, accountability.
Avoidance is a common tactic of humans. We like to avoid the unpleasant and contentious. We like to avoid anxiety and stress.
Knowing is our survival
If we look at life over the past thousands and millions of years, we can document the extinction of many species. In fact, we can argue that the natural outcome for most life forms is to become extinct. We assume that those extinctions met their end unknowingly, with Wendell Berry’s “peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
It is knowing of losses and endings that cause fear and grief. It is knowing that also gives us the ability to strive for outcomes that are not all loss and endings. It is knowing that gives us the capacity to expect good outcomes.
We have to accept those outcomes will be on an Earth that is different from the past and, even, the present. The changes coming to our climate are in our conscious knowing, and that triggers the human responses of both knowing and avoidance.
Once we know, once we have knowledge, we can prepare. We can realize that an unchanging natural paradise for humans has always been a myth, and it is our strength to accommodate change.
We can leave the future to destiny … or not
Knowledge gives us the power, the possibility, to create a different reality than the one we might ascribe to “destiny.” Knowing puts our ability to survive and thrive into our own hands. This allows us to steer the anxiety toward solutions, take control of our behavior and decisions, and assume responsibility.Not all humans will embrace this knowledge and assume the burden of responsibility. The tensions that exist between responsibility and destiny, knowledge and faith, and science and religion extend back to the origin story of Genesis. The skepticism and response to knowledge is much deeper than collective, evidence-based maintenance of our climate.
I do have faith that many people will accept responsibility and use knowledge from climate science to seek good outcomes in the future. My evidence is in the lives of my students and the professions they are pursuing. They understand that not knowing might relieve us of some fear and anxiety, but what we don’t know will hurt us. They see the power of knowing, recognize that there have always been reasons to be fearful about the future, and place climate change as the most certain, most actionable, most manageable part of that future.