Why we must adapt not just ecologically, but philosophically and spiritually, in order to weather—and even thrive beyond—the worst of climate change
by Evan Leonard with Robyn Landis
Installing solar panels does more than provide clean energy. Solar opens a window to the type of human transformation necessary for really acing the biggest challenges of climate change up ahead. Evan Leonard, Vice President of Artisan Electric Inc., explains why
If it feels like the pace of climate change reporting has accelerated—with actual adverse weather events punctuating high-level predictions in rapid succession—it’s probably not your imagination. And if this intensity is affecting you, you’re certainly not alone.
Just last week, it was historic flooding in South Carolina—up to two feet of rain closed Interstate 95 from Miami to Maine. Salon couldn’t have known that was coming when it released “Climate Apocalypse Is Here now” that same week.
Meanwhile, in the runup to the Paris climate talks to be held early this winter, 147 countries have submitted proposals for reducing carbon emissions—and analysis shows these pledges will fall woefully short of preventing a 2C (or more) global temperature rise. Reaching that limit is expected to destroy most coral reefs and glaciers and melt significant parts of the Greenland ice cap, bringing major rises in sea levels. Exceeding it, scientists say, will cause catastrophic changes to food production, sea levels, wildlife, and more.
It was this past summer that I felt all of this coming to a head, as climate change’s tipping point graduated to nightly news headlines and moved into our collective consciousness. Substantive climate change news is now published somewhere almost daily.
Three particularly compelling articles came out over the summer concerning climate change. There have been many more since, but these three represented a “trifecta” of climate news that was even harder than usual to ignore. They created a stir and received a lot of press themselves, and they seemed to mark the beginning of a new era of awareness.
On July 7, Esquire published “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job,” subtitled: “Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.”
On July 27, the novelist Margaret Atwood published her article “It’s Not Climate Change—It’s Everything Change” at medium.com.
And on August 5, Rolling Stone published “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here” by Eric Holthaus. The subtitle reads, “The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen—and much faster than climate scientists expected.”
Any one of these pieces has the power to shake you up pretty hard—if you sit down and really take it all in, let it under your skin. Taken together, they are like a one-two-three punch that leaves almost no stone unturned in terms of facts, angles or implications.
Each takes a different route, examining specific relevant issues with its own emphasis and lens. In her gorgeous prose and with her novelist’s grace, Atwood unfurls both a utopian and dystopian version of what a climate-slammed future might look like, then explores the more likely in-between and many of its permutations.
The Esquire piece—”the ballad of the sad climatologists”—is ostensibly about the mental health effects of routinely staring apocalypse in the face. But along the way, it serves up such a heaping helping of the actualities weighing on these scientists that, by the end, you might share their trauma.
And the Rolling Stone piece focuses on the oceans, rippling out scenarios based on far-reaching effects with the magazine’s hallmark solid, fact-packed journalism.
All three are built on a shared foundation of data so gripping that if you are permeable enough, then to some degree it’s likely you will be pushed—if not into some degree of depression—then at least in the direction of reasonable existential questions.
I plunged into the latter. And I wasn’t alone; a number of friends and colleagues read these articles and found themselves similarly challenged to reflect on and wrestle with the deepest implications of these pieces—about our own human existence, the world, meaning, purpose. We’ve had discussions. We’ve pondered together and alone, not settling for pat, simplistic maxims.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I have some strong feelings from where I sit. And I sit in a few places that feel relevant to the discussion: As Vice President of Artisan Electric, one of the leading solar photovoltaic installers in the Pacific Northwest. As a former student of Philosophy and Environmental Studies with a focus on environmental ethics. Maybe most importantly, as a father and a human being. And I wanted to share some things that strike me as uniquely important and perhaps useful at this moment.
Because of the political climate and the climate change science up till now, many people—even intelligent, engaged people—have not been prepared to accept the kinds of projections that now appear to be inevitable. It’s a legitimate shock to the system for most people.
When people don’t possess the tools and perspectives to process shocking things—whether death, child pornography, the horrors of war, or the worst projections about climate change—they tend to veer between two extremes. They tend to deny the evidence altogether—or descend into ultimate despair. When it comes to climate change, we’ve certainly seen folks do both. But neither are viable options for us if we hope to prevail.
When I look squarely into the heart of this particular darkness, facing into the harshest facts, I honestly see our situation as a vital opportunity. I want to talk about that: why I think facing the hardest facts is necessary; is possible to do without collapsing into despairing paralysis; and most of all, could provide the very seeds of change we’ll need to save ourselves.
To begin: one of the things I see when I take in the entire picture is that we’ve arrived. What do I mean by that? I started reading about abrupt climate change in the late 1990s. I did graduate work on it. At the time, our ideas were considered extreme-end “what-ifs,” “Day After Tomorrow” movie-type stuff—science fiction.
But those extremes, those abstractions, are no longer in the future and no longer the stuff of science fiction. As last week’s Salon article leads off, “Climatologists dismissed the science behind ‘The Day After Tomorrow.’ Eleven years later, it’s not so improbable.”
We’ve arrived at—no, we’ve gone beyond—two tipping points. And I don’t think most people know or accept that yet, even thought the escalating press is getting harder to ignore.
We’ve set off a feedback loop for climate change that is not stoppable. The glaciers will melt. And quickly. Greenland? Doomed. Forget prevention. Much data and discussion, even just since the summer’s hallmark reports, has continued to emerge and has established this grim reality.
For example, on September 7, major news outlets reported that two new studies are adding to concerns about one of the most troubling scenarios for future climate change: the possibility that global warming could slow or shut down the Atlantic’s great ocean circulation systems, with dramatic implications for North America and Europe.
And on September 11, The New York Times, National Geographic and many other publications famously headlined data that many dubbed the “If we burn it all, we melt it all” scenario, or the “200-foot sea level rise” prediction. New research predicted a stunning meltoff of the Antarctic Ice Sheet—with sea levels standing to rise by a staggering 160-200 feet or more—if all of the world’s accessible fossil fuel is burned. (Which some powerful interests still appear hell-bent on doing.)
Just last week, The Guardian reported that the world would have to cut emissions to 36 billion tons of carbon to have a 50-50 chance of keeping temperatures below 2C. Submitted proposals in advance of COP21 (the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference), research shows, will not bring the planet near that reduced output.
As a scientific community, we’ve gone from denial to talk of prevention to the urgency of adaptation in a few short years. There is no more talk, in any credible scientific circles, of “We need to act now in order to prevent…” That’s nonsense. We are living climate change right now. And by all credible estimates, we haven’t seen anything yet. Drought in California? That’s child’s play.
We’re watching nature go through some awful stuff today. In the last 40 years we’ve lost half the animals on the planet. It’s too monumental for most of us to even get a grip on what that means. My daughter is four, and she may never see certain animals anywhere but the zoo, if at all. I never thought I would see mass extinction in my lifetime, the crumbling of ecosystems, or the collapse of states and countries to climate change—like the conflict in Syria and its mass migration.
On the flip side, the other tipping point we have hit is a positive one, and poses some irony for the situation. That tipping point is that fossil fuel energy is dead.
It’s dead, it’s obvious, and what we’re grappling with now mostly is the vestiges of the power it created. Fossil fuels made a relatively few very powerful people a lot of money. What we’re dealing with now, and will probably have to deal with for some time, is the amount of obstruction that money can provide for powerful interests who will keep grasping for the thing that made them powerful to begin with.
This kind of grasping is part of human nature—a nature that has to evolve if we are to survive and thrive, which is central to my ultimate point. But for now, that base impulse sits in the driver’s seat—far, far too often.
A wealthy and powerful few know the writing is on wall, yet will still spend their millions and billions attempting to perpetuate this dead thing: to extract and burn every drop of carbon until there is no hope of sustaining an inhabitable planet.
They can try, and they will try, but it’s dead. And at almost the very same time that we’ve passed the tipping point of no return for at least some form of climate extremes, we’ve also passed the tipping point of fossil fuels.
On August 31, author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben wrote on EcoWatch, “Coal—and oil and gas—are not the future and they’re barely the present. We’re suddenly and decisively in a one-way transition to a renewable future and the only question—perhaps the most important question humans have ever faced—is whether we can make that transition fast enough to save the planet.”
In 2000, the estimate that by 2010 we would hit 1 gigawatt of solar worldwide was literally laughed at for its naïve optimism. We hit 17 GW in 2010. Last year, we hit 39. This year, we’ll hit 55. By 2017, China alone will hit 70. Wow.
So in some odd, beautiful, vexing symmetry, the same tectonic shift that is happening in climate change is happening in energy—so quickly that heads are spinning.
We are losing our oceans as we speak, with sea level rise, acidification, pollution.
AND we are transforming our energy infrastructure as we speak. Neither of these were fathomable even a decade ago.
So we’re at the beginning of both of these turns. We’re living these dramatic sea changes (so to speak) right now. One is horrific; one is radically hopeful. At some points, they intersect. Climate collapse is not same as turning the corner on energy, but it’s not irrelevant, either.
So as a dad, a citizen, a solar proponent, a human being—where do I stand with these two shifts—and what do they have to do with one another?
Not to be delusional—because I can feel as daunted and depressed by the prospects as any sane mortal—but I think there is a genuine potential in where we stand now, amid the grim predictions and even the rubble of the horrors already unfolding.
I was an environmental activist in college, but in the classroom I studied philosophy and the environment. I studied a particular a field of German philosophy called Phenomenology. This school of philosophy was founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and furthered by his student, Martin Heidegger, among others. I see some important lessons for us right now.
Phenomenology is defined as the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Put more simply, it has to do with people’s perceptions, perspectives and understandings of a particular situation (or phenomenon), or objects. It has to do with how people construct meaning, and their experience of, or about, objects. It’s about how “things” go from being “out there” to becoming part of our mental environment.
Martin Heidegger was a key student of phenomenology who modified Husserl’s method and approach. He was not an environmentalist, to be sure, but he was preoccupied with explaining how “things” in the world show or reveal themselves to us. And he was interested in how things can mean so much more than their utilitarian value, even as they become tools—and how humans relate to this.
I would suggest that in the U.S. specifically, our relationship to things—how we experience them and behave toward and around them—is shaped by three overlapping lenses: fossil fuel, individualism, and wealth accumulation.
And I could argue that this cultural comportment, this specific and influential relationship to virtually all things—is really the issue. It’s what has delivered us to this moment. And a shift here could deliver us out of it, too. Indeed, it may be the only thing that could.
Let me elaborate. What if—miracles on miracles—we sidestep the most severe consequences of climate change? Even in a post-fossil-fuel world, if nothing else changes, are we postponing the inevitable—in that we might have 15 billion people living out an accumulation-driven, individualistic relationship to our planet. Might we very likely destroy ourselves anyway, some other way?
In other words, is solving climate change really the end goal? What if climate change is just the raging, glaring symptom of something much deeper—and until we tackle that, we’ll never be out of the woods? And maybe more, we’ll never be who and what we could be?
Some environmental orgs have been circulating a not-so-funny cartoon that shows the earth at the doctor’s office, the flushed and sweaty planet drooping with a thermometer in its mouth. It says “The Earth Has a Fever.” Many have related climate change to an illness in this way, even to cancer.
But what if the fevered earth is a symptom of the real illness—and the cancer that plagues us collectively is this me-centered, accumulation-driven human comportment toward all things? Or put another way—in classical spiritual language—human ego, human greed and grasping?
I know I am not alone in suggesting that there is little reason to survive climate change only so we can perpetuate being the exact humans we are now—and continue to plunder, pillage, and destroy. Certainly, in spiritual, philosophical and even psychological circles, this perspective is taking root here and there.
But in mainstream public consciousness? Perhaps not so much. Unless you happen to be a pretty assertive spiritual seeker or philosophical thinker, you’re almost never given the opportunity to ponder the problem this way.
I am suggesting that more of us do.
Rather than merely put the world in hospice and tackle climate change, we might do better to look deeper at root of problem. And I contend we cannot tackle climate change without also tackling at the same time this lens we take for granted, this comportment towards the world. Call it philosophical, spiritual, psychological or all of the above…but this isn’t just a science issue, not by a long shot.
This is a potentially exciting thing, to me. Because this consumption-based, growth-based life that Americans have largely accepted as our right and our privilege is, in my opinion (and certainly in the view of many diverse thinkers) what causes us to be unhappy as a species in the first place. It is the root of so many problems besides climate change—arguably, even, all of them.
In Atwood’s piece, she invokes Barry Lord, an art historian and energetic social thinker who theorizes that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going.
Lord points out that coal produced a culture of production; oil and gas fostered a culture of consumption, a belief in unlimited abundance and economic growth (which we now mostly agree are unsustainable). He proposes that the next culture will be one of “stewardship”—and that the energy driving it will be renewables.
Atwood also quotes Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, who similarly explores the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural and moral values associated with them.
Atwood says of this connection between energy and values:
What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.”
But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth.
That’s what I’m talking about.
And I am seeing this connection between energy and values—and ways to use that connection to drive change—in my work every day.
I am passionate about solar energy and that is my work, so it would be reasonable to ask, “What do solar photovoltaic systems have to do with this?” Obviously, we need more than renewables to solve this hairball. But I feel that renewables, in their way, are fundamentally connected to the mental and spiritual shift that has to happen, and which needs to be reflected in action.
I believe that in promoting renewables such as solar, we’re not just bringing about cleaner, healthier, more efficient ways of obtaining energy. I believe we are also helping bring about next shift in the human psyche, in the evolution of the human spirit, and in our relationship to and comportment toward the world.
I feel strongly that this is part of our work in solar—sparking the imagination and spurring our evolution through a shift in our relationship to energy—through “things” such as solar panels.
As a company, we’re buying time for people to wake up—and we are also bringing renewables to the forefront as beacon of hope, and of change. Most people have to see change in order to believe in it. To drive around and see solar panels on roofs is to see evidence of change. To see solar explode 50-fold beyond what was predicted by now is to see hope for revolution.
Also, I feel that when we talk to people about renewable energy and we install panels on people’s roofs, we’re making something intangible—energy—tangible.
Before solar, energy is often merely a thing in the background; my customers would be aware of it only by using it and paying for it. Solar turns energy into a more intimate and direct set of interactions, a daily experience that changes one’s comportment not only towards energy, but away from individualism.
How do solar panels make people less individualistic? It gets them starting to think for the first time about a culture of renewables instead of culture of oil/gas/coal, in the way Atwood and Lord have described. Of course, to make solar sustainable as a business there are products and services and finances. But it’s not excessive. And more importantly, in some real ways we can feel connected to, the sun itself is free. Products innovate and compete, but the sun is not patentable. It’s shared and it’s virtually unlimited.
Our customers consistently tell us that one of the best things about solar—in fact that what they love most, in many cases—is that they feel like “part of the solution.” It can’t help but give me hope that I hear this more often than “We are so excited that our utility bills are lower.” It’s evidence of a shift from thinking about what’s in it for them to what’s in it for everyone. It’s a shift from a “me” culture” to an “us” culture. It cultivates some consciousness of the good of the whole. A solar rooftop ends up connecting people not just to electrical power but to others, to the common good.
A solar customer also has a tangible solution to climate change on their roof. That starts a transformation. I see that shift in customers all the time. No pun intended, but a light comes on. I think it’s akin to what happens to many people who start their own garden. Suddenly they’re connected to food—and the world—in a way they weren’t before. To local and global food movements and economies, and even more simply, to the earth itself. To the preciousness of nature, the miracle of it.
Or take bicycling. Maybe you buy an expensive bike, and it starts off as a status symbol, a personal toy. But once you start commuting to work, there’s a change. You’re part of a community. You’re part of a solution. You’re making a difference. You feel like you can change things, even a little, and that changes you.
This is perhaps one way we can chip away at this comportment toward the world that got us to this point. And it is a way we can take matters into our own hands, a certain kind of personal responsibility to think, grow, and change. It’s also a way that individuals and business can come together to create grassroots change.
And heaven knows, the grassroots has never been more vital. Politics and science by design are conservative; neither are going to function very well for where we need to be now. Science has been way too conservative on climate change to this point, which is why it keeps having these “OMG!” moments. Same with politics, which has to be conservative by definition in a democratic post-political system. As McKibben wrote in his EcoWatch post, “Politics is a lagging indicator, always behind. That’s because financial power lies with those who have already gotten rich.”
Given that, we must build movements and structures outside of those spheres of influence. Of course, solar is entwined with politics and science to varying degrees. But practical, implementable solutions can end-run around politics and science. We don’t have to wait for science to tell us that we’re drowning—we could be dead by that time (“we thought you were drowning and sure enough, you were!”) We don’t have to wait for politics ( “Yes, there are things we could have done to prevent this, but we didn’t get the bill passed—sorry!”) We can’t wait. Our job as citizens is to make change in the here and now.
In this context, renewables can and should be so much bigger than a new technology that fuels the same old paradigm. We don’t want this to be about preserving business as usual. It’s not “keep using same amount of power in your sealed-off, individualistic, separate home—just make it solar. Keep driving your car just as much, by yourself—just make it a Tesla instead.”
No. My entire point here is that what’s needed for the future and world many of us dream of—a future worth surviving climate change for!—requires change that’s orders of magnitude beyond rearranging the furniture and toys on the surface. It’s change at the cellular level. It’s not just new stuff. It’s a new human spirit.
The underlying goal for a lot of us—and I think Elon Musk for example is on top of this—is “let’s use this technology as a tool for rethinking, enlightenment, real change.” Let’s create the society we want to create. Let’s leap our psychological and spiritual hurdles to happiness and world health.
The core crisis is one of relationship to things and our ego. It’s also a crisis of imagination. To make this turn, to go from fossil fuels to renewables, we have to be able to think outside of our ego and our current comportment toward things. Not only do we have to stop listening to the people who have the most interest in burning every last drop of oil; we have to imagine a different world—and re-imagine ourselves.
If there is going to be a livable planet that comes out of this, the people who will be on that planet will be there because of their ability to create a cooperative, environmentally friendly, ecocentric—not egocentric—society. This new world cannot be based on consumption and greed driven by ego. We will be people who see wealth differently, who actually think differently about what really matters. It’s going to take a new sort of human, and there’s some incredible beauty, power, and potential in that.
“How many generations in all of human history have had the opportunity to rise to a challenge that is worthy of our best efforts… I think we ought to approach this challenge with a sense of profound joy and gratitude,” former Vice President Al Gore has said.
There’s a conundrum, a chicken-or-egg problem, a koan if you will. We do have to tackle climate change now in order to live long enough to tackle human ego nature, to evolve, to wake up and create what I’m suggesting. We’ve got to tackle climate change or we don’t have a shot at anything else.
Yet to some degree at least, we have to shift human ego nature now in order to take on climate change successfully. So that evolution has to go faster. There has to be a leap.
Real inner growth usually happens with some sort of struggle. To a great degree, much of this is an issue of will—and the important thing to recognize is we’re not just fighting “them”—the obvious destroyers, the small group of hell-bent powermongers. Insidiously, we’re also fighting ourselves, personally and as a culture.
Yes, there is a relatively small group of antagonists devastating millions of people and animals and chunks of the planet in a fevered frenzy to distribute wealth upward. Who are willing to exchange lives for dollars. They seem to harbor the illusion that they need to accumulate more, always more. Yes, those people need to be taken out of power.
But the shadowy truth is, a great many more people let this happen, gave them that power—even let themselves be trampled underfoot— because at some level they hope to be those people. They aspire to be counted among that supposedly elite group controlling the wealth, in a blind race to top of a food chain that they will ultimately obliterate with their excesses. Because that is the American dream. To be wealthy, to be powerful, to be one of the few—even at the expense of others.
As a result, too many have given their power away to a small group of men who use it to distribute wealth upwards—and are destroying huge swaths of life in the process. We need to look at that. That’s not going to be easy either.
I’m not suggesting any of this offers a simple panacea, nor am I downplaying what is to come. We’re living in quite possibly one of the most frightening moments of human civilization. We’re in the chute. No doubt those of us here now, thinking about these issues, will see terrible things. We will see one- to two-degree-Celsius temperature increases, continued acidification of oceans, rising sea levels, and resulting extreme weather changes. We will see collapses of all kinds, state failures, migrations, food shortages, disease epidemics.
We will be mourning losses, and we had better learn as humans how to do that too, and do it well and constructively.
I believe this is the year this can begin to turn. I think people will look back at 2015 and think “There it went. That was it.” Or as the aforementioned Rolling Stone article began, “Historians may look to 2015 as the year when sh**t really started hitting the fan.”
Maybe, though, we could also remember it as the year we woke up and started questioning not just what we need to do, but who we need to be in order to see our way beyond this looming shadow. Maybe we could see rapid change in human beings and culture.
Yes, we’re going to see some hard stuff, some bad stuff go down. But my read is that the very, very worst can be sidestepped. We’re past the tipping point for a lot of trouble, but the greatest, most dire catastrophe is still slowable at least.
If that’s so, we’ll have the opportunity to change. So what are we going to do with it? Who are we going to be on the other side of this? How humbled do we need to be before we can really make that turn and peel away the layers of ego, the drives toward false security, separateness, identity, pride? The lenses of individualism and short-term self-interest and accumulation, the societal stratification?
In the last 200 years, technology has collided with our current evolution as human beings. It’s allowed us to enact both wonderful and terrible things—and at many junctures, our technological capabilities have outstripped our ability to use them in the most responsible, wholesome way. Now it’s time to catch up, before it’s too late.
For me, this perspective, this possibility, shifts the despair to excitement and hope. Because 10 years ago we weren’t there. And we have no idea what next 10 years looks like. Right now we have tools for change—for psychological, spiritual and ecological change. I think we have an extraordinary opportunity to really get it—to wake up to why are we here; what is the point of all this; what is the goal of our being here? Is it to destroy all life on earth? Or become the highest manifestation of a living organism?
If you haven’t already asked these questions, I think the time is now.
Evan Leonard is Vice President of Artisan Electric, Inc., a leading solar energy company shaping Puget Sound’s clean energy future. He has a B.A in Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Wesleyan University and has a M.A. in Environmental Studies. He lives on Vashon Island, WA, with his wife, daughter, and four dogs.
Robyn Landis is a writer, author, activist, artist and communications consultant who specializes in health, environmental, spiritual and social justice topics. She divides her time between Tucson, AZ and Seattle, WA.
Last Modified: December 22, 2018