I listened to the recent debate in Montpelier between members of the Ethan Allen Institute and Energy Independent Vermont on whether Vermont should establish a carbon tax. I heard statements on both sides which deserve our consideration. It is unfortunate that the format chosen to discuss the issue was a debate. Debates set up an oppositional environment where the object is to win rather than to delve deeply into an issue of critical concern to all of us. The speakers wound up talking past each other. More importantly, they did not get to the over-arching context in which the debate took place. Once again, thoughtful people wound up exploring the eddies and back water without seeing the huge ocean before us.
They did talk about climate change, with varying degrees of belief that it is a problem. Perhaps, because there was no consensus on the issue, they could not even begin to examine the enormous implications of a climate approaching chaos.
As we debate whether Vermont should institute a carbon tax, whether we should try to continue our consumptive lifestyles by blanketing our mountains and fields with renewable energy devices, let us pause to consider what kind of living makes sense on a finite planet. Let us understand that while changing the way we live and consume will be hard, very hard, a planet whose climate is increasingly chaotic, will make life much harder, and for very many, much shorter.
I do not like to engage in hyperbole and scare tactics, but the moment requires blunt talk.
Nature does not negotiate. Physics and chemistry do not debate; they do not care about our economy, nor do they present us with many options. Either we stop pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere or we do not. If we decide to do nothing, we opt for Miami and Manhattan to be underwater along with scores of other coastal cities around the world; we decide to have the Marshal Islands and other island nations underwater; we opt for spreading deserts and diminished agriculture; we decide to have hundreds of millions of climate refugees on the move, making what is happening today in Europe, with less than a million Syrian and Afghani refugees, look like a stroll in the park.
If we think some technological tinkering will save us, we are engaging in magical thinking. If we insist that business as usual, consumption as usual can go on forever, we are committing collective suicide. And we will be taking down with us most of the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Those of our children and grandchildren and/or great grandchildren who might manage to survive will curse us and our foolish greed.
None of us would sit quietly in the living room while a fire in the kitchen licked at the walls. None of us would put our kids in the car and drive it off a cliff, accelerating as we approached the edge. Yet most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the greatest threat to life on earth which increases everyday. Worse, with gas prices low, many of us once again opt for that SUV and other gas guzzlers, build that 15,000-square-foot house and install that jacuzzi. We make sure our insurance policies are paid up while the capacity of earth to sustain life diminishes. Can we more easily imagine the death of millions, perhaps billions, than we can imagine an economic system not built on ever growing consumption of the natural world?
I support a tax on carbon, especially when the revenue will be returned to taxpayers in the form of lower sales and income taxes, and people struggling with inadequate incomes are held harmless. Additionally, we must include in any such approach to reduce our carbon emissions a plan to help those workers and businesses in the fossil fuel industry most negatively effected. If our representatives in the Legislature are able to achieve that, and do not divert the revenue to other purposes, I think Vermont will be taking a small but important step in the direction of environmental sanity. And if it works for Vermont, as it has in British Columbia, other states might follow.
As some of us enjoy the warm December in these early stages of the climate catastrophe, people around the globe, most in the poorest nations, are already having their lives disrupted, and in some cases shortened, by the floods, droughts and poor harvests, above and beyond the norm, associated with climate change. It is not going to get better, and these disasters will only spread globally if we continue with business as usual. As the climate negotiators in Paris once again fail to agree on meaningful and rapid steps to halt and reverse the damage, all in the name of defending their growth economies, Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic melt, the glaciers disappear, and the deserts grow.
This does not have to be our future; we can still avoid the worse case scenarios of climate change. Together we can overcome our fear, which for many is expressed as denial, and build a society and economy which defends and nurtures the earth, our common home. We can accept the fact that our present way of life will and must change. As imaginative and creative beings, we can actually build a way of life more rewarding even as we reduce much of our material consumption. We can build a life where our highest ideals and greatest values are freely expressed in action; where we join with those we love and our neighbors to make sure that we each have enough to live in dignity. We can build, in the words of Pope Francis, a "culture of care." It will not be easy, we have gone too far down the road, there are powerful interests working to stop any progress toward a sustainable future; great and growing disparities in wealth make changing the status quo almost impossible; there are many human made crises in addition to the climate; we have not learned how to resolve conflict without violence; our economy, culture and the very way we view the world are under the thrall of militarist ideologies of dominance and violent reaction. It will be easy to give in to despair. But despair is a luxury we cannot afford. We must give in to our hope.
Vaclav Havel, late president of the Czech Republic, who had spent many years in prison under the former communist government of Czechoslovakia, said this of hope: "Either we hope or we don't; it's a dimension of the soul. It's an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is the ability to work for something because it is good, not because it has a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense."
Creating a more just world, where we live within the earth's natural capacities to absorb our waste and renew what we use, where every person has the means for a dignified and fulfilling life, with a sense of purpose and meaning, makes sense.
I finish with an extended quote from Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. I recommend everyone, whether or not you have religious faith, to read it as you prepare to face our common future: "Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us."
Earlier generation had to overcome wars, economic hardship, and great injustices. Will we meet the greatest challenge of our times with a spirit of hope and care?