Last week, National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen published an article in The New Yorker despairing for our future world. Two days ago, at a bookstore I listened to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer make the case that the best individual action anyone could take against climate change right now was to become vegan. Last night, teenage activist Greta Thunberg shouted her pain at the lack of response to our climate crisis by adults before the United Nations. This morning, I drank coffee while Paul McCartney sang “Despite Repeated Warnings” about a ship’s captain who refuses to see what’s in front of him.
Lately, the artists and children have been speaking about our future in a way that the scientists and science writers haven’t been able to express. Despite decades of trying, we have not made ourselves understood.
When I was interviewed by NPR about my popular-science book Spineless last year, I was asked, “Are jellyfish a canary in the coal mine?” I riled at the metaphor, seeing it as crass and sensationalist, trying to summarize years of research into a few words. I asked the reporter to use a different description.
But now, after steeping myself in coral science for the better part of a year working on my next book, I recognize that the canaries had already died and I had just refused to say it out loud. I wanted to keep working in the mine of my everyday life, living as I had been. I didn’t want to be the one to set off alarms about the air filling with polluting gas. Now I know the yellow-feathered carcasses are strewn everywhere.
The only question left is: will we find the exit?
If I believed in an external god or gods, I’d say that they had created this problem to test humanity in the most difficult way possible. Climate change is a trial of our ability to do the two things that we humans find hardest: to cooperate and to quench our selfishness. Let’s see how they handle this one, I imagine them scheming high above in heaven or on Mount Olympus.
Jonathan Safran Foer said that climate change is a hard story to tell because it has a slow moving plot and few good characters. But it is a perfect moral problem: the kind of problem faced by Eve, by Noah, by Adam, by Odysseus, by Hamlet, the list goes on. Do I heed the warning, or do I do as I want? Do I accept the call, or ignore it and continue with life as it was? Do I respond to the greater good, or not?
When I was young, my grandfather used to tell me Old Testament stories. One of my favorites was the Tower of Babel: A long time ago, in a place called Babel that no longer exists, the people decided to build a tower to the clouds in order to be closer to the divine. They began working, constructing a foundation, a first floor, and a second and a third. Together, the people of Babel built a structure that rose higher than the trees, higher than the hillsides, upward and upward.
God looked down saw a rising tower. What hubris, he thought, to imagine that the people believe they can find me in the clouds. So what did God do? Did God throw a tantrum in the form of a hurricane? Did he pummel them with hailstones? No, God did something much more clever and decisive.
God unleashed the languages of the world on the people. All of a sudden a builder asking his neighbor for a hammer couldn’t be understood. A man needing nails was answered with a quizzical look. No one could communicate with each other. Misunderstanding erupted. Fights broke out. The tower was abandoned.
Our world feels overwhelmed by misunderstanding.
Monday morning driving my daughter to school, I told her that a letter to the editor that I wrote was published in our local newspaper. She read it on my phone while we stopped at a red light.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“You sound mad,” she said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Mad in a good way,” she said.
“Actually,” I answered. “That makes me feel proud.”
I don’t believe in an external god controlling our actions or behaviors. I believe that divinity emerges from us as a collective. For me, that kind of divinity is the ultimate creator of humanity’s greatest achievements: love, joy, and connection. That divinity is also the creator of humanity’s greatest failures: war, corruption, and, urgently, climate change.
So to me we are, in fact, the gods who created this greatest of challenges before us. We have tasked ourselves with the ultimate test of our own humanity. If we succeed, we get to keep our earth. If we fail, we lose our future.
Solving climate change doesn’t just mean just asking for the hammer or the nails to build one more level higher. It means overcoming the barriers of scientific language the way that the artists and children are, so that everyone can understand what’s at stake. It means screwing up our courage and saying what we know when we know it. It means admitting when we are mad that we waited too long. It means using anger to connect rather than avoid. It means resisting the urge to fight and tell the truth instead. The only way to buck the curse of the Tower of Babel is to keep trying to figure out a way to talk to each other.
The one thing I know for certain: no one is going to find the exit alone.