Is WWII the Right Metaphor for Climate Change?

We celebrated a great victory after defeating the Axis in WWII. The unintended consequences of this victory might be instructive in our response to our current crisis. (Library and Archives Canada)

The narrative of climate change has been capturing more and more attention in the media and politics this year as we see more and more devastating weather effects and significant steps forward on our international response.

We struggle to find good metaphors for talking about it — the scale and complexity of the problem, the risk to our society and planet seem greater than challenges we have faced in the past. The industrial mobilization of America in response to Pearl Harbor and the Nazis has gained some traction lately in capturing the scale and urgency of response we need. The U.S. Democratic National Party Platform this year calls for “a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II.” Yesterday, the New Republic published an essay by leading environmental activist Bill McKibben titled “We Need to Literally Declare War on Climate Change” where he observes that “carbon [dioxide] and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time.”

I contributed directly to the efforts for strong climate language in the Democratic Platform this year, and I have deep respect and admiration for McKibben and his perspective and work. The strength of this rhetoric is completely valid and appropriate, and an adequate response to climate change is one that goes far beyond our society’s conventional approach to problem solving. But I’m afraid that positioning this as one more War (along with the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Cancer) will send us down a very painful path that avoids true healing for our society and our planet.

Carbon dioxide and methane are not some invading force that has descended from outer space to mercilessly heat our globe. Their continual release in the atmosphere is a symptom of our lifestyle — of our addiction to fossil fuels, our continuous disruption and destruction of the ecosystems that act as organs breathing life and renewal into our planet and our own bodies.

In view of these metaphors, I have to wonder: is our obsession with “fighting” greenhouse gas emissions a fundamentally healthy one? When the United States mobilized against the Axis, we certainly did help topple an evil empire and rescue millions of people from some of the most atrocious human rights violations our civilization has ever committed. But did we do much to change the fundamental cycle of violence that generated these conditions in the first place?

Following the Axis, one interpretation might be that we saw the rise of the Soviet Union as a consequence of our strategy, which led to great oppression, fear and suffering for the decades that followed. Mutually Assured Destruction and the Domino Theory later led to the Korean War, Vietnam. Ultimately, the chess game between America and the Soviet Union led to unrest, instability, and the rise of U.S. backed dictators in the Middle East. One story might suggest that this contributed mightily to the rise of “Islamic” terrorism that we’ve been fighting for the past 15 years.

So, what was the long term consequence of our industrial mobilization and aggression in World War II, our commitment to end evil and tyranny at any cost? Is this how we want to think about healing our planet?

Alternatively, what can we learn from a metaphor that views climate change as a consequence of an addiction, or a chronic and eventually fatal disease?

Among my family and close friends, addiction has ruined lives, broken up marriages, led to permanent illness or death. I expect most of us have similar stories they could share. Those I know who have healed and recovered most fully did not see the object of their addiction as a merciless adversary to be defeated. Rather, they recognized that addiction did not occur in their lives in a vacuum. Certainly they worked hard to eliminate their chemical dependence. But they also looked deeper, to see where that initial emptiness was coming from. What life changes were necessary to find fulfillment independent of a chemical crutch?

What can we learn from chronic illness? I hesitate to use this example as it is very sensitive, but it seems the best one. The War on Cancer has generally taken a similar approach to the proposed War on Climate Change: treat the cancer cells as an invader, something to aggressively stamp out and eliminate.

In my experience, the effects of this approach have been at least as bad as the disease itself. My mother survived breast cancer, but the side effects of her treatment was a major factor in bringing my parents to the edge of divorce, and contributed to my several year estrangement from my father. I have witnessed the intense trauma of watching a loved one’s death in a sterile, merciless hospital, surrounded by the pain and struggle of the treatments. And seen how this suffering radiates out through the network of relationships. Chemotherapy and radiation are some of the most inhuman treatments our medical establishment prescribes.

Meanwhile, a significant body of research suggests that deeper lifestyle changes, simple but difficult and inconvenient in our modern society, are the most straightforward methods to dramatically reduce the incidence of chronic disease like cancer. We continue thinking that we can understand and treat the mechanism of the disease. We avoid or ignore the mounting evidence that the deeper culprit is our modern lifestyle, our treatment of our bodies and our planet as a dead, objective resource we can manage and control with the application of scientific formulas and force. Because admitting this would be hard, deeply inconvenient and counter to the narrative our civilization holds most dear. By focusing on the mechanism, we can continue to believe the things we have believed and live the ways that we have lived.

As one of my heroes pointed out recently, the prevailing narrative of climate change tells us that carbon dioxide and methane are the fundamental problem. Taken to the extreme, we might thus conclude that bulldozing the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterflies is justified if we need the space for a solar array. If we accept this accounting without looking deeper, I am very afraid of the unexpected and unintended consequences we will face once we get this greenhouse gas thing under control.