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Boston Globe, April 16, 2007

New thinking to save the earth

By James Carroll

THIS WEEK, spring fever takes the form of the fever pitch to which concern over global warming is rising. Last Saturday was the National Day of Climate Action, a campaign organized by writer Bill McKibben, aimed at getting Congress to "step it up" and cut US carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Next Sunday is Earth Day -- part festival and part political demonstration, always a call to action for the environment.

The urgency of such events comes from recent scientific reports that make impending ecological catastrophes more vivid than ever. Nations and municipalities must begin now to plan for effects on drinking water, sea levels, toxins, and various social dislocations that already seem inevitable. Not even the Bush administration any longer argues that climate change is a minor issue, unrelated to human activity.

As individuals, we set about collecting batteries, recycling cellphones, buying energy-efficient light bulbs, choosing paper instead of plastic, not topping off the gas tank, supporting wind power, picking up after the dog with biodegradable baggies, writing to Congress, sorting the trash into yet more categories, investing in eco-responsible companies -- always looking for ways to reduce the newly named "carbon footprint."

Such adjustments can seem like nuisances at one end or monumental challenges at the other, but behavioral responses to potential ecological disaster are the easy part. Far more challenging is the task of revising the way we think about basic aspects of how we live. If the earth is to survive as a human habitat the meaning of subjects like these must be transformed:

Nature. We Americans, speaking generally, see a gulf between ourselves and "nature." From created worlds of concrete, we make occasional forays into given realms of trees, rock, sand, or sea. We go "back to nature" as if we left it behind when, say, we put clothes on or built cities. But this sense of detachment allows us to imagine we can trash nature without trashing ourselves. Conversely, nature's mechanism for saving itself includes human ingenuity. We humans are not above nature or apart from it. We are of nature.

Nation. A 19th-century notion of national sovereignty allows sub groups to pursue agendas without regard for their effects on the whole. But this wrongly assumes that the health of the whole is a matter of indifference to the group. The United States has long refused to temper its claim to radical independence from all other nations, but that both defines the source of America's disproportionate ecological destructiveness and impedes every effort to mitigate it. There will be no stopping environmental degradation until nations stop thinking of independent sovereignty as an absolute. Climate change respects no borders.

Property. In America, where full citizenship was originally granted only to property owners, we are what we have. The pursuit of happiness equals the accumulation of possessions. This cult of "more" drives an economy that defines its health by growth, its market by the globe. In families, the success of a second generation is defined only by its surpassing in affluence the first. This merciless consumption divides people into "haves," "the have less," and "have nots," but it also eats the environment alive. Sufficiency, simplicity, and a sense that the treasures of the earth are the property of all people must become notes of the new America.

Power. Once, this nation took for granted that its power in the world depended on the sway of the American idea -- liberal democracy, freedom, opportunity, equality. But in the middle of the 20th century that changed, a move away from influence to imposition. Power came from an arsenal, and ultimate power from a nuclear arsenal. Today's Pentagon budget is at Cold War levels without the Cold War because we Americans no longer believe in the power of our own idea. But military power is an illusion, as Iraq shows, like Vietnam before it. Resisting populations cannot finally be coerced, only killed. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons still threaten the environment more than anything.

Global warming can prompt a terrible fatalism, as if forecast catastrophes are certain to befall the planet. But the future is not an extension through time of what is already perceived. That's the point of revised thinking about everything from nature to power, since history shows that thought is the soul of creativity, and therefore of creation. Human choices brought the earth to this brink of ultimate harm, and human choices, informed by changed ideas, can rescue it.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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