How can we stop the world from burning?
For many years, I responded to that question as an environmental advocate.
In our fight against climate change, my colleagues and I employ hard-edged tools such as legislation, policy, and litigation—all informed by science and real-world impacts on people and nature.
But as the Anthropocene accelerates and our time runs out to set the world on a more sustainable and equitable course, I have come to recognize that these tools alone cannot change the world fast enough to save it.
Today, I believe that advocates like me must join forces with artists, writers, and musicians whose work reaches millions of people, touches hearts, changes perspectives, and shapes our culture.
I say this because we are in an unusual predicament: The scientific case on climate change is now clear and undeniable. The policy solutions we need are now obvious, and the technology to implement them, largely in hand.
And yet, as escalating climate impacts ravage communities around the world, the largest carbon emitters, including the U.S., have not risen to the occasion to solve the crisis—and the grip of the fossil fuel industry is as tight as ever, pushing us down a path of self-destruction.
Unfortunately, many of us still don’t see the rising cost that climate change is inflicting on people everywhere, or realize that we have the power to alter the course of this unfolding crisis, or grasp that the solutions actually lead to better health, better jobs, and better livelihoods.
Those of us who do accept the reality of climate change nevertheless mostly go about our business as usual, repressing climate anxiety, grief and shame, and ignoring imminent peril.
In other words, many of our attitudes about and responses to climate reside beyond reason, wrapped up in personal psychology, partisanship, and identity politics, impervious to logic and evidence.
Clearly, we need new ways to communicate about the Anthropocene, new perspectives and modes of persuasion that help people see the urgency of our situation, but also that seed hope and inspire action.
I often reflect on a turning point in my children’s worldview. Even when they were quite young, I spoke to them about the environmental challenges we face and the solutions I worked to implement. They listened dutifully, but my wonky monologues fell flat.
Ultimately, the story of the Lorax touched my children’s hearts, awakening them to the environment, igniting their curiosity and passion about protecting our natural world.
Ultimately, a society’s laws and policies change, because the hearts and values of people change. And art, in all its forms, provides a direct route to people’s hearts, regardless of culture or background.
The environmental movement needs artists and writers of every stripe just as much as it needs lawyers, scientists, and activists.
Because we need to reach people on an emotional level. We need to transport them; help them drop their defenses, identify with others who may be very different; open their minds and hearts to new ideas and possibilities; and illuminate the way forward.
Good stories, poems, and essays have always had that power.
This new world we inhabit, the Anthropocene, is hard to fathom. The speed and scale of change are disorienting. The stakes are now too high to ignore. The future of humanity—and all life on Earth—is in our hands. We need to reset our relationship with nature—so that we appreciate it for its intrinsic value, as well as its connection to our health, economy, and communities.
In recent years, progressive organizations of all kinds have come closer together, realizing that the problems we work to solve intersect and compound. Collaboration increases our odds of success.
The same is true across disciplines: poets and scientists, essayists and environmental lawyers, storytellers and policy experts. Working together, we stand a better chance of steering away from catastrophe in the Anthropocene and toward the light.
Manish Bapna is the president and CEO of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). NRDC is the generous sponsor of Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue, for which this essay was the preface.