In my caricature view of humans, we run into the future facing backwards, focused on the past. Naturally, we crash into things we “didn’t see,” or whose signs we ignored or denied along the way. We call these collisions “crises” — heart attacks, job losses, divorces, economic meltdowns, wars, climate change. Facing them now, we muster all the resources we can to survive. Then we celebrate wildly, turn around, and resume running back into the future. As existentialist Soren Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”
The future looks unknown, unsettling and exciting; the past known, lived, and reassuring. Curiously, Torah and Talmud stories give us some indirect advice about how to live on this warming planet, pressured by billions of people and global commerce: Don’t generate poisonous wastes, create localized economies, and conduct your affairs ethically.
It looks easy — but it’s a long haul to achieve. We still organize most of our religions, political systems, corporations and crime syndicates around pyramids of tribalism, theocracy, dictatorship, hierarchy and patriarchy. We base our economies on resource exploitation, market expansion, and concentration and movement of capital. And even though most everything we value is not monetized, i.e., family, health, community, faith, education, clean air, water and soil — we use monetary measures, such as unemployment figures, stock market indexes, and the Gross National Product, to express our general well-being.
We know this must change. The bad news is, we’ve taken about 1.8 billion years to evolve so far, from hunter-gatherer homo ergaster into today’s planet-endangering homo sapiens. We spent our most recent 25,000 years getting from cave painting to written language; 5,000 years from Bronze Age to Space Age; and 2,300 years from Greek democracy to American and French Revolutions. We’re still working on women’s equality.
The good news is it looks as if we’re getting smarter, faster. We have also developed the ability to radically change our behavior and direction, through catalytic events and flashes of insight — ranging from epiphany, falling in love and participating in childbirth, to scientific discovery and catastrophe. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes that humans are distinguished from other species by imagination — their ability “to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be.” But human memories can also misrepresent the past — by emphasizing the most recent and positive moments — and thereby “misimagine the future.” This bit of “human nature” sets up the endless arguments between scientists and deniers of climate change.
Today, Americans are suffering from “Apocalypse Fatigue,” write Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. We’re so weary of catastrophic environmental scenarios that don’t appear to come true, we’ve concluded that the problem is with the science, not our lifestyles. That’s human nature: If we can’t see it, then how do we know it exists?
That’s an ironic question. For nearly 2,000 years, Christianity and Islam have made the imaginary Hell and Paradise so tangible that their adherents change their behaviors to avoid one and achieve the other. And environmentalists appear to be doing the same — selling the paradise of living “green” against the “hell” of dying on an overheated planet. Today, millions of people worldwide are feverishly working to change how we use resources, how we make policy, how we do business. Most of their “fixes” are technical, based on bibles of procedure and policy like ISO 14000, Six Sigma, The Natural Step, carbon and ecological footprinting, life cycle analysis, and whole systems design.
But changing what we do also changes who we are. Our actions often cause us to shift our attitudes in support. Individuals, businesses, and governments are building momentum with their climate change evidence, warnings and corrective actions. We’re also being moved by events and insights: Who hasn’t instantly grasped Earth’s finite nature after seeing photos of our planet taken from space?
The Torah and Talmud divide our world into two parts:
• Olam hazeh (this world), where we currently live and work, and where, if we all do good deeds, repent, and live holy lives, we’ll enter .
• Olam habah (the world to come), where body and soul will be fully integrated, and physical needs, materialism and desire will no longer affect us.
The closer humans grow to resemble beings of olam habah, the less we’ll recognize them, as Cro-Magnons would hardly recognize us. But, the more likely they’ll be to create a healthy planet where their children can live. And yihiyeh tov — it will be for the best.