Getting a bird’s eye view of the globe.

Photo: Marcelo da Mota Silva.

The commonplace view of the earth from an airplane at 35,000 feet — a vista that would have astounded Dickens or Darwin — can be instructive when we contemplate the fate of our earth. We see faintly, or imagine we can, the spherical curve of the horizon and, by extrapolation, sense how far we would have to travel to circumnavigate, and how tiny we are in relation to this home suspended in sterile space. When we cross the Canadian northern territories en route to the American West Coast, or the Norwegian littoral, or the interior of Brazil, we are heartened to see that such vast empty spaces still exist — two hours might pass, and not a single road or track in view.

But also large and growing larger is the great rim of grime — as though detached from an unwashed bathtub — that hangs in the air as we head across the Alps into northern Italy, or the Thames basin, or Mexico City, Los Angeles, Beijing — the list is long and growing. These giant concrete stains laced with steel, those catheters of ceaseless traffic filing toward the horizon — the natural world can only shrink before them.

The sheer pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of our desires and needs, appear unstoppable and are generating a heat — the hot breath of our civilization — whose effects we comprehend only hazily. The misanthropic traveler, gazing down from his wondrous, and wondrously dirty, machine, is bound to ask whether the earth might not be better off without us.

How can we ever begin to restrain ourselves? We appear, at this distance, like a successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a fruit. Can we agree among ourselves? We are a clever but quarrelsome species — in our public discourses we can sound like a rookery in full throat. In our cleverness we are just beginning to understand that the earth — considered as a total system of organisms, environments, climates, and solar radiation, each reciprocally shaping the other through hundreds of millions of years — is perhaps as complex as the human brain; as yet we understand only a little of that brain, or of the home in which it evolved.

Despite that near ignorance, or perhaps because of it, reports from a range of scientific disciplines are telling us with certainty that we are making a mess of the earth, we are fouling our nest, and we have to act decisively and against our immediate inclinations. For we tend to be superstitious, hierarchical, and self-interested, just when the moment requires us to be rational, even-handed, and altruistic. We are shaped by our history and biology to frame our plans within the short term, within the scale of a single lifetime; and in democracies, governments and electorates collude in an even tighter cycle of promise and gratification. Now we are asked to address the well-being of unborn individuals we will never meet and who, contrary to the usual terms of human interaction, will not be returning the favor.

To concentrate our minds, we have historical examples of civilizations that have collapsed through environmental degradation — the Sumerian, the Indus Valley, Easter Island. They extravagantly feasted on vital natural resources and died. Those were test-tube cases, locally confined; now, increasingly, we are one, and we are informed — reliably or not — that it is the whole laboratory, the whole glorious human experiment, that is at risk.

And what do we have on our side to avert that risk? Against all our deficits, certainly a talent for cooperation; we can take comfort from the memory of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty (1963), made at a time of hostility and mutual suspicion between the Cold War superpowers. More recently, the discovery of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere and worldwide agreement to ban CFC production should also give us heart. Secondly, globalization has not only unified economies, it has focused global opinion to put pressure on governments to take action.

But above all, we have our rationality, which finds its highest expression and formalization in good science. The adjective is important. We need accurate representations of the state of the earth. The environmental movement has been let down by dire predictions, “scientifically” based, which over the past two or three decades have proved spectacularly wrong. Of itself, this does not invalidate dire scientific predictions now, but it makes the case for skepticism — one of the engines of good science. We need not only reliable data, but their expression in the rigorous use of statistics.

Well-meaning intellectual movements, from communism to post-structuralism, have a poor history of absorbing inconvenient data or challenges to fundamental precepts. We should not ignore or suppress good indicators on the environment — and there are quite a few — simply because they do not make the advocate’s case. It is tempting to embrace with enthusiasm the latest bleak scenario because it fits our mood. But we should be asking, or expecting others to ask, for the provenance of the data, the assumptions fed into the computer model, the response of the peer-review community, and so on. Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. It would be self-defeating, if the environmental movement degenerated into a religion of gloomy faith. (Faith, ungrounded certainty, is no virtue.) It was good science, not good intentions, that identified the ozone problem, and it led, fairly promptly, to good policy.

The wide view from the airplane suggests that whatever our environmental problems are, they will have to be dealt with by international laws. No single nation is going to restrain its industries while its neighbors’ are unfettered. Here too, an enlightened globalization might be of use. And good international law might need to use not our virtues, but our weaknesses (greed, self-interest) to lever a cleaner environment; in this respect, the newly devised market in carbon trading was a crafty first move.

The climate change debate is hedged by uncertainties. Can we avoid what is coming at us, or is there nothing much coming at all? Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the end? We need to talk.

© Ian McEwan, 2005. This piece first appeared on openDemocracy.net, where you can go to respond to this article and take part in a global debate on the politics of climate change.