“Apart from neuroscientists, no one makes more use of the first person plural than the authors of books on climate change and other topical environmental questions. ‘We’ have caused this or that; ‘we’ must stop doing such and such if ‘our’ world is to be saved. But no one knows who lies behind this ‘we’.”
Harald Welzer, Climate Wars: What People Will Be Killed For in the 21st Century
We’ve all got ’em, brains. We all live in ’em, climates.
We know they’re there — even if we’re not particularly good at taking note of either one of them, brains or climates — but that’s just because of the way the first one’s built. We have these organs that remember whole personal histories and inject them with feelings of intent; organs that make us whisper to ourselves again and again, “I am more than matter.” We have these organs that conjure up minds and preferences; organs that break down time into manageable chunks: chunks that make it difficult to care about a changing climate when a climate changes on the scale of centuries.
We certainly aren’t wired up to suspect that environmental change might have anything to do with our behavior or with our mental health or our cognitive abilities or the physical health of our cortex. We’d have to concede some control for that to be the case — or rather, admit that we never really controlled as much as we thought we did in the first place. We’d have to admit that we are not more than matter.
We rather like control, though, and predictability, imagining we’re the ones steering the ship, believing in something called free will. “We are born believing.” We’re uncomfortable blurring the line between body and environment; considering these things as somehow less distinct. We have these organs that have convinced us that the skin and the skull are more or less unbreachable borders when it comes to the mind.
We will, sooner or later, have to admit that the story’s more complicated than that. We have evidence of these complications, and the evidence continues to mount.
We’ve all felt or borne witness to some sense of anger or violence or aggression, but it turns out, for example, that we’re more likely to do so on a hot day. We already know this to be true in some capacity — know that with upticks in temperature can come hot-headedness — but now economists have the statistics to indict the climate’s action on the brain and forecast the cost of their capricious encounters.
We can grow deeply attached to place — so much so that the destruction of the outside can scar us on the inside. We’ve already known this to a certain extent, too, but we haven’t always admitted that the scars are serious enough to be deemed clinical.
We have these organs, nothing short of miraculous, capable of projecting abstract thought and reason and problem-solving; they’re just not quite as good at it during a heat wave or given higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. We can’t help it, and neither can the brains.
We age with grace, except when the smokestacks convince our cortices to do otherwise.
‘We’ who? “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.”
We know that quote to be true, too, but often we fool ourselves into believing it isn’t. We figured out how that fire thing worked long ago, and then we figured out that we could burn a whole lot of stuff with it. We just never really suspected that the flames might touch us, too; that the smoke might choke us out. We are stubborn. We thought the climate was static: background noise. “We did not think it could change.”
We can, however, recognize that it does change, that we can change it, and that it, in turn, can change us. We are not so much missing an emotional account of climate change and environmental degradation as we are missing this account’s internalization — the kind of internalization that comes not just with the loss of predictability and the forests and the oceans and the mountaintops, but with the realization that we might be burning up a bit more of our selves, too. We can use this account to drag climate change into the present.
We can also choose to excavate a certain level of ‘we’. We can put in the work and drill out the nuggets of commonality that the neuroscientists and the climatologists keep telling us are down there. We can dig. We can exhume, we can weigh, and we can decide that ounce for ounce, these treasures are worth more than coal.
More stories in this series:
Grist video explains the link between spikes in heat and spikes in violence.
Grist chats with writer and neuropsychologist Aaron Reuben about dirty air, brain disease, and environmental justice.
Have you been studying?
Get Grist in your inbox