judgment day billboardSo, the world did not end on Saturday. Harold Camping’s predicted Judgment Day and “Rapture” failed. I wonder how disappointed his followers are.

I also wonder if this might be a good time for the environmental community to reconsider its use of apocalyptic terms when describing our fears for the future.

There’s no doubt that we face certain peril and that immediate radical action is needed. We find ourselves frustrated by failures in Copenhagen, Cancun, and the Obama administration. And the “Arab Spring” reminds us that we need massive mobilization; we long for our “Cairo moment.”

So, what now?

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I’ve spent two years studying the reasons why we haven’t been more effective on climate change. I have looked at our opposition, and at ourselves. In the light of a long history of failed doomsday forecasts, I think we need to find a more sympathetic and less cataclysmic way to capture the public’s attention.

The opposition is well funded, dishonest, cynical, and divisive. It includes those who deny the science behind climate change, obstruct policy, oppose reasoned public debate, block government action, or preach the gospel of economics as the only basis for life on earth. But, given enough time, these ideas are ultimately doomed because they’re based on a fundamental lie: that humanity is entitled to exploit the earth without regard to consequences.

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In the short term, all they need to do to appear successful, though, is create uncertainty by highlighting the incoherence of data sets, mock anyone who disagrees, and appeal to people at their most limbic level, playing on fears and prejudice. The good news is that they remain a small, although outspoken, minority. They do not deserve much credit, or attention.

In my work so far, I haven’t found any easy answers. Political science, psychology, economics, and religion all give their own reasons why people are not responding to this crisis. The issue itself is fraught with inherent difficulties, and there are systematic challenges that cannot be overcome quickly. Also, it appears that humans are constitutionally incapable of acting on threats that will take place in some uncertain time and manner. Between those obstacles, and the relentless opposition, it’s no wonder we’re worried.

So, let’s go back to basics for some insight. We named ourselves Homo sapiens, meaning we chose wisdom as our defining attribute. That means we as a species have chosen the course of knowledge rather than instinct. We are not Homo economicus, capable only of short term self-interest.

We can, and often do, act for the greater long-term good, as highlighted by two recent books. Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization makes the case for us as capable of great empathy, and Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life makes the case for us acting with compassion.

Watching the painful struggles of the Japanese surviving the triple tragedies of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation taught me something important: that all natural disasters are also social disasters. What that means to the environmental community is that our success will depend on embracing the needs of humanity as well as the larger biosphere. Climate change is about what happens to the earth and to human society. If life on earth is truly about our interconnectedness, our agenda must reflect that value.

There are groups working on social change and sustainability. We do try to understand the relationship of poverty, development, and environmental degradation. But what I am saying is that we must bring basic human rights into the heart of the environmental agenda, once and for all.

Indigenous climate activists are asking for this, but the poster child of climate change is still the polar bear and the ice caps, not the Inuit. I was an observer at the first people-of-color environmental summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, when the principles of environmental justice were adopted. Twenty years on, we are still struggling to actualize this agenda. I don’t see it being implemented by the major national green groups.

So, we need to do two things better: make humanity’s plight an integral part of our understanding of this ecological crisis, and talk about it in ways that ordinary people understand. Ever since Al Gore presented his graphs and charts, environmentalists have been talking about numbers like “parts per million” and using jargon like “greenhouse gases.” That won’t reach everyday people struggling to stay afloat in a world of entertainment and electronic distraction.

But a word of caution: This is not about messaging. It’s about deeply understanding exactly what we are facing. That includes accepting accountability for having caused this mess and the impacts it will have, first and foremost, on the developing world. This is a moral dilemma, not something communications theory can address.

Maybe the reason we have not been able to take this essential step is that we lack leadership and inspiration equal to this task. We do not want the top-down charismatic authoritarian model of leadership. That’s what false prophets like Camping provide, simplistic solutions that avoid taking responsibility.

Instead, I would look to the civil rights movement for a model of leadership. When Martin Luther King was about to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, he was introduced, simply, as “the moral leader of our nation.”

Dr. King’s cause was not just civil rights, it was anti-war, and it included a blazing critique of our economic system. His strategy was based in non-violence, not just in action but in thought and spirit. Had he lived, he would be would be preaching about the planet and about tolerance for diversity in nature and society. He was and still is telling us that our work is really about is learning how to get along with all forms of life on earth.