On a Sunday night on October 7, the headlines that ran across my computer screen left a sickening feeling in my stomach. “Major climate report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040,” warned the New York Times. “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say,” echoed the Washington Post.
To limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as agreed to as part of the 2015 Paris treaty, the authors of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimated that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to be cut 50 percent by 2030, and entirely by 2050.
At the current rate of annual increases in global CO2 emissions, warned IPCC scientists, the world would pass the 1.5 degree C threshold sometime around 2040, resulting in tens of trillions of dollars in damages, health impacts that include hundreds of millions of people being exposed to extreme heat waves, and the alteration of ecosystems equal to about 13 percent of global land area.
To avoid this future, concluded the scientists, would take a level of societal coordination, economic restructuring and technological innovation never before seen in world history.
The next morning felt to me like the day after the 2016 election. The new report had transformed society’s failures, so obvious yet overlooked for so long, into a reality that left me paralyzed by doubt.
As an academic researcher, I had spent more than a decade in search of answers to why it was so difficult for people to reach agreement about climate change and what it would take to foster cooperation in pursuit of the innovations needed to decarbonize the world economy.
My feelings, however, were more than just despair over society’s failures, but expressions of anguish for my five-year-old son.
By 2050, when he is my age, if scientists’ predictions prove accurate, no matter what humans are able to do over the coming years, the world will be radically transformed.
In a few days, I was scheduled to deliver a lecture at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
I could do the expected and give a dispassionate overview on the hundreds of review articles about climate change communication published in a volume that I had edited, or I could speak out about misguided choices and flawed assumptions in scholarship, advocacy and philanthropy, and dare those gathered to reimagine what was possible.
“For those of us who study climate change politics and communication, and for advocates and philanthropists who have relied on our advice to inform strategy,” I declared at the opening of my talk, “the latest IPCC report is reason for deep introspection about the current state of research and the need for bold, new thinking.”
For years, our scholarship has been motivated by a desire to create a sense of public urgency, believing that intensifying voter pressure on elected officials was the key to policy change.
But in doing so, we had never adequately articulated the conditions by which public mobilization might translate into effective public policy action.
As scholars, our unhealthy obsession with the psychology and communication strategies of “deniers” had also reinforced a bunker mentality among climate advocates that was highly resistant to legitimate criticism or alternative ideas.
The result was a discourse culture, I argued, that substantially reduced opportunities for developing effective policy and technology approaches on climate change that brokered support among not only progressives but also moderates and conservatives.
I had discovered my voice and path forward in this age of deep uncertainty.
EMBRACING YOUR PARTICULAR GIFT
The week of the release of the IPCC report, I happened to be reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the majestic Indian poem, written sometime between the 5th century B.C.E and 1st century C.E.
The Gita is the one book that Gandhi took with him to prison, and among the few that Thoreau carried with him into seclusion at Walden Pond. “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon,” Gandhi wrote, “I run to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me.”
The opening scene of the Gita is a battlefield where two great armies have assembled. Arjuna, a warrior prince, approaches the opposing army in a chariot.
As he surveys his enemies, he recognizes his own kinsmen aligned against him, “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law and friends.”
How did long festering tribal clashes between two warring branches of the same clan come to such a catastrophic climax? How did greed and self-interest seed such tragic chaos?
Arjuna is split in half, rendered paralyzed by self-doubt. His body trembles, his skin burns, his mind reels, and his bow drops from his hands.
Does he charge into battle to prevent his kinsman from usurping the throne, or does he resist the call to commit fratricide?
What follows for the rest of the Bhagavad Gita is a philosophical dialogue in which his chariot driver and beloved friend Krishna (a deity in disguise) teaches Arjuna about overcoming doubt, about action versus inaction, about engaging with rather than withdrawing from the uncertainties of the world.
Doubt in the Gita tradition, as the yoga scholar Stephen Cope describes in The Great Work of Your Life, is not skepticism but a “thought that touches both sides of a dilemma at the same time,” leading to a “paralyzing affliction.”
Last fall, as I read the news of the IPCC report, I faced my own crippling doubt that had been growing inside me for years.
Given the stakes involved on climate change, do I remain a researcher and academic, do I turn to activism or do I become something else?
Revered for centuries, the teachings offered by Krishna in the Gita comprise history’s greatest treatise on finding our dharma, our sacred path in an uncertain world.
Discovering your dharma, involves bringing your most concentrated focus to some deeply compelling activity for which you have a true calling, and which answers the urgency of the times.
It is about embracing your own particular genius and gift, bringing forth your unique point of view and idiosyncratic wisdom.
But pursuing your sacred path, as Krishna counsels, also requires that you give yourself entirely to your work free of the distraction of lesser pursuits, detaching completely from any thoughts of the fruits of your labor.
“Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure” Krishna tells Arjuna.
Clinging to an idealized outcome—doubting for example whether I could truly make a difference on climate change—only brings paralysis. A disturbed mind cannot fully be devoted to the task at hand, to engage rather than retreat from the world.
BECOMING AN INTELLECTUAL
Reading the Gita and pondering Cope’s synthesis of its lessons, I realized that I was already living very close to my dharma and sacred calling.
My path forward in answering the call of the times was in plain sight, I just needed to clear away the noise to recognize it.
For several years, in a series of papers and a forthcoming book, I have been studying with my colleague Declan Fahy the role that a special generation of intellectuals has played in defining for us the meaning of complex social problems, thus becoming among the major theorists and critics of our era.
An intellectual, as we map the argument out, is much more than an expert, academic or popularizer.
In their essays, lectures and books, intellectuals specialize in the lucid synthesis of interdisciplinary research, in drawing connections across events and trends, in challenging conventional thinking, and in advocating on behalf of a cause.
They blend their synthesis, analysis and interpretation with personalization, merging their public and private selves by relating complex ideas to personal anecdotes, realizations, confessionals, and internal conflicts.
Yet as I studied the impact of intellectuals on the climate change debate, in recent years I grew concerned that a particular type of public thinker was disappearing from the scene.
Some intellectuals like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein pursue their dharma as dissidents seeking to upend prevailing institutions and major ideologies, thereby inspiring activists.
In her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein writes that her path as an intellectual has always been focused on winning a “battle of cultural worldviews,” opening up the space for a “full throated debate about values,” telling new stories to “replace the ones that have failed us.”
But for other intellectuals, like former New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin or University of Cambridge geographer Mike Hulme, the path emphasizes that progress on climate change requires critical analysis of our assumptions and beliefs, a goal best reached not through full throated advocacy, but via contemplative engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas.
In this direction, Hulme argues that his most significant contribution is to be an “educator, a facilitator, an agent provocateur.”
When Revkin wrote his pioneering Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, he viewed his role as “‘interrogatory — exploring questions, not giving you my answer … I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues is not being particularly honest.”
But as the business of journalism and publishing over the past decade has prioritized social-media–driven attention over slow thinking, and as climate change has become more urgent and polarized, the type of self-reflective intellectual that Revkin and Hulme embody has become ever more difficult to find.
That week last October, I came to realize that my dharma was to stretch beyond what was comfortable as an academic, to disregard any thought of social acceptance or excommunication from my tribe, and to become the intellectual I believed so strongly was missing from public debate, pursuing a path that was true to myself and my idiosyncratic gifts.
STRIPPING AWAY THE NOISE
I have no delusions of grandiosity or heroism. The Gita teaches us that big is small, writes Stephen Cope. Reaching too high cuts us off us off from our inner greatness.
When we find our calling in the Age of Climate Change, we also have to pursue a path that is right-sized, neither too big nor small.
Right-sized for me is delivering a lecture on this topic last week at the University of Michigan and publishing a version at ScientificAmerican.com.
Right sized for me is consolidating my other writing at Issues in Science and Technology magazine, where I write the monthly “Sciences, Publics, Politics” column.
Right sized for me is devoting my sabbatical year in 2020 to writing a book that explores what it means as an academic to follow your dharma in the Age of Climate Change.
But to recognize our unique path, and to stay the course, takes a special discipline.
It means reserving time and room for deep reflection and focus, accomplished by way of minimalism, solitude and mindfulness.
For academics, turning away every project, every paper, every invitation unrelated to your dharma, will only increase the energy and focus you can bring to your path.
Don’t try to say no to the multitude of lesser opportunities that crowd your life, writes the New York Times’ David Brooks on cultivating the art of focus. “Try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything.”
Achieving this type of “deep work” also requires solitude of mind, concludes Georgetown University’s Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism. Solitude means time spent alone with your thoughts and free from the input from other minds.
Recognizing and curbing the addictive, compulsive behavior you engage in when using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and your smart phone is a first step towards creating more moments of intellectual solitude.
It is impossible to clear away the clutter and discover your true calling, if like the average American, you spend several hours a day on your smart phone swiping, scrolling, skimming, liking, hearting, retweeting, forwarding, and responding to other people’s thoughts, especially if they apply to climate change politics.
When a new IPCC report is released, or the proposed Green New Deal is announced, your first thought in today’s news feed culture of righteousness and “my side” thinking, is not your own but almost inevitably someone else’s.
As William Deresiewicz, the former professor-turned-intellectual, observes about the need for solitude in a world of multi-tasking:
“It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea…And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”
Minimizing the noise of social media is not the only challenge to following your dharma in an Age of Climate Change.
Our universities themselves have become distraction machines, write Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber in The Slow Professor.
The corporatization of universities has turned intellectual life into a constant churn in pursuit of productivity for productivity’s sake.
This has led to an epidemic of paper inflation, where instead of serving as scholars following lines of inquiry that we truly believe to be important and unique to our idiosyncratic gifts, we constantly worry about how many papers we have in the “pipeline.”
Today’s campus culture of grant chasing and publication counting, note Berg and Seeber, is far removed from the need for solitude and contemplation. “To drive oneself as if one were a machine,” should be recognized as a form of self-harm.
If we are to follow our sacred path and respond to the call of the times in an Age of Climate Change, we must battle against a robot way of seeing, thinking, and doing, and reclaim our intellectual lives.
This article is adapted from a lecture delivered Feb. 22, 2019 at the University of Michigan titled “Becoming an Intellectual in an Age of Climate Change.”