According to NASA, the first half of 2016 was “the planet’s warmest half-year on record.” The warmest previous years were 2015 and 2014. The Earth’s atmosphere is more than 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Polar ice is melting. Sea level is nearly 3 inches higher than 25 years ago.
And yet we go about our business, unable or unwilling to change our collision course with climate calamity.
Some are in denial. Donald Trump has described climate change as “expletive.” He has claimed that it is a hoax foisted upon the world by the Chinese. His running mate Mike Pence has called climate change a myth. Trump wants to cancel the recent Paris climate agreement.
Others admit the climate crisis, while imagining high-tech solutions. At the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton declared, “I believe in science.” She said, “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”
Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.
Ancient sages teach that happiness and virtue are found in restraint and self-control. Desire is a flame that easily burns out of control. Materialism distracts us from higher goods. Tranquility and joy are found in peaceful harmony.
The Buddhists aimed to control desire. The Taoists sought harmony in simplicity. Jesus warned against greed and wealth. And the ancient Greeks praised modesty, moderation and temperance.
But we crave the goods of carbon culture: cars, planes and cheap plastic goods. We like air-conditioned houses, stocked refrigerators and weekend getaways. Billions of poor people dream of joining the American middle class in our relentless pursuit of happiness.
I thought about this as I watched shooting stars blaze across the sky on a recent night in the Sierra. The stars were amazing. So too is our hubris and hypocrisy. I spewed carbon on my drive to the mountains, contributing to the climate crisis.
Such is our predicament. Our daily choices contribute to the problem. It is difficult to imagine living otherwise. The habits of affluence fuel our economy and inflame our desires.
Something’s got to give. Or we’ve got to give something up.
One interesting suggestion comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has become a spokesman for meat-free meals as a cure for climate change. In a public service announcement he says, “less meat, less heat, more life.”
Schwarzenegger’s advertisement was made to support the Chinese government in its plan to reduce meat consumption as a response to climate change. Meat consumption creates more carbon emissions than a plant-based diet. Locally grown foods also produce fewer emissions.
All of our consumption habits have environmental impacts. Coffee is shipped across the globe. Coffee culture creates vast piles of disposable cups. Beer and soda also have an impact. Energy is used to refrigerate and transport it. There are ecological costs in manufacturing and recycling cans and bottles.
Even our hygiene habits have climate impacts. Hot showers produce carbon emissions. So do our hair and clothes dryers. And so on.
A climate-friendly life would be simple. We would take fewer showers, air-dry our clothes, take few long trips, and rarely eat meat. We would walk or bike to work, drink mostly water, and generally curtail consumption.
This is how most people lived before electricity and fossil fuels. The nights were darker then. The stars provided entertainment and inspiration. We rarely see those stars today.
A simple life is unimaginable in the era of unrepentant indulgence. Our lights and gizmos blaze at all hours. There is no space for silence or stargazing.
Studying the ancients reminds us of the value of simplicity. Of course we need science. But we also need to understand that burning carbon cannot create virtue or happiness.
It’s a hopeful sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become an advocate for climate-friendly behavior. If Conan the Barbarian is giving up meat, what are you willing to do to cool the planet and simplify your life?