Layers of existential threat

Dear President Trump,

This morning as I headed home near the end of my walk I saw a coyote loping down the street. I’m pretty sure I’ve told you about previous coyotes sightings so the fact of coyotes roaming the streets around here isn’t brand new news. What is new is that this one was incredibly healthy looking. The others were really scrawny and their coats looked awful, but this one looked amazing – strong, filled out, its coat shimmering under the streetlights.

I’m not exactly excited about healthier coyotes moving into the neighborhood, but at least some animals besides crows seem to be doing ok. Did you read the news the other day that migratory birds are shrinking (WP, Ben Guarino, 12/4/19)? Their legs are getting shorter and they weigh less than they did in 1978 when an ornithologist in Chicago started collecting their little bodies after they died from slamming into skyscrapers. There’ve been adjustments over the years to keep so many birds from flying into windows and these mitigation efforts have helped, but there are still enough birds piling up at the bottom of these buildings to look at trends over time and the numbers don’t look good.

Related to all this, last night during a town hall event with college students, Speaker Pelosi talked about climate change as an existential threat. Coming from a psychology background the phrase struck me as an odd framing since in psychology, ‘existential’ usually refers to the idea that we have free will and that we need to create our own meaning, that there’s no pre-determined path or “God-given” meaning to be discovered – we’ve got to make it ourselves. This grew out of existential philosophy, which was concerned chiefly with the

“analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online)

In the course of researching all this a bit I found that ‘existential’ is also used to reference existence and in particular human existence. Thus, it’s accurate that climate change is a major, if not the major, “existential threat” in that it clearly does threaten human existence as we know it.

However, I think that if we consider the more psychological and philosophical aspects of ‘existential,’ we arrive at an even more accurate, and troubling, understanding of climate change and our relationship to it. Yes, it threatens human existence as we know it, but another layer of the existential threat of climate change is that we have free will and we must assume ultimate responsibility for our actions and crucially, we must assume ultimate responsibility for our inactions.

And here’s another, even harder layer – those of us in the West (the US especially), who are the main contributors to global warming, are currently able to deal or not deal with climate change while people in many other parts of the world are facing impacts from climate change that pose threats to their literal existence now. Basically, while we dither about whether it is or it isn’t necessary or a good idea to buckle down and address what, for most of us, is a “tomorrow” threat, we’re making today’s threat much worse for others and significantly compounding their “tomorrow” threat.

If we had a god or somebody on high ordering us to f*cking take care of the planet and we had no choice in the matter, even you would probably buckle down and take care of business. But here we are, left to our own devices (literally), with our own free wills and desires for our own comforts and conveniences even as we know that indulging them is shrinking birds and sinking islands and will eventually come around and bite our children and grandchildren so hard they may wish they were never born. The bottom line is that we aren’t so good at rallying around inconvenient truths for the common good and it will take strong incentives and loving leadership to help us step up and do what most every one of us knows is right. And I pray to whatever is good out there and in all of us that we get some of that kind of leadership soon, before it really is too late.

May we be safe from ourselves.
May we be willing to see beyond our own immediate circumstances.
May we appreciate how everyone and everything’s health is inter-related.
May those of us who need to, make peace with less.

Tracy Simpson

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