What Comes to Mind When Every Summer Is a Record Breaker- Tinig ni Agustin Martin G. Rodriguez

May 27, 2019

Ours is a wonderful and fearful time. Perhaps it is one of the most wondrous times in human history—a time of opulence and security unimaginable only a century ago. People have never lived with so much to feed their needs and stimulate their wants. As Harari points out in his book, Homo Deus,[1] ours is a time when deaths from overeating far outweigh deaths from starvation and famine, when deaths from suicide outweigh deaths from human violence or war. Although there are situations like those in Syria and South Sudan where the tragic loss of life is alarming and sustained, such situations are no longer our normal. The poverty of sustenance (or what Harari calls biological poverty) and basic needs can already be eliminated if our systems of resource distribution are made just. The levels of production we are capable of realizing can ensure that all of humanity is fed and kept healthy.
However, ours is also the most fearful of times. For the first time, humanity faces the possibility of extinction—a mess we got ourselves into with clever but shortsighted solutions to the survival challenges we have faced. We already feel the effects of what global warming has brought: Yolanda, Ondoy, the annual record-breaking heat waves, and this year’s water crisis in the northern and eastern parts of the NCR may not have been directly or primarily caused by global warming, but they are portents of the new normal in the next few decades. People can debate about it as much as they like, but human beings have caused the world to heat up like this, and this heating will lead to the rising of seas and the loss of coastal areas, the lengthening and strengthening of El Niño episodes causing crop failures and severe droughts, and the wilding of storms that will bring worse disasters than Yolanda. And these are just a few of the favorite things people talk about when they talk about global warming. We should also mention massive species extinction, mass human migrations and conflicts, alternating periods of flooding and drought, and the massive number of deaths that will accompany the effects of this warming. And we still haven’t talked about the crises brought about by pollution, over-extraction, and today’s subtler systems of global human exploitation.

Despite the dire situation we face, we are uniquely positioned. The Aztecs and the inhabitants of Easter Island were probably clueless about the world-ending destruction that their own environmental crises would bring. On the other hand, contemporary humanity is, to some extent, aware of the impending disaster. We can still choose to act in ways that will ensure our survival. Despite the fact that global warming is certainly coming with all its promised sorrows, these sorrows may be abated and the tragedies made less tragic, if we act promptly. Yet we fail to act accordingly.

Our failure to act is rooted in the lack of a collective will fired by our collective imaginations. Climate change is difficult to perceive. You can feel it in the fact that every summer breaks some heat record, but it becomes hard to imagine that the Tacloban storm surge and the migration crisis in Europe are related. It takes the collective efforts of a community of scientists, farmers, social scientists, fisherfolk, poets, indigenous shamans, and philosophers, as well as thousands of computers, to paint us a picture of a world where the ice caps and glaciers are melting, the seas are rising, species are irretrievably lost, and potable water is harder to come by because of human agency. It takes the imaginations of people cooperating to create a picture of climate change for the rest of humanity to see. And it’s not enough to just see this picture. We need to be convinced about how bad it is going to be and that it is worth sacrificing present affluence for future survival. But no matter how difficult it is to come to a collective will and opinion about the world’s woes, we have no choice but to get our act together.

Ironically, in our quest to let our species flourish, we built cultures, economies, and systems of mass destructiveness. Factory farming, colonization, global free trade, and mass transport systems were supposed to make our lives easier—and to some extend they did—if one does not consider global poverty and mass exploitation, the malaise of urbanization, and the contemporary obsession with growth that keeps us dissatisfied. Every step toward the Anthropocene may not have been planned, but now that we are here, we ought to know what we have done, what we may face, and what we have to do. But not everyone knows what is going on, and we have to come to a collective understanding and agreement of our shared situation and how we should proceed as a species to save ourselves and our nest.

More than ever, we must act with one will to realize the shared good. This means that there should be an arena where we can come together and bring our experiences and insights into our evolving reality as a species driving itself to its possible extinction. We need a shared sphere where we can bring to play our convergent and conflicting understandings of who and what we want to be. And in these spheres, we need leaders who will facilitate consensus. We need facilitators who will help us articulate—as a community of people that desires to rectify our destructiveness—a better way of being in the world with others. But along with that, we need facilitators who can gather us to act on what we can agree on as problems requiring urgent action.

It is clear that we need to rethink our growth-based, consumption-driven economies. We need to consume less, pollute less, travel less, eat less meat, and eat food that we can produce more sustainably. These are things we need to do today to be able to keep the earth’s temperature at a level where all life is not extremely threatened. We need to be convinced that these are necessary, that they are urgent, and it is worth reimagining our conceptions of a good life and a good society to save our future. We need facilitators who will guide us to become these people.

Given the urgency of decisive, collective, and radical action, it is tempting to succumb to the worldwide turn toward tyranny. Imagine a more enlightened, not-too-crazy Digong whose mind is fixed on the war for sustainability and climate stabilization. Such a leader could impose carbon caps, shut down businesses that do not comply, and set strict limits to meat consumption, as well as other habits that are costly to the environment. But as we see with the war on drugs, and the insanity of Trump and his friends, tyrants only offer temporary solutions that do not mobilize people to address the radical roots of problems and realize the necessary changes that need to come from within. All they can paint are imaginary monsters for people to shoot at. This is why the world is so fixated on radical, right wing dictators. Dictators make us feel that problems are simple and that they can be solved without our active participation, with only our support and cheers and perhaps our vote.

But more complex problems that require more comprehensive responses and sustained collective action need a community of people (in our case, a global community) that thinks things through together, that builds a shared conception of the good—and acts to realize it. To do that, we need facilitators of discourse who can help us see, who are open to seeing, and who can inspire us to act together on what ought to be.

Who will facilitate our collective imagining and dreaming of a better world peopled by a better humanity? Whoever they are, they cannot come from the current crop of hardhearted hatemongers to whom the world is now turning in our moment of crisis. We need leaders of hope who have the imagination of poets, the interdisciplinary intellects of dreamers and inventors, the communication skills of the great orators, and the inspiring presence of prophets. Maybe there is no one person like that. Maybe we need to build a community of servant-leaders who can facilitate the global discourse of civilization-building at the end of life as we know it—and at the birth of a world we have yet to imagine. 

The view expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of School of Humanities or the Ateneo de Manila University.  

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015), Chapter 1.