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Op-ed: Dr. Barry Stephenson

Climate change demands radical transformation

Part of a special series showcasing faculty, staff and students’ commitment to placing the environment at the forefront of  research, public engagement and teaching and learning activities at Memorial.


Responses to climate change generally follow along one of four well-worn (but not worn enough!) tracks.

As individuals, we must change our behaviour. Shutting off the lights, walking more, recycling — there is a long list of practical changes we can make in our day-to-day behaviour.

Living as we do in a social-economic system rooted in consumptive activity, a commitment to a more ecologically friendly way of living requires tremendous acts of will, a pulling up by the bootstraps approach.

Reoriented ethics

Second, we require ethical reflection and, even more to the point, a renewed or reoriented ethics.

Our ethical frameworks have generally ignored questions of rights and responsibilities in relation to other living beings, to say nothing of entire ecosystems or the biosphere.

“Clearly “the market” has proven itself incapable of responding to the tragedy of the commons.”

Third, we must quickly transition off fossil fuels, and new technology holds the hope of meeting our enormous energy demands without the harmful side effects to the environment, as well as mitigating or even reversing the current high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Lastly, clearly “the market” has proven itself incapable of responding to the tragedy of the commons and the growing negative impacts of climate change, a failure that necessitates a range of robust and enforceable laws, policies and regulations to overcome cultural inertia, financially punish the worst polluters and redirect resources and funding in the direction of sustainability.

How to live and work together?

As we continue to travel these four paths, however, there are two significant obstacles we face. The first is that the past generation has witnessed the evisceration of collective life.

The weakening of unions, the collapse of volunteerism, the decline in participation in fraternal organizations and women’s societies, the drop off in church attendance, the disengagement from civics and political life, the selfishness of the “me generation” and, of late, the culture of millennials, which has been described as the “me, me, me generation”— this trajectory away from sociability means that we know longer know how (or even care) to live and work together.

“Climate change demands radical transformation on a collective scale at a moment in social-cultural history characterized by hyper-individualism.”

Co-operation, listening, loyalty, teamwork, acceptance of difference, sensitivity to others, these are skills — virtues even — that require cultivation.

The crux of the matter is that climate change demands radical transformation on a collective scale at a moment in social-cultural history characterized by hyper-individualism, cynicism about social institutions and politics, and, outside of sporting events, the absence of occasions to experience broad-based group identity and solidarity.

Instilling hope

Secondly, studies have noted that the typical response to the disaster data pouring out of the media on the topic of climate change is a moment of horror followed by indifference.

Apocalyptic scale narratives dominate film, literature and scientific predictions, all with the effect of engendering paralysis and fear.

Social scientific studies confirm political theorists such as Ernst Bloch, who argued that the degree of political will in an individual or a community is inversely proportionate to the level of despair: without hope there is no will to act.

Tim Flannery’s recent Atmosphere of Hope (2015), for example, a concise guide to available technologies to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is cast in a spirit of hopefulness.

“We also need to relearn how to live and work together, how to co-operate, and we need a confidence, a trust, that our neighbour, whether around the corner or around the globe, will not abandon us.”

Two necessary dimensions of an adequate response to climate change then are the need to rebuild occasions, institutions and a spirit of collective action, and to instill hope.

We need facts and technology and policies, to be sure, but we also need to relearn how to live and work together, how to co-operate, and we need a confidence, a trust, that our neighbour, whether around the corner or around the globe, will not abandon us — such a trust is the foundation of hope.

Conviviality and mutuality

In this spirit, For a New Earth, the public engagement arm of interdisciplinary research at Memorial University in the area of integral ecology, is engaged in creating community forums and ecological festivals that bring together people from various backgrounds and walks of life around a common set of concerns.

Coupling the latest in scientific knowledge and policy matters with experiential learning, conversation, art, music and performance recasts technical knowledge and skills in an atmosphere of conviviality and mutuality.

To learn more about For a New Earth’s initiatives, join us for a town hall meeting on the theme of Green Economies at St. Bonaventure’s College on Tuesday, Nov. 29, at 7:30 p.m.


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