Excerpted from the book “What we think about when we try not to think about global warming” by Per Espen Stoknes, Norwegian psychologist/economist.
Note: The punctuation and paragraphing has been edited to increase the impact of Stoknes’ words and do not adhere to the standard rules for punctuation & paragraphing.
Listening for the next 10 minutes can transform your relationship to our planet and to the very air that you and I breathe. This photo of planet Earth in a jar represents what I’ll be talking about.
My name is Randy McNamara. I’m a Mission Realization Coach. I coach the leaders of 30 corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations who are committed to reducing human contributions to global warming.
During my research I came across a book by Norwegian psychologist/economist Per Espen Stoknes entitled “What we think about when we try not to think about global warming.” One chapter he calls “The Beingness of Air”. I propose that this section is a natural bridge between conservatives and liberals . . . industrialists and environmentalists . . . corporations and non-profits . . . people who understand the science of global warming and people who think that global warming is a complete hoax.
I invite you to listen and cross the bridge!
Too focused on our daily busyness — the thinking and doing parts of our lives — we’ve grown oblivious to the air — how we condition it . . . how we breathe it . . . and how it breathes us.
As philosopher David Abram says, “What is climate change if not a consequence of failing to respect or even to notice the elemental medium in which we are immersed?” Is not global warming … or, rather, global weirding … or even global burning … an unintended consequence of taking the air for granted? Tackling this spreading crisis is about technical, economic, political and strategic considerations for sure. But more fundamentally, we also need to deepen our view into being and beauty …ethics … and aesthetics. With the frantic tilts and sways of global weirding at hand, we will be forced and humbled into rethinking humanity’s relationship with more than human nature and with the wild air itself. In the climate crisis, the air is making itself felt … troubling us …and thus increasingly coming to our attention again and again and again.
Only occasionally … when the foul local smells of untreated pipe emissions from a large plant … the stench of city sewage … dust storms …the smoke from forest fires … or the smog of a great city attacks our eyes and noses do we suffer the air’s condition, and turn — not to the air itself, but to local technical solutions. Economists turn to what is called the Kuznets Curve, a “law” that says as countries get richer they eventually reduce pollution. They will gradually be able to afford filters that remove the particles. Or they’ll move polluting industries farther away … or build higher smokestacks that spread the pollution farther.
The idea is:
Use nature to get rich first … deal with the emissions later.
But the gaseous emissions that cause global warming are not like the smoke and other particulate matter that becomes what we call air pollution … with deeper and longer-lasting impacts. The gaseous emissions that cause global warming spread stealthily and invisibly to become part of air itself and change our very existence now and for centuries to come.
It may be worth taking a step back and asking ourselves:
“What is the air? What is this gaseous bubble that envelops every one of us … this lively system that we are a part of?”
When speaking of the atmosphere in the climate change discourse, we tend to think of it as something out there … or up there. It is a mix of molecules. In this mix there are nitrogen … oxygen … a little argon … and the now infamous carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The following is the primary scientific framing around our climate discourse:
The air is a mix of gases … each with certain physical and chemical characteristics.
This way of understanding the air arose with the chemical revolution following the Enlightenment period of 1789 to 1830.
BUT … to our breathing bodies … the air is much more than just a mix of molecules passively floating around with energy input from the sun interacting with ocean and cold space. We have long viewed the air only through the chemical reductionist view.
It is now time to consider other ways of seeing … feeling … and relating to the air.
First … we can imagine the air as the earth’s skin. It is amazingly thin compared with the size of the planet and the vast cosmos it shields us from … just a fine, flimsy film. The breathable air is only about 5-7 miles thick … a fragile wrapping around a massive green, blue and white ball spinning at 1,000 miles per hour in near emptiness. On a clear night we look right through it. It is far thinner than the skin of an apple when compared with the earth’s diameter. Underneath that very thin skin lies ocean and rock … and upon the rock is a wee bit of soil and greenery. Yet, inside this unsettled, fluctuating film … between a rock and a hard place … all of life is protected and nourished. This air stops destructive cosmic rays that would otherwise destroy our skin and our fragile proteins and genes. This air insulates and regulates temperatures in a range that is suitable for water and life.
Mediating between blue ocean and black eternity … this air carries all of the billions of tons of water in the clouds needed to replenish the soils. It fills the rivers …stirs the waters … drives the waves and ocean currents.
How can we speak differently about this air?
It’s not just “the climate” … or “the atmosphere” …an object out there.
Imagine we move in slowly from deep, deep, deep outer” space.
You could then imagine the air as a gradual thickening of Nothingness into Being. It is a mercurial borderland where absolute emptiness transitions into a huge but thin gas bubble hosting a mingling of cosmic plasma with liquid water and solid earth.
But, where does the air stop?
It’s not just out there … far up above us. It is also inside us. It impacts us here and now. It literally fills my lungs, and yours, too, from your first breath to your very last. Its elements travel in our blood before returning through the alveoli in our lungs to the outside. The air fills all the pores of our skin. Yet the air isn’t just what we breathe into our lungs … briefly visiting us before we exhale it. It is also our primary link to the world. The air fully envelops us … from the soles of our feet … to each hair on the top of our head … from the day we draw our first breath to beyond our death. The air holds us gently with a benign embrace without which our bodies would fall apart.
To be born is to enter the air. To be is to be in air.
We human beings have altered the composition of this air in which we exist without thinking much about the outcomes.
The air that you are now breathing through your nostrils … the air through which you at this very moment gaze at everyone you love and everything in the world … has been dramatically altered by us human beings to a composition it hasn’t seen in 3 million years.
Footnote to the Stoknes Quotation
Imagine this family is your family . . . or this is your son or daughter’s family and this is your grandchild.
Sociologists speak of something they call “the social commons,” the resources that benefit every human being on the planet.
Take a deep, deep breath. Take another one. The air you and I breath is the fundamental “commons” that no person, corporation, or nation should have the right to pollute. Yet the principles of capitalism artificially designate the pollution of the air as as “externality,” a consequence of business activities which corporations do not have to take into account as a cost of doing business. Governments attempt to regulate the impact of “externalities” by establishing policies and regulations which, in almost all cases, merely mitigate the impact.
The real . . . live . . . in-the-world . . . physical impact of these “externalities” that pollute the social commons of the air we breathe gets lodged in the lungs of every one of us throughout the world no matter if you are rich or poor, young or old,
Whether you profoundly believe what climate scientists are telling us about human contributions to climate change or you believe climate change is a hoax, doesn’t it make total sense to do everything possible to CLEAN THE AIR in which we live and breathe????????????????????????????????