Skip to main content

Humanists: Climate change not as scary as it should be

Climate change is the greatest crisis ever facing human beings, said Karen Pinkus, Cornell professor of Romance studies and comparative literature, at "Climate Change, Critical Thought, Design," a forum she organized Nov. 11 at the A.D. White House. The event provided an opportunity for humanists and scientists to discuss and examine issues and implications around climate change.

The critical thought offered by humanists is valuable and absolutely necessary to the issue of climate change, Pinkus said in her introduction. "The issue of fossil fuels is profoundly tied to how human beings tell stories about their relationship to the earth. As long as we think of any diminution in technology as a step backwards for the human, we will find only partial solutions that will fail to stem the catastrophe."

Richard Klein, professor of Romance studies, recalled a 1984 conference on the dire implications for culture of total nuclear war. With the end of the Cold War such a scenario seems less likely, but Klein suggested its replacement with the prospect of environmental disaster. Though as Michael Palm of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pointed out, unlike a nuclear winter, climate change is a natural process that humans are intensifying and altering, rather than a single, unthinkable moment.

Allan Stoekl of Pennsylvania State University said theories of sustainability rely on the ability to calculate our ecological footprint accurately, yet they don't take actual resource costs into account. For example, the real cost of a gallon of gasoline includes the cost of road degradation, the effects on climate of burning the gas, the military costs of preserving a world order that enables us to acquire gas cheaply, etc. "And how do you calculate the cost of storing nuclear waste for 10,000 years?" he asked.

"Entire disciplines like economics ignore the finitude of resources," Stoekl continued. "How long can the earth sustain 7 billion people, and how much are we willing to sacrifice now for a better result down the road? It quickly stops being an economic consideration and becomes a moral consideration."

In a discussion about Occupy Wall Street, Pinkus complained that the movement virtually ignores the radical shifts in social, economic and political life caused by climate change. Others at the forum disagreed, pointing out that the camps themselves can be considered models of sustainability. Cameron Tonkinwise of Parsons The New School for Design emphasized the positive consequences for sustainability if the movement's demands to reorganize production and distribution are achieved.

Can Dalyan, a Cornell graduate student in the field of anthropology, described efforts to preserve biodiversity through seed banks, such as the Doomsday Vault in Norway, built to withstand global warming and nuclear catastrophe.

"I find these seed banks very disturbing," Pinkus responded. "They're based on the assumption of renewal and rebirth after destruction. It's easy to understand the popularity of the narrative, but it's a very Hollywood scenario."

Tonkinwise agreed. "It's amazing that you can get resources poured into that kind of apocalyptic vision and yet you can't get it put into social change," he said.

Other participants at the forum included Cornell MFA student Piotr Chinizski, who presented a folded paper riverboat project as a model of "do-it-yourself flood relief," and Cornell Ph.D. candidate Gokce Gunel, who shared her anthropological research on Masdar City. The forum was sponsored by the Society for the Humanities and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media Contact

Syl Kacapyr