LAST SUMMER in this space I asked, “Isn’t getting people to care about what happens after they die—in a realistic, naturalistic sense—primarily a humanist issue?” Climate change remains the biggest threat to the survival of humankind. Alternatives to burning fossil fuels are needed ASAP and we humans are the only ones who can make that happen. So yes, it’s a humanist issue, and I know most humanists agree.
But as Tom Engelhardt writes in a February 3 article in the Nation titled, “Ending the World the Human Way,” it’s a tough story to sell. He succinctly lays out all the evidence for global warming along with the obstacles to dealing with human-induced climate change and then basically says no one cares. Of course he knows that’s not true, but the point is that the scope and time scale of humanity’s likely demise renders it uninteresting and un-newsworthy to many.
Engelhardt notes that humanity’s been on the brink before, citing the nuclear age of the past century: “For the first time, we humans—initially in Washington, then in Moscow, then in other national capitals—took the power to end all life on this planet out of God’s hands. You could think of it as the single greatest, if also grimmest, act of secularization in history.” The writer’s theistic spin aside, he says the threat of nuclear war was more gripping than climate change because the end could come with the push of a button and the ensuing chain reaction. Even so, news stories on nuclear weapons arsenals were unpopular because they suggested the end of news, period. “The nuclear issue was somehow everywhere, a kind of exterminationist grid over life itself, and yet, like climate change, nowhere at all.”
Some readers have accused this magazine of not dedicating enough space to climate change. It’s not that we don’t see it as the biggest issue facing humankind. But like Engelhardt says, it’s a challenging story to cover. Most humanists, being rational, science-minded folks who spend zero time thinking a god will save us (or destroy us), know the causes and threats of climate change are real and that alternatives to carbon-emitting fossil fuels must be pushed. This issue’s cover story (reported by the Humanist’s new science and religion correspondent Clay Farris Naff) is just one of many that need to be told. It’s a story of possibility, a novel innovation to produce geothermal energy in addressing climate change. Once again, it’s not the first time we’ve covered climate change and it’s certainly not the last.
Of course there are other events affecting human lives around the warming globe that also deserve our attention. People have been stuck in their cars, for example—in the ice in ill-prepared Atlanta after a late January storm and in gridlock on the George Washington Bridge after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s staff engaged in some twisted political revenge. Meanwhile, the defense industry continues to recruit employees to fight wars by selling the notion of heroism (redacted herein by former soldier James Jeffrey), and the end of net neutrality is nigh. So many stories to tell. Actions to expose. Contributions to make. Things to fix.
Someone who isn’t sitting idly by is Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims, who’s taking a humanist stance in advocating for LGBT rights, equal pay for women, and myriad other social justice causes. And to round the issue out Patrick Parr relays memories of Dresden in “Kurt Vonnegut Survives Humanity.” Were Vonnegut alive today to take in the roster of challenges in this issue, it’s easy to imagine him tossing out his trademark, “and so it goes.” Or would he rather dare his fellow humanists to grow some teeth?