Like other forms of rhetoric, verbal efforts to promote environmental sustainability are rooted in human nature. In a society that desperately needs to engage in more sustainable practices, environmentalists and activists must ask themselves how best to persuade the public to participate in practices that are environmentally beneficial, or at least less detrimental. It is a dilemma, like other dilemmas of public persuasion, that is rooted in the question: how do we get people to care?
Traditionally, most climate rhetoric has centered around people’s sense of morality, justice, and ethics. While these arguments are fair and hold water, I believe there is another method of rhetoric that may receive a heightened degree of response: a human-centered one that appeals to a person’s sense of selfishness and, to an extent, right to exist in a prolific world.
I am not naturally a cynical person, but I do have one slightly disparaging (though nonetheless observable) belief: humans are innately selfish. Though selfishness is usually considered a negative trait, it is a universal one, whether that manifests in large ways or small. This is not to say that compassion and empathy do not exist; they do, to an enormous and powerful extent. However, I’d like to note that selfishness, too, plays an equally, if not more, powerful role.
The rhetoric of climate change does too little to appeal to the sense of selfishness that is fundamental to humanity. Rather, climate and sustainability rhetoric appeals to a sense of goodwill or guilt, with phrases like “Save the coral reefs!” and “Save the polar bears!” being some of the first that come to mind when considering the reasons to combat climate change. These phrases, though of course rooted in truth and a need for action, present humans as the ones who must do the saving of other creatures, rather than a species also at risk. Likewise, the species to which they refer are very much removed from the lives of most ordinary people. How many of us have seen a polar bear in the wild, or frequented a dying coral reef?
Instead, we must shift our vision from a need to swoop in and save other creatures to a need to also save ourselves. If, environmentally, we continue to move in the direction that we are currently heading, the earth will reach a tipping point, crossing a boundary from which we will not return in over the course of our species’ existence. Average temperatures will increase drastically, and the climate will shift to a degree that is nearly impossible to predict. But these changes have the potential to affect humans to a massive extent. Entire neighborhoods will be flooded and destroyed due to rising waters and increased storm intensity. Devastating hurricanes like the ones that have ripped through the East Coast will become more frequent and more intense. And this is just in the short term. In the long term, climate change has the potential to, in the most extreme case, wipe out the human race. Therefore, when we talk about the effects of climate change, when we say that we must “save the planet,” rather we should be saying “save humanity.” Not only because this style of rhetoric will motivate more people, but because the future of humanity is increasingly at risk, as we make our planet more and more unlivable for our species.
On a similar note, the attention to non-human animals that pervades climate rhetoric also diverts attention from the many communities of lower socioeconomic standing that have already been severely affected by climate events. A prime example is post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, in which the poorer communities suffered greatly from flooding. And many places, including the predominantly Black neighborhood of the Ninth Ward, remain severely damaged and largely abandoned. And yet, a decade after Katrina, little attention is paid to this community, with much more diverted to endangered animals and, more simply, the non-human “Earth.”
In spite of what is previously written, I do not intend to argue that we should ignore the continued destruction of non-human habitats, or that we should divert attention from pressing concerns of environmental degradation affecting plants and animals more than humans. There are thousands of species much more at risk from the impacts of climate change and hundreds currently endangered or extinct due to human interference, like, of course, coral reefs and polar bears. Efforts to protect the environment for non-human plants and animals are incredibly important, incredibly necessary, and in many ways more so than anthropocentric concerns.
We should, rather, include ourselves in the mix of species at risk, recognize that humans are not exempt from the impacts of climate change. We are as much a part of, and dependent upon, this environment as any other species, as much as we try to distinguish ourselves as disconnected from nature. This acknowledgement of dependence ensures that within rhetoric of saving the environment, it is clear that we are not angelic beings swooping in to save “nature,” but simply making the necessary actions to save our home and ourselves.
But the largest reason behind the need to shift climate rhetoric from “save the earth” to “save ourselves” is this: the earth, as a living planet, is going to be okay. Despite the rhetoric, the planet will weather climate change as it has weathered massive fluctuations in climate in the past. While in this case, the reason behind the climate fluctuation is quite different, as it is caused singularly by one species, there will still be plants and animals that thrive in changing environmental conditions. The environment, while perhaps taking a very different form to the one we know today, will soldier on.
This planet has undergone five major mass extinctions in the past: The Ordovician-Silurian, the Late Devonian, the Permian, the Triassic-Jurassic, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary. The Permian Mass Extinction, also known as “The Great Dying,” marks the most extreme example. 250 million years ago, 96 percent of life on earth went extinct, potentially due to colossal climate change. All life on earth today is descended from that surviving four percent. It is a percentage almost impossible to compute, almost impossible to imagine that life persevered and ballooned into the diversity of species we have today. And yet here we are, billions of years after the origin of life on this planet, in an extraordinarily ecologically diverse world. Thanks to diverse genetic pools of many species, life will persevere even with rising temperatures and sea levels and increased storms, floods, and droughts. The environment, or some form of environment, will survive. It may not, however, include humans.
Culturally, humanity is taken to be eternal, endless, excepted from the rules of nature and evolution under which other, far less advanced species operate. In other words, we fancy ourselves eternal, and the earth temporary. While in reality both are ephemeral, it is also true the earth will far outlast humanity, as will life. We are not, by a long shot, the most resilient species on this planet. While we are excellent at adapting, we are not excellent at surviving through massive floods and tsunamis, living in droughts and extreme heat.
Thus, we must make efforts to shift the language around climate change to one that throws humans in the mix, recognizing the need to save humanity as more pressing and more true than the need to save the planet. Not only must we see ourselves as very much immersed in and dependent upon this environment, but we must realize that our future as a species relies upon our ability to recognize that we are more vulnerable than we think.