Big Brain. Big Heart?

Climate change background, B. Calkins /

IN EARLY JUNE, a team of prominent biologists, ecologists, paleontologists, and climatologists published a long article in our most important scientific journal, Nature. It concluded that people have so disturbed the operations of the planet that it is nearing—perhaps within decades—a “state shift” to a new biological paradigm unlike any human civilization has ever encountered.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products, and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

For many of us who have long studied these questions, there’s nothing that surprising in the conclusions. I mean, we’ve already put enough carbon in the atmosphere to melt 40 percent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, to make the ocean 30 percent more acidic, and to turn the atmosphere 5 percent wetter, thus loading the dice for drought and flood.

What’s surprising is not the science. It’s the endless lack of reaction to it. The secular press barely covered the Nature study—The New York Times discussed it in a blog post, not in the paper. And I didn’t hear any reaction at all from the nation’s clerics, though it strikes me this kind of story strikes much closer to the heart of our theology than most of the things we do hear clerics opining about. Contraception? Okay, sort of, you can kind of find something about it in the Bible. Homosexuality? The occasional passing reference. But the whole first page of the thing is about nothing but creation, the fact that God made everything around us, pronounced it good, and told us to take care of it.

Which we manifestly haven’t done. We haven’t exercised careful dominion, we haven’t dressed and kept the garden, we’ve just trashed the place, stem to stern. All those creeping beasts and birds of the air? We’re wiping them out at a rate accomplished in the past only by asteroids. And in the process we’re doing more damage to the least among us than any other people who’ve come before. One of the authors of the Nature study, a Stanford professor, described watching machete battles in Nepal between villagers claiming the last available pieces of wood for the evening’s fire.

Easy enough to blame our political leaders, who went off to Rio in June, a few weeks after the study emerged, and accomplished next to nothing. But by now we half-expect them to be the captives of the fossil fuel industry. What explains the mealy-mouthed silence of our moral leaders? I have no idea.

Climate change—the biggest thing ever to happen on our planet—strikes me as a test not just of whether the big brain was a good adaptation, but also whether it’s attached to a big enough heart to matter. At this point the scientists have done all they can to speak for the brain; our religious leaders have done precious little to make the case for the heart.

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of

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