From Derangement to Optimism to Action

Ray Waddle

Barreling down interstate the other day, I winced at the irony and self-defeat: I was motoring to the recycle center, a 16-mile round trip, burning gas all the way. I was going 60 MPH, keeping up with the heavy traffic, all of us hurtling at lethal speeds, staring straight ahead, just trying to get from point A to B without incident. Half of us were on our phones.

At such moments it’s plain to see our plan for meeting climate change. It looks like we’re just going to take our chances, keep buying big cars and ride out the storms, wildfires, and supernova heat. If we keep moving fast enough, maybe catastrophe will just happen vaguely somewhere else.

Last year a Gallup Poll said most Americans don’t think climate change will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. Discussion is now ritually partisan, a Democrat vs. GOP spectacle.

We treat climate denialism as a problem to be solved by coolly presenting the hard data until the skeptic finally sees reason. But the clash over climate goes deeper than evidence. Many people hear “climate change” as a euphemism for broader government control – new layers of regulation, a campaign to restrain individual freedom, a threat to the American way of life in the carbon economy. Scientists underestimate this perception – the “political claims implicit in climate change,” says theologian Michael Northcott. Political conservatives regard the findings of scientists to be not impartial but politically charged, hostile to consumption culture, an attack on a national faith in individual preferences.1

The problem extends beyond cultural politics of left versus right. The arc of Western culture itself reflects an inability to take collective action, because the climate change challenge (so far) is at cross-purposes with a central concept of the modern era: the idea of freedom and liberation, according to writer Amitav Ghosh.2 The world of nature has little relevance to this calculus. Hence the paucity of literary efforts that grapple with global warming, he argues. For a century, the mainstream of novels, art, and pop culture has cared more about the intricacies of personal consciousness, inner journeys, and self-discovery than planetary healing.3

By now our “Great Derangement” is well advanced. The focus on the personal – on authenticity, relatability, celebrity – has spread to politics. Streetwise mobilization yields to social media, a universe of opinionated individuals. Partisanship looks like a new version of pollution: profitable for its producers, poison to the rest of us. The resulting paralysis suits our elites; their power consolidates. Yet these same powerful elites appear unable to face a transnational climate crisis. Rational self-interest looks inadequate. A rock-solid assumption of the last 400 years – the pursuit of individual interest always leads to the general good – may not be enough to meet such a collective problem.4

But impatience is pushing change. Sweden’s unstoppable Greta Thunberg, age 16, has triggered a global protest by young people who are tired of the adults’ dithering. See her TedxStockholm talk, where she declares: “Yes we do need hope. Of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

Nobel economics laureate Paul Romer of NYU talks of “conditional optimism”: We have the power to reduce emissions, starting with an emissions tax. Dozens of US cities and states have pledged to abide by the Paris climate agreement.

Ghosh finds hope especially in religious communities. Their worldviews are larger than the blinkered imperatives of the nation-state. They’re capable of rallying millions to a cause larger than the individual. Standing by the light of the sacred, they teach the acceptance of human limits. This will take some doing, of course. Religions can be as internally divided and embattled as a political party.

To more and more people, it’s obvious that individual habits aren’t enough. Extreme weather is waking earthlings up. We have to start electing politicians who care about green policies. And support renewable-energy businesses. And stop wasting food. We need more efficient power grids and higher fuel efficiency standards – right now.

When I got to the recycling bins, lots of people were there. They looked happy. For a few minutes we were all citizens again, doing something positive together. It’s not enough. It’s just a start, maybe the prelude to a new start. The future is waiting to see what that will look like, and when.

Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections.


  1. Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Eerdmans, 2013), p. 20.
  2. Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, 2016), p. 119.
  3. Ghosh, p. 120. 4 Ghosh, pp. 130-136.