Hamlet at the Helm

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The news from Denmark is not encouraging. The King’s claim to the throne rests on dubious moral foundations. The Prince vacillates, desperately trying to ferret out the truth before he acts, seeking political resolve in epistemological certainty. Courtiers jockey for position and advantage. Meanwhile the people and the land groan under the weight of a disordered state and injustice. Catastrophe and barbarism are massing forces near the border.

Shakespeare’s timeless story may turn out to be, one hopes, too dark a lens through which to view the recent meetings in Copenhagen, but the tragic vision is tempting, nonetheless, and hits close to home on all too many points. As we witness the current struggles by global princes to respond to the pronouncements of scientists (“are they honest ghosts?”) and to set meaningful limits to unsustainable economic forces and interests, indecision so deep seated that it amounts to a paralysis of political and moral will is darkness visible. Hamlets are at the helms throughout the world. The timetable of the challenges facing us and the timetable of our collective capacity to respond are tragically out of joint.

As I write this toward the end of December, President Obama and other key world leaders have managed a positive spin at the last, but surely no one can avoid the conclusion that serious action steps and commitments that should have been taken were not taken and do not seem within reach for the foreseeable future. Much critical political and moral argument will be needed in 2010 to spur more resolute and successful global action. Each nation and political culture in the world needs to take a hard look at its own internal dynamics and its fundamental commitments regarding ecological governance. The forces blocking an action consensus among nations lie within nations, at least to a significant extent.

A recent analysis by New York Times reporter John M. Broder provides insight for that task within the United States (“What’s Rotten for Obama in Denmark,” New York Times December 13, 2009, p. WK 1; 4). For good or ill, the U.S. role in determining how successfully the world can avert climate change catastrophe will be huge. But the political commitment to exercise this leadership and to pave the way for other countries to act does not exist in Washington thus far. The worst outcome of Copenhagen is arguably inaction; but close behind would have been agreement on a new international treaty with teeth. Why? Because the U.S. Senate would not ratify it, just as it would not ratify Kyoto in 1997. “The Senate is split on global warming policy,” Broder points out, into numerous factions divided by ideology, geography and economic interest. And that’s just the Democratic caucus. Republicans are nearly united in opposition to the kind of legislation that would be needed to match Mr. Obama’s ambitions (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020). Without Senate action . . . Mr. Obama’s promises are merely that, almost certainly not enough to persuade other nations to commit to greenhouse gas reductions.

President Obama is trying to do an end run around the lack of consensus in the Senate, and one important means was provided by the recent finding of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) that green house gases pose a threat to human health and welfare. Again Broder comments: “E.P.A. regulation is the trump card that the administration is holding if Congress continues to dither. But Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he much prefers a messy Congressional compromise. Trying to remake much of the economy by regulatory fiat is certain to become entangled in years of litigation.”

A year ago, candidate Obama said of climate change: “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.” Broder concludes his piece by noting that Copenhagen would end with an interim political deal to keep talking about a binding treaty next year, and that is just what did happen. “Delay, it turns out,” he remarks dryly, “was the only option.”

The articles in this issue of Minding Nature address, in various ways and on different levels, the question of how the requisite conditions of political and moral will can be mobilized so that a new sustainable global political economy can emerge in time. Can the kind of interest group liberalism that Broder describes in the United States respond to this challenge successfully? And, more soberingly still, can any type of democratic governance do so? Can the progressive vision of thinkers like Aldo Leopold, John Dewey, and others remain alive? Can the solution to a malfunctioning (or overly sluggish) democracy be, not a non-democratic authoritarianism, but instead an even more grassroots, participatory democracy? Or will this be the Chinese Century?

Drawing on and reminding us of Leopold’s progressive emphasis on methods of collaborative, community-based conservation during the Depression, Samuel Snyder provides a detailed case study of watershed management and conservation in northeastern Tennessee that took participants and groups along the spectrum from conflict to consensus. A critical review of the politics of U.S. environmentalism by Dana Beach adds detail and dimension to this problem.

The newly emerging field of conservation psychology, which is tailor made to address precisely questions of this kind, is introduced by Susan Clayton, one of the leading researchers in the field. And in my own article, written as a part of the new CHN research project on Ecological Political Economy, I pose the question of how substantial limits on individual freedom, corporate behavior, private property rights, and carbon intensive economic growth can be achieved relatively rapidly and systematically.

Another level of this challenge is not merely political but fundamentally metaphysical and spiritual. Indeed, as an interesting recent work by Susan Neiman suggests (see box, p. 35), the political and the metaphysical are not so very far apart after all. One seminal thinker who would have concurred is Thomas Berry, who died this past year. To remember his influential voice and his remarkable thought, we devote a section to his work. Mary Evelyn Tucker contributes a brief intellectual biography of Berry, which spans his wide-ranging career as a cultural historian, a student of comparative religions, and as an environmental thinker. Remarks made at the memorial service for Berry by Tucker and John Grim are also reprinted here. Finally we are pleased to publish a brief interview with Berry conducted by Nicholas Tuff in 2006.

Finally, in their brief reflections, Jill Schneiderman and Brooke Hecht bring together the spiritual, the natural, and the ethical. While others hurried by, the Samaritan took time away from his pressing business and journey to perceive what his real business was and attend to it. In Judaism, pauses that have us step back from business punctuate the rhythms of the world and the human relationship with God.

For the new year, let us hope that the outcome of Copenhagen was not a delay after all, but a short sabbatical—a pause that renews, revitalizes, rekindles our resolve.

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  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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