Click to close
Flooded plateau, High Andes, Bolivia
I wrote it at the time of the Cuban crisis. I was in Bleecker Street in New York. We just hung around at night – people sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I. Would 10 o'clock the next day ever come? ... It was a song of desperation. What could we do? Could we control the men on the verge of wiping us out? The words came fast – very fast. It was a song of terror. Line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is our most powerful reminder of the fear Dylan’s generation experienced at the prospect of life ending in nuclear war. But as Clinton Heylin writes in Behind the Shades, Dylan has been at pains to point out that this song has a broader sweep, a wider meaning, one appropriate before, during and after the Cuban missile crisis.
The environmental crisis is just as desperate and just as threatening as nuclearwipeout. Dylan’s question, only slightly reframed, is exactly right: can we influence the people in power to deal with our problems?
The issues highlighted in Hard Rain – the wasteful and unsustainable use of resources by the few, debilitating poverty for the many, population expansion, habitat loss, species extinction, and the summation of our problems, climate change – are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that illustrate the 21st century.
If we put the puzzle together we see that there are not many problems but one problem: aligning human systems with natural systems. A few examples show how these issues are all linked by cause and effect. Unsustainable logging of rainforests opens up jungles to commercial and subsistence farmers, who burn more forest to expand agricultural land. Almost 20% of global CO2 pollution is added to the atmosphere from burning forests. Much of the deforested land is used to grow soya beans to feed farm animals, which in turn feed expanding human populations. Livestock add methane – a potent greenhouse gas – to the atmosphere, which combines with CO2 from power stations and the engines that drive us and our goods around the world. These greenhouse gases are heating the planet with untold consequences. Forest destruction also accelerates species loss, damaging the web of life that we depend on for clean air, water and food.
While each of these issues is understood by decision-makers, they are typically addressed as if they were separate problems. We will be wise to look upon ourselves as a species and devise more realistic and pragmatic approaches to all our problems as a whole.
The fault is not just with our leaders – we all have to take responsibility for the colossal mess we have made in the world. We have to acknowledge that up to now we have been heralding weak and largely substanceless global accords as great achievements*. Our quiet clamour for hypocrisy and deception, for schemes that seem to promise something for nothing, has not produced solutions. We have to give governments a constituency to reinvent the modern world so that it is sustainable. This is the biggest project humanity has ever faced.
We need to act quickly. The localized climate-related disasters that we read about every day could begin to occur across the planet if a runaway, irreversible greenhouse effect kicks in. If we wait for more disasters like continental droughts (already happening in Australia), plagues of tropical diseases in places not strictly tropical, massive hurricanes and typhoons flattening major cities, then governments will panic and pass panic-inspired laws and regulations.
Democracy and diverse approaches could be early victims of global warming.
As David Skitt has commented what this present point in history demands, according to a recent UK government report on climate change, is “unprecedented international cooperation”, nothing less than a new human mentality – one that transcends our neurotically obsessive allegiances to national interests and identity. Old ways of thinking don’t work any more. And it will need a real mental leap to change them. Are we capable of making that leap?
Political change comes only when people form a movement so large that governments have no choice but to listen. This requires a coalition of environmentalists, those in the peace movement, the faith community, those who support the campaign against poverty, and the silent majority. If you are part of the silent majority, now is the time to find your voice.
But we all need to be aware that it’s not just political action that is needed. Most of us have lost touch with nature and we need to reconnect with the natural world. Not through photographs, which however beautiful or dramatic are just signposts to reality. This is the first and last step to a sustainable culture that we can all participate in.
The modern philosopher J. Krishnamurti makes the connection between human nature and nature in this passage from All the Marvelous Earth:
“There is a tree by the river and we have been watching it day after day for several weeks when the sun is beginning to rise. As the sun rises slowly over the horizon, over the trees, this particular tree becomes all of a sudden golden. All the leaves are bright with life, and as you watch them as the hours pass by, that tree whose name does not matter – what matters is that beautiful tree – an extraordinary quality seems to spread over the land, over the river… Towards evening when the western skies are lit up by the setting sun, the tree gradually becomes sombre, dark, closing in on itself. The sky has become red, yellow, green, but the tree remains quiet, hidden, and is resting for the night.
“If you establish a relationship with it, then you have a relationship with mankind. You are responsible then for that tree and for the trees of the world. But if you have no relationship with the living things on this earth, you may lose whatever relationship you have with humanity, with human beings.”
* Stephen Gardiner, “A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate change, intergenerational ethics and the problem of corruption”, in Environmental Values 15, 2006