Cassandras are prophets who speak the truth, yet no one seems to listen.
The original Cassandra had a very hard and frustrating life. She was the king of Troy’s daughter at the time of the Trojan War. The god Apollo liked her, and gave her the gift of foretelling the future. Unfortunately, she didn’t much like Apollo, so he twisted his gift to her: in her prophecies, she would still speak the truth, but no one would believe her. After the war, Agamemnon took her home with him as a concubine, where – as she knew would happen – his wife Clytemnestra killed her.
Perhaps most prophets are unlikely to be believed, but it is most discouraging when their predictions are based on mountains of hard data. With increasing detail and breadth of evidence, environmental scientists have been warning us for two decades or more about the immense impact of global warming and the climate destabilization associated with it. They are the Cassandras of our times, for those who have the power to take action have chosen not to believe them.
Do you remember The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in a few volumes in 2005, involving more than 1300 scientists from around the world? It clearly documented the declining health of the planet, and explored in several distinct scenarios the major options we have. By far the bleakest was the take-no-action ‘business-as-usual’, scenario, which none of the authors expected would occur. But business-as-usual it has remained.
Considering the bad press of a year ago, you probably do remember the 4th Assessment Report published in 2007 by the
International Panel on Climate Change. Another huge multi-national, multi-authored effort, it got a couple of its facts wrong, but it also clearly presented the evidence for current rapid climate change. It almost certainly has underestimated the rate of change that is occurring. Yet, at least in North America, it has been ignored.
And who can forget the embarrassing and disastrous outcome of the ‘take-no-action’ UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December?
Many books of course have also been published. The most popular was The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. He followed it up with Now or Never in 2009. He has been a fluent and tireless critic of the inaction of the global community.
Gus Speth, one of the most experienced environmentalists on the planet, with the ear of US presidents over the past decades, has written two remarkable books, Red Sky at Morning , where he pointed out the ways we could have dealt with some of the challenges, and several years later with Bridge at the End of the World, where it was clear he feared how little time we have left to do anything meaningful. He initiated the unusually useful website environment360 www.e360.yale.edu.
Have any policies changed? Not in the US, or Canada.
David Orr, in his more recent book Down to the Wire once again raised the familiar issues and their discouraging causes, but since time has passed, the challenges are both clearer and larger. As the time we have left to respond grows ever shorter, the necessary response grows ever larger and more complex.
Since just saying it is now too late to do anything useful is hardly a helpful message, Orr calls for transformative change – of how we govern ourselves, of our consumerism, of our use of energy and fossil fuel resources. He calls for an end of war and violence, and for global cooperation, as we become submerged in a long emergency for planet Earth.
He says we have run out of time to do anything less, but that we do have the capacity to act. So will the US Congress finally listen? Will the Canadian Parliament begin to show some leadership? Will the massive corporate world recognize its responsibilities?
At some point, our environmental prophets will have to be believed, and cease to be Cassandras.
How do we get there?