Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

Climate change: what is “the greatest moral challenge?”

4 Feb

Last weekend’s storm was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced which means nothing, other than I haven’t been in violent weather events before.

Some years ago all my children and grandchildren went missing for five days in Hurricane Wilma. They were in Cancun, Mexico at the time the category four storm struck.  For a long time afterwards my granddaughter trembled whenever the wind rose.  The high-pitched whine of a violent wind, and the emotions it provokes in sentient beings, is hard to delete from the memory.

In what seems to me a rare example of synchronicity, I happened to be at the top of Tamborine Mountain and reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviours, at the time the Queensland storms struck.  The wind whined its whine in merciless gusts, the ferocity of which were alarming. Six adults, five dogs, six chickens in the bathtub, and one baby, we huddled by candlelight in a house on the edge of an escarpment while trees fell and water belted at the windows. This was a long way out of my comfort zone. At bedtime I read Kingsolver with a torch, wearing earplugs. What I couldn’t hear wouldn’t frighten me, I reasoned.


 Flight Behaviour is one of several recent novels that take as their theme the issue of climate change. Kingsolver is an intelligent, powerfully imaginative writer whose every book I’ve treasured, and she’s a biologist as well. The narrative is built around episodes of violent storm activity in a Mexican town that causes its resident population of Monarch butterflies to abandon the flight behaviour of lifetimes, and find a new home in southern Texas. It’s not easy for them there, either, but I won’t tell the story. Suffice to say in her usual accomplished manner, Kingsolver weaves the lives and futures of her characters through the fate of the butterflies, and indeed, of the world. She even includes Australia.

I find the climate change war difficult to understand on many levels. I’m alarmed by the emotions on both sides, in particular the rage that erupts from those who will not tolerate the concept of human contribution to global warming. I interpret this rage as springing from terror: terror of what that means, terror of losing what they believe they have, terror of necessary change, terror of being out of control, of the natural world being an uncontrollable force.

Those who argue against them, such as myself, also know terror: the terror of leaving things too late, terror of what the world will become if we fail to do everything in our power to halt the destruction, terror of our apparent helplessness in the face of climate change and those who to my mind obdurately refuse to accept that we have any responsibility in the matter.

What we share is our fear: we ought to be able to use that as common ground. And there’s a wishful thought, if ever there was one.

I don’t know if Kevin Rudd was either right or helpful when he described climate change as “the greatest moral challenge of our time.” I agree it’s the greatest challenge, and it is also a moral one, however, we might be better served focusing on the practicalities rather than the moralities of the challenge we face. When an issue is couched in moral terms it inevitably bifurcates into judgements good and bad, with one side or the other claiming the high moral ground even as it is wrenched away from under them, in this instance by flood, high seas, and fire. What becomes most important is the battle and who is right, rather than the biggest challenge.

There is a sense in which the argument about the morality of climate change action or non-action has to be postponed for the greater good: we can’t afford to waste our energies on that argument. We have to err on the side of caution, surely. We cannot prove to everyone’s satisfaction that humans have and continue to contribute to global warming, which in turn is causing extreme and destructive weather events. The “greatest moral challenge,” then, is to suspend our disbelief and act as if we have and are affecting climate change. As we are unable to prove that we are not, it makes sense, given the gravity of the situation, to act as if we are.

The greatest moral challenge facing us is to put aside the notion of moral challenge, and instead, act.

I’m dreamin’, I know. This is a fertile battleground for those who want only to battle. There’s precious little political good will, and a crop of politicians on both sides whose will to power outweighs any notion of the greater good.

Perhaps circumstances will eventually force these self-interested laggards to take action. Perhaps when enough people have suffered enough as a consequence of extreme weather events, and the roads are broken enough, and the food has become expensive enough, and the people turn in great numbers on their leaders, we will see politicians finally give climate change the attention it demands. When there’s votes in it.

Until then I guess what we can’t hear won’t frighten us? Pass that politician some earplugs and make them read Flight Patterns, by torchlight, of course.


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