Today is – at least to my northern hemisphere readers – the winter solstice, shortest day of the year. For three months now, we’ve seen the sun set and the night fall progressively earlier each day. But this date marks the terminus of that trend, and though the heart of winter still lies ahead, from now on the days will start to grow longer again.
The solstice has always been a date invested with great importance. In the bitter depths of winter, our ancestors surrounded themselves with all the plants they could find that stayed green and grew – conifers, mistletoe, holly – perhaps as a form of sympathetic magic intended to speed the return of spring, or perhaps simply to draw comfort from the presence of life around them when so much else was barren and dead. On this day, those defiant celebrations came to their high point. The ceremonial kindling of flame; the feasts and the good cheer; the companionship and gift-giving – all are meant to remind us that the dark and the cold do not have exclusive power over our lives, and that the spring will come again.
As we can imagine, our ancestors were utterly dependent on the cycle of the seasons, and it’s no surprise that they imbued this date with vast symbolic significance. Mythologies and traditions clustered around this date, and the calendar soon became cluttered with the dying and rising gods of the harvest. At first these religions were living metaphors, reflecting humanity’s rudimentary understanding of the annual pattern of plant death and rebirth. But as time went by, the symbol gradually took precedence until it superseded the reality, to the point that many people today are ignorant of the harvest metaphor and think that the mythology is all. Yet even today, when so many of us are divorced from the land, we still feel nature’s rhythms. We too feel the sinking of the sun in our veins, and we too kindle lights in anticipation of the sun’s annual return. Not for nothing is the humanist reinvention of these ancient agricultural holidays named HumanLight.
As I say, humanity was once at the mercy of the seasons. Indeed, to a much greater extent than most people realize, that is still very much the case. We depend on the natural world for a huge variety of vital services – fresh air and water, fertile soil, natural waste disposal and remediation, the fertilization of our crops, buffering against storm and drought, ore and timber and fuel, new pharmaceuticals and other products – services that would cost us trillions of dollars if we had to supply them ourselves. The critical drought facing Georgia reminds us that, despite the emancipation of science and technology, our well-being is still very much tied to the ebb and flow of nature.
However, the balance of power is no longer tilted completely to one end. As the natural world influences us, so too do we influence it – and often, not for the better. Rather than treating natural capital as something valuable in its own right, both economically and for less tangible reasons, humanity for most of its history has taken the view that the world is valueless until we harvest and exploit it. And now that humanity is a planetary civilization, that outlook necessarily has planetary repercussions.
The most serious of those repercussions that we are now confronting is the threat of climate change, caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels which every year sends billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. After many decades of unwise use, we are now facing the real prospect of permanently altering climate patterns worldwide, with drastic consequences both for thousands of other species and for tens of millions of members of the human species. We’re gambling recklessly with our own future, and though it’s not too late to turn things around and avert the worst possible effects, the time to act is short, and the changes we must still make are vast.
It may help to put our struggle in perspective if we realize that climate change is the defining issue of our time. In two hundred years, or five hundred years, or a thousand years, conflicts like the “war on terrorism” will be historical footnotes however they turn out. But people may be living for tens of thousands of years with the repercussions of what we do to our planet here and now, in this generation. For better or for worse, we will be remembered.
Thankfully, there are signs that the global community has at last woken up to the impact of climate change, and is taking steps – frustratingly slow, but still promising – steps to solve the problem. The recently concluded 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, successor to the Kyoto Protocol, seems to have been a qualified success, with many nations agreeing to take concrete steps toward reducing their emissions – despite opposition by the U.S. that weakened the language of the final agreement. (I’m ashamed that my country, out of all the nations in the world, was the roadblock to solving this serious global challenge. We still have far too many anti-science ideologues polluting our government.) This is a problem that can only be confronted and solved collectively, and much work remains to be done.
Nevertheless, on this solstice season, we have seen the way leading to the future, and there is still reason to hope. Like almost all the problems we face, this is one where we lack neither the ability nor the resources. All we need is the will of the global community of nations and of humankind itself.