In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.
—John C. Sawhill, CEO of The Nature Conservancy
When my son and I would go fishing, sometimes the brook trout bit frenetically in the beaver ponds above Laramie. The legal limit was eight per person, so we could have come home with sixteen fish between us. But we’d stop at half that number because that was plenty for a family dinner (and frozen fish are never as tasty as fresh). The resource managers who set creel limits know what they’re doing; the ponds could have sustained the allowable take. But our restraint wasn’t really about ecological limits (or tastiness). It was about teaching my son how to know how much is enough—a lesson that is relevant to understanding the recent climate change summit.
Averting anthropogenic global warming is not primarily about saving nature. Nature will be fine. Some of its elements might be tragically lost, but biodiversity has rebounded from previous mass extinctions. Ecosystems will be drastically altered and some will collapse, but something else will take their place, as we saw with the return of life to the slopes of Mount St. Helens. If we take “nature” to be the sum total of the life processes on Earth, then don’t worry about nature. We couldn’t end life on earth if we devoted all of human ingenuity and technology to the effort.
Nor is climate change mostly about saving humanity. Individuals will regrettably suffer, but our species will survive rising sea levels and droughts. Extinction seems wholly unlikely given our demonstrable adaptability and technological prowess. Change is the name of the game in human history. So why stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? Maybe because the Paris conference was ultimately about saving our souls, not our bodies.
By choosing not to mine more coal, burn more gas, or pump more oil, we cultivate the virtue of restraint. Aristotle was right—one becomes virtuous through practice. And so we practice humility. Whether or not we return this fevered planet to its original temperature, we can provide a disturbed society with moral perspective. Virtue and vice come in degrees. Murder is bad; genocide is worse. Shoplifting doesn’t entail a moral slippery slope to armed robbery. Thieves can have limits—and we’re stealing from future generations. No soul is pure and no technology is pristine.
If we don’t stop, then the planet keeps going along some path. If we do, then the path is cooler, but humans will continue to suffer (pandemics, famines, overpopulation, war—take your pick). Either way, life moves on and in all likelihood takes humans along for the ride. And so the question is not so much, “What sort of planet are we leaving for our children?” as it is, “What sort of humanity do we want as our legacy?” At present, the answer to the first is almost surely, “A place where there is not enough.” In a warming world we’ll run out of ice caps, arable soil, coral reefs, fresh water, coastal cities, livable land, sea walls, and air conditioners. But the answer to the second question about our legacy could be, “A place where we learned to say ‘enough’.”