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Philosophical Insights on the Climate Change Catastrophe

Neil Peart's guiding principle, integrity, can help us manage climate change

Key points

  • Denying that climate change is real and is happening is counterproductive to human evolution.
  • Neil Peart's guiding principle of integrity helps us honestly accept climate change and collectively manage it.
Robert Linsdell from St. Andrews, Canada
tide pools isolated from the larger sea
Source: Robert Linsdell from St. Andrews, Canada

By Liz Stillwagon Swan, Ph.D., and Gerry Schramm

We’ve all witnessed the extreme weather phenomena over the past few years: the uncontrollable wildfires out West, the flash floods in the South, the extreme droughts scattered throughout the US. Some of us lived through these horrifying experiences, and the rest of us watched them on TV and social media. A common refrain for those of us who have enjoyed a few trips around the sun is: “I don’t remember these things happening when I was a kid…”

The tide pools of society

Though there are climate change deniers and skeptics, most of us side with the brightest minds in the scientific community, who find weather phenomena to be more extreme than in the past and its patterns less predictable. These experts warn that near-future changes in climate will drastically alter life as we know it.

We can’t turn back the clock, but can we make forward momentum in a less destructive direction? Neil Peart, philosopher, author, drummer and lyricist for the Canadian prog rock trio Rush, gives us a clue in a single word: integrity. Integrity has two different but related meanings: the first is possessing the qualities of honesty, trustworthiness, and responsibility; the second is the quality of wholeness or completeness.

It’s rare for rock bands to sing about the perils of science run amuck, rarer still to have been doing so in 1980 when Rush’s album Permanent Waves came out. In the song, “Natural Science,” on this album, Peart writes about how the “ebbing tide retreats along the rocky shoreline,” leaving behind short-lived tidepools, which represent little bubbles of humanity isolated from the larger whole, whose inhabitants believe their “microcosmic planet” is “a complete society.” While Peart was not explicitly writing about climate change, we find his insights prescient and inspiring.

The lyrics imply a comparison between fractured human societies and the tidepools of “busy little creatures chasing out their destinies” and warn of insularity: “living in their pools they soon forget about the sea.” Humanity has been extremely busy developing in the name of progress at the expense of human well-being and planetary health. Recent climate catastrophes have forcefully reminded us that earth is our home and its systems are out of whack.

There’s a schism between those who accept the reality of climate change and embrace alterations to behavior–both individually and collectively–to ensure future human evolution, and those who deny the changes for presumably self-serving purposes of economic gain and ‘prosperity.’ But can we prosper in our little tidepools, isolated from the larger sea of humanity or will we be washed away by the next high tide, so to speak?

Taming science and nature

Later in the song “Natural Science,” Peart warns that “Science, like nature, must also be tamed with a view towards its preservation.” The scientific revolution was, in large part, about humans gaining control over nature, bending it to our will. We’ve done that with stunning success: mastering global travel; wiping out viruses and preventing diseases; creating industry, technology, comfort, and luxury. But Peart’s warning is to also tame science, which enabled our 21st century lifestyle but also ushered in air, water, and soil pollution. Referring to our obsession with progress at all costs, Peart writes, “In their own image their world is fashioned, no wonder they don’t understand” and “our causes can’t see their effects.”

Recently, we’ve become more aware of the effects (pollution) of our causes (progress). There is a silver lining though: we created the problem with our collective behavior but we can also curb the problem and enable a healthier planet also with our individual and collective behavior.

The integrity to embrace climate change

Access to information via the internet is the sharpest double-edged sword of the 21st century: Universal access to all information sounds ideal but such access without the requisite education to process it effectively ushered in a dangerous hubris. Anti-vaxxers believe they know better than the most knowledgeable epidemiologists in the world, just as climate change deniers question the smartest scientists who know more about the planet than anyone.

There is value in trusting the experts and being honest about what you don’t know: “The most endangered species, the honest man, will still survive annihilation” writes Peart. Honesty here is facing up to the difficult reality of a changing earth and the need to change along with it, or else.

Using integrity as our guiding principle, as did Neil Peart, we need to approach the facts of climate change honestly and responsibly. Unless you’re one of those climate change experts, you don’t know as much as they do, and denying what might be an “inconvenient truth” (Al Gore) isn’t doing anything to prepare future generations for a better future; in fact, evolutionarily speaking, climate change deniers are counterproductive, the fly in the ointment. The other meaning of integrity, of wholeness or completeness, in this context suggests that we must collectively take action to mitigate its effects.

Gerry Schramm is an Editor and cohost of the podcast Something for Nothing: A RUSH Fancast.

References

Peart, N. (1980). Natural Science [Song]. On Permanent Waves. Anthem Records.

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