The Tragedy of Climate Change

Essay by Bryan Doerries: “How terrible it is to know when, in the end, knowing gains you nothing,” laments the blind prophet Tiresias in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Oedipus had summoned him to reveal the source of the pestilence and ecological disaster ravaging Thebes. But Tiresias knew that the king would reject the truth. Today’s climate scientists and epidemiologists can relate.

Like Tiresias, modern-day scientists know where the planet is headed and why. They found out not through prophecies, but through countless double-blind experiments, randomized trials, and rigorous peer review. Their evidence is unimpeachable, and the consensus among them is overwhelming. But their secular augury cannot seem to overcome the willful indifference of politicians or the public. Knowing gains them nothing, because so few are listening.

If there is a way for scientists to get through to people and their leaders, the key will be to change not what they say, but how they say it. The language of science is dispassionate by design. By contrast, the manifold crises our planet faces are urgent and intense, and the individual and collective decisions that are fueling those crises have high emotional and ethical stakes. A virulent pandemic has taken the lives of three million people. The Earth is in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. And the problems are set to escalate.

We need a language to convey the gravity and complexity of the global tragedy that is unfolding, and the ancient Greeks supply it. Their tragedies are stories of people learning too late (usually by milliseconds). Their characters doggedly pursue what they believe to be right, barely comprehending the forces they face – chance, fate, habits, governments, gods, the weather. By the time they do, the characters have unwittingly made an irreversible – and devastating – mistake.

For centuries, Greek tragedies have been viewed as pessimistic expressions of a fatalistic society, which depict the futility of fighting destiny. But, for the Greeks, the effect of these stories may have been counterintuitive. By showing people just how narrow and fleeting their power to determine their own future was, the tragedies discouraged apathy. Highlighting how devastating self-delusion can be encouraged awareness. And providing the language for describing difficult experiences enhanced agency….(More)”