By Maurice Carter, Sustainable Newton Marketing & Communications Director
"Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of the things that may be only? Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
-- Ebeneezer Scrooge to the Ghost of Christmas Future
from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
In A Christmas Carol, Jacob Marley's ghost pays a Christmas Eve visit to his former partner Ebeneezer Scrooge to warn him of the torment awaiting in the afterlife. Marley speaks of his own suffering penance for his deeds in life and implores Scrooge to change while there is still time. Scrooge's reaction, of course, is to deny the reality of what he sees and hears with his own eyes and ears. He is spooked, but persistent in his denial of the apparition before him. Thankfully, for Scrooge, Marley's ghost is not yet done with him. And a magical journey in one night ultimately changes the life of Ebeneezer Scrooge and transforms the world around him.
How did that happen? And what is the lesson for those of us seeking to persuade family and friends to join us in striving to avert a different unpleasant fate. One manifesting itself as our climate crisis.
Jacob Marley knew the path Scrooge had traveled, for it was the same as his. And he knew that simply foreboding an ominous future for his one time partner would not be sufficient to inspire lasting change. To heal Scrooge and repair his callous worldview, Marley would need to do more than just show Scrooge the eternal lament awaiting him. He would have to rekindle the love and laughter that once animated young Ebeneezer's life. He would need to remind him why life was worth living.
This is a dilemma climate activists face today. We have no shortage of data showing how bad climate change is going to get. But to many, our warnings are no more real or believable than the ghostly face of Jacob Marley emerging from a door knocker on Christmas Eve. And even when we work through the denial, the next phase is often surrender. "I am to old to change," Scrooge tells the spirits. "I am but one person, and it's already too late," we tell ourselves when pressed to act on climate change. We are unable to imagine a different future, because we have forgotten the past that brought us to this present.
To get through this impasse, like Jacob Marley, we must reflect on our own journey -- our own past, present, and future -- and connect in meaningful ways with the people we want to persuade to join us in this cause.
The Ghost of Planet Past
Through the magical touch of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge returns to the loves of his past life... His sister Fan, his fiancé Alice, his one-time mentor and fun-loving boss Mr. Fezziwig. To persuade an old miser to open his heart and change his cold view of the world, the spirits must remind him not of what he has to lose on his present path, but of what he has to gain by going back to who he once was.
With climate change, we paint pictures of a future world plagued by intense heatwaves, violent storms, ravaging floods, coastal flooding, and widespread wildfires. That's Ghost of Christmas Future stuff. But, would Scrooge have ever achieved his transformation if visited only by that lone menacing specter?
When we think back to our own past, what did we love that we miss today? For me, I remember early August days when a harbinger of fall would interrupt summer's heat with a refreshing blast of cooler, drier air, soft breezes, and the kind of blue sky we now hardly see even in October. It only lasted a day or two, but it was a welcome respite. I remember as a child rambling deep into undeveloped woods near our house to explore the creeks, collecting tadpoles, crawdads, salamanders, and the occasional snake. We caught bass, crappie, and bream in the ponds feeding those streams. We biked everywhere on roads with ample room for kids on bicycles. As young homeowners, my wife and I slept with our windows open, so we could hear the all-night calls of "whip-or-will whip-or-will whip-or-will." We waited at night for the flying squirrels that would startle and then delight us by gliding across our yard to land on the birdfeeder on our deck where we enjoyed an evening nightcap.
My fondest memories of youth are outside -- and not just on manicured ball fields. My friends and I lived outdoors in the woods, in the wild, and on the move. Nature was our playground. How could I not want to preserve that for today's youth and their future?
The Ghost of Planet Present
Out of sight, out of mind. Scrooge spent hours each day in his cold, dark office with his clerk Bob Cratchit. Yet the miser gave no thought to the struggles of the Cratchit family, nor of the strain his demands of his employee placed on the family. He was blissfully unaware of the health issues threatening the life of the youngest Cratchit, Tiny Tim. Asked for a donation to provide for the poor, Scrooge responded coldly "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
In his time with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge was able to witness both the Cratchits and his nephew Fred with friends celebrating the Christmas season. He was also forced to face the callousness of his own indifference to those close to him and in need throughout the community.
In our time, when news, live video, and firsthand reports are available instantly from all over the world, we remain nearly as cut off from that world as Scrooge was from his. People who talk about climate change in the future tense either acknowledge it only loosely as some future concern, or they reject the predictions of science entirely. It registers with them only vaguely that 1,739 Pakistanis were killed by extreme flooding between June and October of this year, or that 2.1 million were driven from their homes. The year-long, historic drought that disrupted supply chains and food supplies across Europe inflicting an estimated $20B in damages barely registers on most radars this side of the Atlantic. And even the estimated $65B in damages caused in Florida by Hurricane Ian has slipped from consciousness, thanks to the short attention span inherent in our 24-hour news cycle. With wildfires and drought up and down the US west coast, lakes and reservoirs dropping to critical levels, heatwaves scorching the country, and devastating flash flooding in St. Louis, MO and eastern Kentucky, it's just impossible to keep up with it all.
Of course, Victorian England of the 1840s was also a time of great strife and much want, and the Ghost of Christmas Present refused to let Scrooge avert his eyes from the suffering. Ours is a much larger world in the internet age, but we must resist the urge to gloss over climate tragedies near and far.
The spirit however, didn't only show Scrooge misery and sadness. They visited celebrations with the Cratchits and nephew Fred, where Scrooge was reminded of the kind of joy and merriment he hadn't felt since he was a very young man. The old miser needed to see that happiness was found within the heart, not in an accounting ledger.
In our time, it's not only that too few people see the devastating effects of climate change, it's also that they fail to appreciate the solutions we have already to deploy and scale today. Electric vehicles and heat pumps, renewable energy from solar and wind, smart grids, circular economies that upscale waste into more valuable materials, zero-emissions micro-mobility solutions, and so many other technologies to help us quickly decarbonize our world. Just as many shut out news of climate disasters near and far, they eschew thinking about changes we can make to fix the situation. They surrender to repeating what is tried, true, and familiar, trudging to a worsening end they can secretly see but refuse to own.
But as Scrooge learned at the end of his time with the Ghost of Christmas Present, ignorance is not bliss.
The Ghost of Planet Yet to Come
"Spirit of the Future, I fear you more than any spectre I have met tonight! But even in my fear, I must say that I am too old! I cannot change!"
-- Scrooge to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
On his journey through past and present, we see Scrooge's cold heart warming to the world around him. And yet, as he tells the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he cannot change. The difference now, though, is that he wants to change. He lacks only the belief in his ability to do it. And perhaps he also doubts the world will accept him if he does.
His time with the final spirit is brief by comparison to past and present. The only real task for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is to persuade Scrooge that his choice is a binary one. Change his ways or accept an ending he very much despises. Something is alive in Scrooge that was lacking for years. Suddenly, it matters.
You may argue A Christmas Carol is the story of the reformation of one soul. The climate crisis requires we change the attitudes and actions of an entire planet. But, in the end, it's all the same. Change on the broadest societal scale imaginable is still accomplished one heart and one mind at a time.
And that's my climate activist's take away from A Christmas Carol. We cannot bring about fundamental change in others by emphasizing what matters to us. We have to reconnect them to what matters to them.
"God bless us, everyone."