Rebels with a Cause: Young people calling our attention to the reality of climate change

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Naïve and innocent are two of the most widely used adjectives to describe teenagers like a sixteen-year old young lady who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” one of the songs in The Sound of Music by Rogers and Hammerstein. Other widely used adjectives to describe teenagers—and young people in general—include such words as: angry, foolish, ignorant, impatient, reckless, and wild. These adjectives reflect the conventional view of young people that is prevalent in almost all cultures. In contrast, grown-ups, and older people, are described as being discretionary, knowledgeable, stable, and wise.

There is, of course, an exception to the conventional view of young people. We are made aware of such an exception on September 23, 2019, when a sixteen-year old Swedish young lady by the name of Greta Thunberg challenged the older generations in the world to address the critical issue of climate change with her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. As she sees it, the older generations have stolen her dream and her childhood with empty words about how they are dealing with the issue of climate change. She accuses the older generations because all they talk about is “money and fairly tales of eternal economic growth.”

Given that business leaders and policy makers are still preoccupied with economic growth, it is clear that the older generations do not want to admit that the idea of eternal economic growth is a deluded idea in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. They refuse to accept that what is at stake is sustainability, not just of the kind of material standards of living we have become accustomed to but also of the life of humans and all other species on our planet. An increasing number of extinctions of plants and animals reported in the world around us is a clear warning for us because the sustainability of any life depends on the sustainability of the natural environment, which is the whole ecological system with an intricate network of connections and interactions among all living and non-living systems.

In a way, the term “sustainable development” mentioned frequently in academic discourses and political debates seems to have become an excuse for not confronting the critical issue of sustainability of all living and non-living systems in the natural environment. Most economists and politicians find it difficult to dissociate the discussion of economic development from their preoccupation with economic growth and simply define sustainable development as “sustainable economic growth.” Other definitions of sustainable development include: “environmentally sound economic progress,” “ecologically balanced environmental management,” and “the steady-state in the use of matter-energy in relation to the size of human population.” None of these definitions of “sustainable development” is sustainable in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. Instead of talking about “sustainability,” we should really be talking about “viability,” for what is being threatened by climate change is the viability of the whole ecological system that includes all living as well as non-living systems in the natural environment.

As a guiding principle, “viability” requires that the use of matter-energy be “minimized” so that the viability of the biosphere, or the space of ecological interaction among all living and non-living systems in the natural environment, is maintained. The requirement of “minimization” in the use of matter-energy in the biosphere applies to renewable as well as non-renewable resources because all resources are subject to the laws of thermodynamics in the finite universe we live in. This means that reusing and recycling of resources must be done to the fullest extent possible, for economizing the use of resources is one way to make sure that “the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” as the World Commission on Environment and Development reminded us in its 1987 report Our Common Future.

“Viability” as a guiding principle requires that the present generation change its behavior in consideration of what its behavior means for the welfare of future generations. The ethical dimension is essential for “viability”: the code of good behavior on the part of the present generation in a viable society should not be myopic in addressing the issue of climate change in consideration of the welfare of future generations. As Greta Thunberg gives us this warning: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” It is incumbent on us grown-ups to start listening to young people who are showing us what needs to be done to protect the fragile ecological system called Earth. The urgency of the task for us echoed by Jim Stark, the main character of the 1955 movie, Rebel Without A Cause: “I want answers now. I’m not interested in what I’ll understand ten years from now.” While Jim Stark was a rebel without a cause, Greta Thunberg and her cohorts are rebels with a cause who are calling us to wake up to the reality of climate change: “The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

“Summer Afternoon”: Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” These are the words of Henry James as quoted in A Backward Glance, an autobiography of Edith Wharton published in 1934. Summer afternoon in the English countryside must have been lovely back in the early years of the twentieth century, for it was in 1908 on the occasion of his visit to Bodiam Castle with Edith Wharton that Henry James uttered these words. Edith Wharton expresses her agreement with Henry James when she opens the paragraph in which these words are quoted with a line: “One perfect afternoon we spent at Bodiam.”

This was, of course, back in the first years of the twentieth century when the term “global warming” was not in wide circulation as it is now. In fact, it was in 2001 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, with a warning about the potential impact of global warming on the future of human civilizations. Would Henry James use the same words now to describe summer afternoon in the English countryside where the high temperature often goes well beyond 35˚C (95˚F)? For example, the high temperature reached 38.5˚C in August 2003 in Haversham, Kent, which is adjacent to East Sussex where Henry James was in the summer of 1908. And what about Shakespeare? It was back in 1609 when he published his Sonnets, which includes a sonnet that begins with a line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Would he continue to use a summer’s day as a metaphor for loveliness and temperateness? What imagery would he use now to describe a summer’s day when the brutal summer heat covers the English countryside, not just the cities?

As we all know by now, it is not just England that started to see the record high temperatures in the twenty-first century. In 2007, 15 countries set the record for high temperatures. It is no coincidence, then, that the Japan Meteorological Agency decided to introduce a new category of “Extremely Hot Summer Days” in April 2007 to refer to the days of brutal summer heat with the high temperature exceeding 35˚C. The decision to introduce the new category, in addition to the two previous categories of “Summer Days” (25~29˚C) and “Hot Summer Days” (30-34˚C), was in response to the recognition, on the part of the Japan Meteorological Agency, that “Extremely Hot Summer Days” are occurring too often and that the public need to be warned about the health hazards of high summer temperatures. As a matter of fact, it is customary for weather forecasters now to include the warning about the potential danger of heat strokes whenever the high temperature is expected to exceed 35˚C in the days ahead, advising people to avoid strenuous outdoor activities and to take plenty of liquids.

Hiking is certainly one of those strenuous outdoor activities that we need to refrain from on “Hot Summer Days,” let alone on “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Strenuous or not, Matsuo Basho, known as the finest master of haiku, is also known for his extensive travels on foot while composing his haiku. It was on July 13 of 1689 that Basho composed one of his best-known haiku for summer: “sizukasa ya/ iwa ni simiiru/ semi no koe (In serenity/ Deep into rocks penetrate/ Cicadas’ chorus)”. Basho was at Risshaku-ji in Yamagata Prefecture when he composed this haiku. Since Risshaku-ji is also known as Yamadera, or “Mountain Temple,” constructed as it is on the side of a rocky mountain, it must have been a strenuous walk for Basho to reach this temple, with no easy access like a railroad station nearby which is now available to visitors. Considering how secluded the temple must have been back then, it is easy to imagine how Basho must have enjoyed a serene moment of meditation there, while listening to cicadas’ chorus. Perhaps summer heat was not as bad as it has since become.

Yamagata Prefecture, though located in the northern region of Japan, is not exempted from “Extremely Hot Summer Days.” Yamagata City, the capital of the prefecture, had the high temperature of 40.8˚C back in July of 1933, the highest recorded temperature in Japan until August of 2007 when two other cities broke the record with the high temperature of 40.9˚C. Even this new record did not last long, and was replaced by another record high temperature of 41˚C in 2013. Then in 2018, two cities matched this new record high temperature and another city set yet another record with the high temperature of 41.1˚C. What is becoming increasingly clear is that an extremely hot summer afternoon is not suitable either for hiking or for serene meditation even for a vigorous walker like Basho. Instead of appreciating serenity amid cicadas’ chorus, a twenty-first century disciple of Basho might compose a haiku that expresses a sense of sympathy for cicadas singing in the brutal summer heat: “natu no gogo/ mosho ni aegu/ semi no koe (Summer afternoon/ Even cicadas’ chorus/ Sounds feeble with heat)”. Whether we like it or not, it is time to ask for a second opinion as to whether “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language or, for that matter, in any language.