The myth of the precipice
In the classic film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Professor Barnhardt says to the alien Klaatu, “It’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve.”
The context of the exchange in the original film is a reference to global nuclear destruction. Remember, the film was released in 1951 and based on a story written in the 1940’s by Harry Bates. Nuclear war was the biggest existential threat to humanity at the time.
The short passage of dialogue, in a way, still resonates in our modern times when you think of how we are treating our environment and the existential threat of climate change. But, the vision of calmly approaching a precipice and looking beyond into the abyss, doesn’t help us deal with our current challenges. In fact, it’s a dangerous metaphor (if there is such a thing).
The precipice in this metaphor represents our decisions. The abyss is the outcome of those decisions. The precipice of nuclear war is a decision to launch devastating weapons, or not. The precipice, whilst sheer and deadly, is clear and obvious. Black and white. The abyss – the outcome – whilst horrific, is known and easily rendered in the mind's eye.
When it comes to climate change, the idea of humanity being at a point in time to make a yes or no decision that will avert a cataclysmic outcome is actually very appealing. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut, moment in time decision we will get to make. We’re faced with an ongoing series of complex decisions that need to be made by many people in a congruent, considered manner. Each one creating knock-on effects that will threaten to derail the next decision in the chain. As for the abyss, the outcomes of our climate decisions are a murky mess of theory and counter-theory.
So our modern precipice is more of a gnarly, rock strewn slope that has no clear route and myriad ways to trip and, if not die, cause major injury. And the abyss? It’s covered in dense low cloud. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there.
There is no precipice to climate change, we need to get comfortable moving on unstable, jagged terrain. Policymakers, scientists and environmentalists must make decisions that won’t always be right, but that might get us to the next decision point further down slope. As we navigate this treacherous realm, the cloud cover will lift and we will see the abyss for what it is. But this is not an adventure for the faint hearted.