Tom Stoppard's great classic Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead combines Shakespeare's Hamlet with Samuel Becket's Waiting For Godot to reveal the danger of ignorance and passivity in a corrupt and violent world. Becket's Vladimir and Estragon are, as the title suggests, adrift in their own lives, waiting for an answer that never comes, from a near mythical authority that never appears. They are neither inspired nor motivated. Their existence is a tragicomic vapidity.
But Holocaust refugee Stoppard recognized that while some may live in a near existential void, the world around them does not. Some may be paralyzed by confusion and indecision, but the world around them is not. The Denmark of Hamlet is awash with intrigue and conspiracy. But in Stoppard's version, the willing pawns that are Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become unwitting and oblivious stooges. They are no less doomed for it.
Anyone that pays attention to the science understands that humanity now faces an unprecedented, and possibly existential, threat. As Al Gore likes to say, we are conducting a giant chemistry experiment with our atmosphere, and the consequences are unknown. Frank Egler once made what I consider to be the most salient statement ever about the environment:
Nature is not only more complex than we think. It is more complex than we can think.
Ocean acidification, and methane release from thawing tundra, may, by themselves, threaten our very existence. Rising oceans, storms of unprecedented intensity, desertification, loss of arable land and potable water, migration of deadly diseases, massive extinctions and a host of other disasters certainly await. It has been estimated that there are already tens of millions of climate refugees, and it has been estimated that there are hundreds of millions more to come. Beyond the pure environmental impacts, try to imagine hundreds of millions of people forced to flee their homelands, in search of food, water, and shelter. Desperate people do desperate things. Desperate governments do desperate things. The world is brimming with all manner of deadly weaponry. The world is not brimming with wisdom and rationality.
None of the world's political, economic, and military powers are even close to addressing climate change in anything close to a responsible manner. Those not actively making the problem worse are, nonetheless, doing almost nothing to make it better. The world is in crisis, and its leaders are dithering. This is the basis for much of the outrage at President Obama's announcement about offshore oil drilling. Meeting our energy needs is relatively trivial. Liberating ourselves from foreign sources of oil is even more trivial. Creating some jobs in an obsolete industry is an almost embarrassing rationale. Attempting to score cheap political points with an unappeasable right wing would be laughable if it weren't so sad. All of it misses the point. So does a tweak of fuel efficiency standards, when we should be doing everything humanly possible to break our addiction to that fuel.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration missed one of the most important moments in the history of our nation, and possibly our world. Sane, responsible leaders would have seized that moment to lead an honest discussion about the paradigm shift that is needed in our economy and our very way of life. Sane, responsible leaders would have talked about the necessity of great collective sacrifice, as we forcibly evolved ourselves into what would eventually become a healthier, more prosperous, and sustainable future. Instead, of course, we had the worst possible government at the worst possible time.
President Obama has rare and unique political skills. The man can flat out lead. He can teach. He can convince. He can use both intellect and charisma to move people's minds, hearts, and souls. We desperately need him to be using those skills to do the job the Bush Administration abdicated. He is immensely popular, in much of the world, and he can, if he chooses, lead the world. We desperately need his leadership on climate change. The world desperately needs his leadership. We need him to explain that we must move beyond fossil fuels as expeditiously as is possible. We need him to explain that this is a moment for Manhattan Project urgency. We need him to explain that this is a moment for Marshall Plan intensity.
Promoting the idea of drilling for more oil is exactly the wrong message. It cannot be justified as a political maneuver, because the politics demands the blunt truth. It cannot be justified on economic grounds, because the economy as we know it cannot survive the consequences of climate change. It is not clear that we, as a species, can survive the consequences of climate change. Every resource at our disposal must be used to address this impending crisis, and that begins with our most basic human resources. Our minds. Our wisdom. Our strength. Our determination. We don't have time to waste.
Toward the end of Stoppard's great play, having been swept up in the political machinations about which he had been blithely oblivious, Guildenstern has a moment of great clarity. It is just before he is to be taken to his execution:
There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said "no." Somehow, we missed it. Well, we'll know better next time.
This is a moment in our collective history when we must say "yes" to courage and sacrifice and paradigmatic change. Somehow, we are missing it. There will be no next time.