Experts agree that we are experiencing perilous climate change that calls the fate of our experiment in civilization into question. As severe weather strikes one continent and mysterious die-offs occur in another, the death rattle of the natural environment grows louder. “Where have all the fireflies gone?” we wonder, and then the scientists confirm that they have noted their absence as well. Once the so-called experts step in and the media assures us that abnormal things are indeed happening, we suppress our alarm and resume sleepwalking through ironic consumption. Is this the only way we can experience climate change?
“Experience” is a word we use everyday so it should be easy to define what it means. Some would argue that to experience climate change is to acknowledge its existence. They see experience as living through an event, and they hope to weather what awaits by maintaining the lifestyle that brought us this historical, ecological moment. Those who treat an experience as something to be survived see climate change as something that can be dealt with using the tools of advanced technology, international diplomacy and public education campaigns. “We can get through this,” might be their admirable motto and most of our society could be counted as their supporters.
But “experience” has another meaning that we ought to consider. The words “experiment,” “expert” and “experience” are related: an expert is often someone who gains experience through experiments. The expert need not be a scientist; we also gain experience by submitting ourselves to life-experiments like outdoor adventures, risky activism or dangerous thinking. After one of these experiences, we've transformed ourselves and come closer to our full potential. Experience, it seems, has some connection to a test that puts our self into question.
It may not be a surprise to learn that the common root which “expert,” “experiment” and “experience” share is the Latin word experiri, which means “to put to the test.” In fact, we can go one step further and say that every experience is a dangerous test. I do not say this without cause but instead am referring back to the Latin root experiri, which comes from periculum meaning test, trial, risk, danger or, as it is commonly translated: peril. The other meaning of the word experience is thus to be in peril.
Those who understand experience in this second sense will grasp climate change as a perilous existential and civilizational trial. Nature, via climate change, is charging us with ecocide and we must respond if we want to avoid the death sentence. It is no defense to cling to life as it was before today in the hopes of surviving the weather of tomorrow – that is merely blind denial to the trial taking place.
Instead, we must put our selves, our minds, our souls and our way of life under review. We can respond to the charges brought against us only by renouncing the industrial, consumerist worldview that brought us to this catastrophic point. To experience climate change is to be called to take part in an experiment after which the world as we know it is forever changed.
Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He is writing a book on the future of activism.