Various recent occurrences have convinced me that the need for openness, as opposed to close-mindedness, has never been greater. The greatest present challenge for us (almost 8 billion of us globally) is climate change. To adequately cope with it, we will need tremendous imagination and creativity, both of which necessitate openness. Often in the past I have written of these three virtues (see here for a list of my previous writings), as well as the need for a pragmatic, non-dogmatic, approach to problems.
Having just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020), the mind-boggling changes needed for humans to maintain a sustainable, not-too-hot, world hit me like gale-force winds. Yet, we humans find it hard to discard old habits, old ways of thought. In Chapter 24 Robinson writes of our perpetual “cognitive errors” and biases like the “anchor bias (you want to stick to your first estimate, or to what you have been told) or your wanting to “think an explanation you can understand is more likely to be true than one you can’t.” His conclusion? “On and on it goes.”
About a year ago on LA Progressive, I detailed some of the many ways we are irrational. The article also quoted the theologian Thomas Merton, who once wrote,“We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.” And it quoted Franklin Roosevelt’s advice, “take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another.” His exhortation that follows–“We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely”–is also apt.
Both men suggest that in dealing with “ethical and political problems” like climate change we need to take a pragmatic, non-dogmatic, approach. In his 2015 encyclical on climate, Pope Francis took a similar stance.
Yet, at the end of 2021, where do we see this spirit in regard to climate change? After two weeks in Glasgow, Scotland, covering COP26, the United Nations climate conference, The Washington Post concluded that “many world leaders expressed disappointment with the final agreement, saying it is not enough to stop catastrophic warming.” A month later the same newspaper reported that “President Biden’s climate agenda suffered a massive setback Sunday after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) pulled his support from Democrats’ spending bill, potentially dooming the legislation amid warnings from scientists that the world is running out of time to prevent climate change’s most catastrophic effects.” Manchin, it should be noted, “received more money from the fossil-fuel industry during the past election cycle than did anyone else in the Senate.”
Although Manchin is a Democrat (at least for the present), roadblocks to addressing climate change have come mainly from Republicans. A 2021 Gallup poll indicated that 82 percent of Democrats believed that global warming had already begun, but only 29 percent of Republicans agreed. Moreover, most Americans still think many other issues are more important.
Stuck in our old habits, our old biases, our old ways of thinking, our old “needs” (actually, often really “wants”), plus now our Trumpian political polarization and new preoccupation with avoiding covid, our chances of meeting the climate-change crisis head on seem remote indeed. From where will the needed leadership, imagination, creativity, and openness come? One need only read The Ministry for the Future to realize that the new world that must be created can not just be an extension of our present unsustainable existence. Like Mikhail Gorbachev once said (regarding Russian foreign policy), we need “new thinking.”
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Although addressing climate change should be our number 1 priority, other phases of our lives also cry out for openness. Look at our present gridlocked political process, worsened in recent years by the narcistic behavior of Donald Trump. In his 2015 Address to Congress Pope Francis told the U.S. Congress, “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” Dialogue is one of his favorite words and he eschews rigid dogmatism and intolerance and believes that people should reason together to advance the common good. In a 2013 sermon he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “It is a serious illness . . . . rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”
Of course, openness is not all that is essential for political progress. Passion for justice and truth are also needed, but we progressives must not think we have monoplies on those virtues, and we must recognize that we can also sometimes be too dogmatic and close minded.
Although much more could be said about our present political polarization, let’s pass on from that here and also note that more openness is also needed in our personal and social lives. During our preseent coronavirus epidemic, many of us have seen our usual routines disrupted, whether in schools, businesses, or our leisure activities. To get through our present crises successfully we must be flexible and open. Those who insist on maintaining all their old habits--always going maskless, for example--will have a much tougher time.
Although those of us who are older and retired have usually had to make fewer adjustments than those still in schools or with jobs, the latter years of life also require many adjustments. And those who adjust best are those who remain open.
I have been reminded of this by another book, one I am still reading: Joyce Carol Oates’ Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars: A Novel (2019). It involves a couple in their sixties and their five grown children. The father, John Earle McClaren (Whitey), has a stroke and is hospitalized. His wife, Jessalyn, thinks that once he is transfered “to a rehabilitation clinic . . . . his therapy will mean a massive overhauling” of her life. For weeks or maybe months she visit him regularly in the clinic. “When Whitey returns home, Jessalyn will be his primary caretaker. She has been online learning about the post-stroke therapy he will be prescribed, which is grueling and relentless but (almost) guaranteed to ‘work miracles.’ She is planning to take a training course at the local community college—Life after Stroke: A Learner’s Manual.” Meanwhile, however, she is “at the hospital from morning to night.”
I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether husband Whitey continues to live throughout Oates’ almost-800-page novel. But sooner or later most older couples have to deal with sickness and death, and one of them usually becomes a widow or widower, which once again--if one is going to flourish--requires great openness.
Walter G. Moss