On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing challenges facing the planet. One topic was the challenge of how humans can take collective action on such a massive scale. Highlights from that conversation are below. 

Catrina Rorke

“Government is not the root of cures for every public policy problem. Often we find cures in innovations in individual communities, and the creativity of humans is what leads to solutions, not the ingenuity of a bureaucrat.”

“I think this individual conversation is a really important one to have about how you feel like you participate in your community, however broadly you might define it. But everybody on Earth taking shorter, colder showers is not going to solve climate change.”

"Every day, trillions of decisions are made in the marketplace. And right now, the vast majority of them don't think about climate change as a problem. They don't think about global problems as a problem. When you buy a pack of gum, you're not thinking about the supply chain. When you take the bus, you're not thinking about, 'was this bus manufactured according to the values that I hold?' So we're in a marketplace where we're making decisions without accounting for these problems, and that marketplace itself can be constrained, not necessarily by the individual side, but by the government side."

Denise Fairchild

"The role of government is critical for mediating the climate change environment and helping individuals as well as markets perform and behave better."

“(We’ve) talked about greenhouse gas emissions and carbon and the burning of fossil fuels. Well, that's fueled by an economic model that supports an extractive economy in digging up the oils and all the fossil fuels. And the question becomes, how do we get out of the cultural mindset, that we have to have more stuff? And we have to produce more stuff, and we have to consume more stuff, that just continues to drive the conditions that cause climate change. That's the fundamental issue.”

Steve Monfort

"People need to exercise their power in making those decisions through their pocket books, but also they need to also at the ballot box. People need to become better citizens, with respect to expressing what they want, and making that known to ... those that we employ to govern us."

“One of the things that I think you can do, wherever you are, wherever you live, is to take ownership of the community in which you live in. ... Learn about it, and know about it, and try to become engaged in it.”

"I've always thought there was very little separate between art and science, at least in the environmental sciences. And we all go to a place that we have some spiritual reaction. When I was young, we went to Yosemite every year. That's, to me, it's like a cathedral. It was an experience that I had that was very impactful. But when I try to remember it, I'm never going to remember it better than Ansel Adams' photographs ... And so, to me, those are ways for me to remember and to heighten my remembrance and how I value that in my consciousness ... When I see art that's about nature, it reinforces for me this intense emotional feeling that I have arrived."

Jedidah Purdy

“I think (climate) is a commons tragedy. I think it is the largest and most general that we've ever faced. It threatens to be the commons tragedy that ate the world really. And precisely because it's so global, I think it confounds many of our ordinary expectations about how we ought to address even the most complex problems."

“So many of the environmental problems we're talking about will not be solved by more virtuous personal and local action. ... And so our optimism is cruel and incomplete if it doesn't include saying that one of the things people need to do is see how hard the problem is, and what kinds of changes at the level of the architecture of economic rules and power we're working within have to happen. ... These are really questions of collective power.”

"Often in the tradition of law and philosophy, questions of justice among human beings and questions of environment have been thought of with separate vocabularies and separate silos. And I think in quite a deep way environmental questions can't be siloed going further."

Tuck Hines

"You have to interact and take responsibility for yourself. Yes, you are one person. But that's what you can control, for sure. And you can make that happen by connecting to others through culture and choices."

"There is a business approach. Business is not always the problem. It can also solve problems. It's a powerful force, and everybody needs to make a living. So the question is, can those be done in a way that's consistent with, and incentivized to, solving the problems. I think there are many examples of that. Certainly, renewable energy is a great example of that. But there are lots and lots of others."

"The biggest challenge is to (use) economic incentives, with scientific understanding, to shift our economies off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energies. And at as fast a possible pace as possible. Or the inertia of the system of this giant planet that we're on will overcome us."


Jedediah Purdy image
Jedediah Purdy

professor of law Duke University and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Catrina Rorke image
Catrina Rorke

senior fellow for energy policy, R Street Institute

Mary Evelyn Tucker image
Mary Evelyn Tucker

co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University