Hope, Despair and the Climate Crisis

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This is about how we respond to the Climate Crisis and the relentless bad news about it-with despair, or with hope.  I’ll tip my hand and say it is really about how to fight off despair and find hope for the future.

It’s not easy to find hope.  For thanks to the climate crisis, the prospects for a livable future just keep getting worse.

I’ve written many times about the Climate Crisis over the past several years on various community blogs, and I notice several repeated reactions in comments.  Some offer their favorite solutions, or write about what they are doing personally to limit their carbon footprint.  But many responses are more emotional.

 There is fear, partly the product of quite natural denial-not denying the reality of global heating, but staying in denial about it as much as possible, while obsessing on much smaller issues.  There is anger, about how we allowed this to happen, etc. And there is despair: the world is coming to an end, and there’s really nothing we can do about it.

Despair, like anger, is another expression of fear.  But it is not entirely irrational.  How can it be, when we do face the real possibility of catastrophe?  

People have basically two reasons for despair: they believe that in its present state, humanity won’t meet this challenge.  There are too many political, economic and cultural barriers.  Humanity isn’t smart enough yet, mature enough, enlightened enough. And then there’s human nature: greed and fear will overcome.  

The second reason for despair is that resistance is futile: that the tipping points have all been passed, and there’s nothing humanity can do anyway to prevent catastrophe.  

It’s hard to argue with either of these reasons.  They may prove to be true.  But there are also counterarguments to each of them.

Humanity may not be smart enough to handle this, to even understand the problems.  There may not be enough humans who can hold back panic and despair itself, or control selfishness on an individual, family, community or national level.  

 But there is precedent for societies that acted with courage, and understood that in a crisis, we are all in this together. Even in the midst of confusion and apparent incompetence.  Read about London in the Blitz and you can see the elements of it: self-respect, fellow feeling, cultural identity and pride, good example and leadership.

In terms of smarts, beginning about four score and ten years ago, we began to develop one important conceptual tool: the ability to imagine the future: to use scientific facts and human insights to imagine future events and conditions (as the IPPC reports do), and how people will react to them (as this “Age of Consequences” report does.)  And if they are bad outcomes, how people can cope with them, or even better, how we might prevent them from ever happening.

Since then, we’ve gotten more sophisticated and more subtle in using this tool.  We’ve developed  working theories of ecology (how life works together) and complexity (how everything depends on everything else.)  It turns out we’ve got many of the tools to confront this crisis, to guide us to what we need to develop technologically, what we need to anticipate and do. And even how we might feel along the way.

It’s true that how or whether we use these tools will be the test of our civilization.  If we do it right, we go on and get better, building on the best of what we’ve done for the past ten thousand, and even hundred thousand years.  If we don’t, then we may very well fail as a civilization, and even as a species.

We may fail.  But we do have choices, collectively and individually.  People who talk about human nature-or who make relentless movies and video games about violence and revenge as the default human responses-tend to stress the negative.  Even the “survival of the fittest”/”selfish gene” evolutionists emphasize these impulses and strategies.

But not everyone-not even every evolutionist-believes violence and selfishness are good survival strategies, especially in social species, and now especially in one that controls the destiny of a lot of the life on the planet.  There are plenty of examples of unselfishness as survival strategies in animals and humans.  

Even early evolutionists, like Darwin’s close friend Thomas Henry Huxley knew that humanity had the capacity and the choice to transcend certain instincts -and he believed humanity would only survive if it acted (as he said) “ethically.”  

That we have these capacities and these choices has been known for much longer. There’s a story that appears in many versions, appearing most often these days as a Cherokee tale.  The briefest version might go like this:  

Grandfather told his grandchildren: ” Sometimes it is as though there is a terrible fight going on inside me, between two wolves. One wolf is full of anger, he fights for no reason, he is selfish, full of arrogance, resentment and despair. The other wolf lives in harmony and hope, he is giving and compassionate, and only fights when it is right to do so, and in the right way. It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”    

They thought about it for a minute, and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”

Grandfather smiled and said quietly, “The one you feed.”

So it is reasonable to say that humanity can make such choices in time?  This brings up the question of how much time we have-and the second reason for despair: that time has already run out.

In a sense this is certainly true.  That is, the climate crisis is not a prediction-it is a reality.  Its consequences are being felt today, almost everywhere.  And the consequences are bound to be larger in the next ten, 20, 30 years than they are now.  We are reasonably sure of this because the greenhouse gases that will cause those consequences have already been spewed into the atmosphere.  There’s just a length of time between cause and effect, and the time for effect is still in our near future.

Though the emphasis has been on preventing even worse consequences farther in the future by stopping greenhouse gas pollution, the warnings about preparing for the near future have been stated, though not exactly shouted. Most recently it was half buried in the IPPC report.

The reason these warnings have been relatively quiet, and not heard clearly anyway, is thatwe’re used to thinking in either/or terms but this isn’t an either/or situation. It isn’t that we either have a Climate Crisis if we keep on spewing CO2 or if we stop spewing it, we don’t have a Climate Crisis.  

As I’ve been saying for months, we have to understand this crisis requires two sets of actions.  We have to prepare for inevitable effects in the near future-everything from seawalls and emergency response to public health and plans to deal with changes in food and water supplies and impacts on local economies, to animal and human migrations, to conflict resolution on a big scale.  This is what I’ve been calling the “fix it” aspect, and others are beginning to call “adaptation,” which I think is a very bad word choice (but that’s for another time.)  And we have to end greenhouse pollution, find alternative energy and other solutions in order to save the farther future, and ultimately, our civilization and as much of our planet’s life as we can.  That’s the “stop it” aspect. (Which those same tin-earred technocrats call “mitigation.”)

If we pick just one, we fail. And the particular danger for progressives/Democrats is to continue to ignore the “fix it” aspect until something really bad happens for which we are unprepared, and the political shit hits the fan.  And the despair becomes more than theoretical-because unless people know to expect some effects, any effects could make them believe that it’s all over, we’ve failed, we’re all doomed.

At the same time–literally at the same time–if we devote all our attention to “fixing it” (as some GOPers and corporations would gladly have us do)and none to “stopping it”, we condemn the far future and quite possibly the human race to massive suffering and eventual oblivion. We must do both.

Are we all doomed anyway?  Individually, of course, we all are, eventually.  We’re mortal.  But is this civilization doomed? Is the future of our grandchildren all but gone?  

It’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we talk about the future.  For despite what we project and imagine, and regardless of whether we regard the future with despair or not, there is one unassailable fact about it: the future hasn’t happened yet.

We can imagine future scenarios, but those scenarios are in the present.  The future is in that sense a fiction.  

Of course it is responsible to develop and use the best information, to prepare for dire possibilities and probabilities, and try to prevent them if possible.  To do so, we have to think of these future scenarios as real.  But really, they aren’t.  We cannot say for certain what will happen. Our actions may change the future, and they may not. But our responsibility to the future is what we do in the present.  We will not even know if what we are doing is futile or not.  And in a real sense, it doesn’t matter.

We live in the present, and what do we live with here? Despair.  And/or hope.  They aren’t in the future either.  Hope and despair are conditions of our present.

There are reasons to hope.  Progressives like Howard Zinn, Rebecca Solnit and Naomi Klein can give you inspiring examples from history and in the present. Environmental and spiritual activists talk about The Great Turning, and some New Agers still herald the Age of Aquarius.  

But in the end, past and present examples and future scenarios can only be encouraging or discouraging, guides and good examples, or warnings and cautionary tales.  They can’t tell you that hopefulness or despair turn out to be correct. For neither despair nor hope are conditions of the future.  They are conditions of the present. They motivate us or prevent us from acting.  They help give our lives meaning or sour our living moments.  They prompt us to give, or they urge us towards selfishness.

And in the final analysis neither is reasonable nor unreasonable.  They are choices, and commitments.

The single person who started us imagining the future in the ways we imagine it these days was H.G. Wells.  He did it with a little-known speech (“The Discovery of the Future”) and a best-selling book (Anticipations) that is now forgotten, but it started the scientific approach to the future.  And a few years earlier he’d done it with his famous novel, “The Time Machine,” which started a particular way that science fiction imagines the future.  

In that story, the time Traveller visits the future, where he finds the human race divided into two species, destroying each other.  He goes briefly into the farther future, and sees the planet fade to its end.  He returns to late 19th century London and tells his story.  No one believes him, but one friend, named Hillyer, listens to him.  Hillyer (who is actually the narrator of the novel) acknowledges that the Traveller “thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.”

A sobered Hillyer himself concludes:

“If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”

I don’t think Hillyer meant that the dire possibilities of the future if humankind remains on its destructive course should just be ignored in daily life.  Certainly Wells did not feel that way. Wells told an interviewer that The Time Machine was about “the responsibility of men to mankind.  Unless humanity hangs together, unless all strive for the species as a whole, we shall end in disaster.”   Today he might also emphasize that humanity’s survival depends on the environment that sustains it.  

To live as though it were not so is to enact hope.  To work towards a future in which humanity flourishes, body and soul, can be a joy of the present.  

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who certainly read H.G. Wells in college, wrote a widely quoted statement:

“… the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  

We might read this today as a warning against either/or thinking.  But that’s only one part of Fitzgerald’s statement.  The part that is usually forgotten-and which sounds very much like Hillyer in The Time Machine, goes like this:

“One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”


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  1. This is very well written.  I can’t think of thing to add.

  2. (or whatever you want to call it — I’m not terribly fond of that name)

    involves keeping oil, coal, natural gas etc. in the ground.  Crude oil, being vital to the running of civilization itself, offers an economic example of Say’s Law: what is produced will be consumed.  Thus the dedicated efforts of a minority to “consume less” and to “invest in alternative energy” will do nothing against the weight of that less fortunate majority for whom fossil-fuel burning counts as “economic development.”  

    To keep the fossil fuels in the ground, the energy fields will have to be taken away from profit-hungry corporations.  Ordinary capitalist government, which is for the most part owned and operated by corporations, won’t do that job.  A takeover of the state by some sort of populist force dedicated to social change might do the trick.

  3. Buhdy’s excellent essay Circles and Circles. Hope seems a vague concept that springs from fear the child of fear. As a youngster I loved the Existentialists and Zen, both of which seem to focus on the importance of the now, and action that is not born out of fear or despair. Great essay.    

  4. The way to “stop it” is just maybe fixing it.

    Preachers haven’t been noticeably successful in ending sin no matter how often they inveigh against it.  Those who offer alternatives may be more helpful though sin will remain with us.  

    There are many forms of energy that can be tapped outside of fossil fuels and nuclear energy.  

    Some alternative energy power plants are said to now be less costly to build than coal burning plants.

    Then why not do it?

    Because folks are resistant to change is my first explanation. Takes getting used to things.

    Best,  Terry


  5. good to avoid despair….

    and good to avoid denial or distraction…..

    yet there may be one glitch in the frame…..

    we live in ahistorical times……

    nothing within the cultural inheritance prepares us for this….

    perhaps the true challenge for us is to stop seeing through the familiar whispering of mother culture….

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