Optimism in Climactic Times

At this point in human history we could divide human beings – and just as importantly, human groups and affinity networks – into two ‘types’. Firstly, those who can’t see (or don’t want to think about) what is coming down the road towards us. Secondly, those who can, (or think they can) see clearly the apocalypse ahead.

I should apologise here for lumping many good people into the ‘don’t know, don’t care’ box. If you are struggling to cope with your immediate calamities, whether a family member facing cancer, the shells falling on your district or refuge, or simply no food on the table, then the future of all things is unlikely to be at the forefront of your mind.

For those of us who have some awareness of, and are able to worry about, the end of the present global human civilization or of the existing rich web of life on this planet – usually called the biosphere – there is the question of how we should respond.

A point to make here is that our responses will have as much to do with our temperament, our individual psychology, our reference group bearings, as with ‘the facts’.

For what it is worth our ‘facts’ may include: –

  • The rate at which our fellow creatures are becoming extinct.
  • Changes in life supporting conditions: acidification of the oceans; pollutants in the atmosphere; rising sea levels; and so on.
  • Human population/consumption outstripping regeneration of natural resources; using more and more non-replaceable reserves each year.
  • Consequential events: resource conflicts (for example water wars, land use conflicts) and famine driven people movements.
  • Psychic breakdown in social groups.
  • Eventual planet-wide panic and terror.
  • The present global economic system, requiring endless growth for its stability, may not last long.

Further, the responses may include:

  • Denial – “it won’t happen”.
  • Enlightenment optimism – “technology will fix it”.
  • Gut survival – “let’s make sure we are last ones standing”.
  • Fatalist resignation – “too late to stop it now”.
  • Immobilising terror.

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Well, as an optimist by nature who yet does accept this most likely future, how could one respond?

I want to argue that there could be three strands to how we live in these times, all shading into one another.

First, one can adopt an attitude that avoids discounting the present to the future or the ordinary to the heroic. A little act of caring from one human being to another, a little empathy for stricken creatures: these things remain valid in their own right, even if the World ends tomorrow. They are equally valid if it doesn’t!

Second, the root cause of the woes now facing us (and all creatures) is the set of values that we and others hold, and have held, while humans evolved to be the ‘dominant species’. Some indigenous peoples have seen most clearly the sheer arrogance of mass humanity with its “dominion over the Earth”. So arguing and working now for humbler values is also valid in its own right – regardless of outcomes. [This has been the main focus of my own work for several years.]

Third, it is reasonable to assume that there will be some human survivors of the sixth extinction, however terrible it proves to be. What will be the mix of values among those survivors? The proportion able to be humble and ‘enchanted by the Earth’ as against those again aiming to maximise their dominion over the Earth, their extraction from the Earth, could determine whether there will eventually be a new collapse taking its terrible toll.

Tiny fraction though we are, as individuals and as groups holding humble values (and fighting battles with our other selves every day) we can be part of that struggle of values that may determine the longer term future of our living planet, while also being authentic now: able to look ourselves in the mirror as we live in the present in this terrible yet lovely World.

Woody Wood

November 2016