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.

_     _     _     _     _     _     _

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



One thought on “Optimism in Climactic Times”

  1. I agree with much of this, and had a chance to comment on the article before Woody posted it.

    Optimism, within the realms of rationality, is of course desirable. Otherwise those who are more likely to think they see the ‘coming apocalypse’ are firstly likely to be paralysed from acting themselves, and secondly their message is unlikely to be attractive to the majority who should also be moved to think and act.

    It’s often recognised in psychology that motivation is best achieved with five bits of praise for every criticism, or five ‘positives’ for each ‘negative’. Hence the coalition behind ‘Stop Climate Chaos’ recently changed that slogan to ‘For the love of…’. Some of these positives may be: we have things worth preserving now, we have knowledge about the threats and technology that may help, there are enormous co-benefits from acting in ecologically-minded ways, quality of life will improve, it’s an interesting challenge, working together is likely to build community and trust, and there’s a better, more stable world at the end of it – a convenient truth.

    Many have outlined the psychological obstacles in play, particularly as regards climate change: Clive Hamilton, George Marshall in his book _Don’t Even Think About It_. Dan Kahnemann, Dan Kahan and, as Dr Christine Parkinson summarises, a 2015 article by Robert Gifford for _New Scientist_. The threats are distant and too impersonal, too inconvenient, and Timothy Morton describes climate change as a ‘hyperobject’, just too large to grasp. Maybe we need a narrative that makes pollution and waste into some credible enemy around which humans can unite, or people may continue to defend themselves with their argument from incredulity.

    Values too are important, as they are the only thing that can translate facts into action. The value of humility and openness to challenge is indeed important, but of course there are others: we should value stability and diversity, in the sense of biodiversity. My suggestion is to expand human sympathies to creatures outside human-made environments via awareness, or even conscious anthropomorphism: off the track a bit here, the late Richard Adams seemed to succeed here, as had Black Beauty with expanding sympathies to domesticated animals.

    Getting back towards my reasons for writing, my main disagreement is with ‘it is reasonable to assume that there will be some human survivors of the sixth extinction’. It may be valid to speculate, but to assume, without quantifying how severe this destruction is, is _too_ optimistic. I’d say human survivors of something comparable to other mass extinction events is unlikely – even populous species are usually erased – and if there are, they may not be recognisably human. Humans may be adaptable but they are also very interdependent. In “Values for Our Time”, Woody disputes John Gray on this point, even suggesting our task is to prevent a ‘seventh extinction’. Were there a second human-caused extinction event, it would be classed as part of the first in the geological record.

    To be clear, there’s no sharp dividing line in geological time between five great extinction events (such as the most recent, the Cretaceous-Tertiary, 65 million years ago) and a second league of less significant disruptions that happened between other geological periods. But we will naturally have a tendency to underestimate what is meant by mass extinction since we by definition have never experienced such a thing on this planet or any other. Some are comparing current climate change with that caused by a string of volcanoes during the Permian-Triassic ‘Great Dying’ 252 million years ago, when the oceans became anoxic and the atmosphere was filled with toxic hydrogen sulphide that mammals would not be expected to survive.

    As a separate objection, any values that we promote in our rapidly changing social world are unlikely to survive a few generations, let alone the timescale and trauma encompassed by a typical extinction event. One might imagine that if there is initially education and awareness at the start of this phase, then the dwindling generations after – I imagine the post-apocalyptic novel _Riddley Walker_ – may have adopted taboos rather than values, such as a prohibition against taking anything out of the earth, or even against fire or knowledge. There may be a few human survivors, trying to make the terminal moraines of Greenland into fertile soil, while surrounded by rising, hypertrophic acidified oceans, but the climate and ecosphere that we’ve left would remain unfriendly for hundreds of thousands of years.

    What’s this to do with optimism then? The optimistic outcome has to be that we limit the coming extinction event to extinction of species rather than whole genera, families or even orders of organisms, and that it still makes enough psychological impact that ecological awareness becomes permanently codified. Such an outcome obviously will need a lot of work.

    _Values for Our Time_ validly speculates, based on _Limits to Growth_ scenarios, that reformist, technology-based ‘environmental action’ might allow greater food supply and even longer and greater population expansion, and so even greater ultimate destruction to the ecological basis of survival. This, a triumphalist techno-fix that ignores more fundamental problems, is possible but I don’t share that reading, at least not until it is supported by more detailed modelling. To me the current, largely oblivious, attitude of humans (their ‘leaders’ included) is only possible because of the inertia in the natural world meaning that the full impact of our global pollution does not become critical for several decades, plus a retreat to the cities. We’re not likely to be aware when resources can no longer technically be substituted and we’ve overgrown Illich’s second threshold into extinction. So ameliorating the damage now will give us carbon-based lifeforms more time in the future, more time to adapt, more time to realise the necessary changes, more time to save what is precious. And laying the groundwork for values systems that become much more relevant during some great ecological awakening will help: not for after the extinction event as that will be continuing, but because they may have an influence on mitigation now and then be taken up, modified and reproduced when the conditions are right, let’s say around 2060.

    I also don’t see those with the ecologically-minded values are more likely to survive, regardless of the depth of the extinction, than anyone else. There’s no natural justice at play in the destruction of the ecology of which we are part. Any human values that might protect the ecosphere must somehow become the norm. We don’t know how yet, but we do know ordinary human beings can be moved to extraordinary protective action.

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