The depressed environmentalist? Part 1

Sometimes you feel like it is time to give up. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 400ppm for the first time; our hope of staying under the “safe” 2C rise depends on increasingly urgent policy changes and on international action which seems ever-distant; the UK government seems to be turning away from renewable energy. This piece from Rob Hopkins sums up some of the gloom:

Certainly as we hit 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human existence, with not even a plan to avoid 600 ppm, 800 ppm, and then 1000 — not even a national discussion or an outcry by the so-called intelligentsia – it is worth asking, why?

and he goes on to note a UN source who has told him that

that it was her sense from talking to people she knows in the UN and other organisations, that there seems to be a consensus to give it another 18 months, 2 years at most, and then the funding and political effort will shift from mitigation and into adaptation and defence….
The consensus will shift to the assumption being that it is now too late.

Meanwhile, our species is spending around 1% of global GDP on trying to locate and exploit new oil reserves, twice the investment on renewable energy. But we need to keep the oil flowing or else the economy will collapse, or at least the oil companies’ value will be drastically reduced, taking down our pension funds and everyone else who invests in them. And so on…

Few seem to see these issues as priorities, and a small but loud minority try to convince others they aren’t true or worth bothering with at all: engaging with such people seldom does anything except use up valuable time.

It’s no wonder that hope is in short supply in some quarters, particularly for those who think we’ve already passed the tipping point into inevitable and serious climate change effects. I’ve previously written about the Dark Mountain Project; the latest trend doing the rounds is Near-Term Extinction (NTE), sparked off by a long essay, The irreconcilable acceptance of near-term extinction by Daniel Drumright. On his reading of the evidence, we are now committed to the destruction of a large proportion of the life on Earth in the next few decades, and mass famine for humanity before that.

Amongst the questions he poses is how we respond to this personally and emotionally. How do we face the future when we have no future? For him, the answer may be suicide: a rational choice “to avoid needless suffering”, but he recognises others’ answers may be different.

Even if you aren’t as pessimistic as Drumright and only believe that humanity is in decline, or perceived decline, or just faces great instability and uncertainty this is a reasonable question to be asking. You can look around at what humanity is doing, and see its greed, lack of care for future generations and just sheer stupidity. You can look back at the dream of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s and see how much of their hopes were fulfilled. John Michael Greer writes on this topic

Back in the heady days of its early successes, … environmental protection [was seen] as the next step forward in the same trajectory of social progress that included the civil rights movement and second wave feminism… That hope is dead. If there was ever a chance to achieve it, it went whistling down the wind decades ago, and at this point the jaws of resource depletion and environmental degradation are tightening around the collective throat of the world’s industrial societies, in exactly the fashion predicted in detail forty years ago in the pages of The Limits to Growth. Even if the green technologies promoted by an increasingly frantic minority of environmentalists could support something like today’s rates of energy use, which they can’t, we can no longer afford the sort of massive buildout of those technologies that would be necessary to supplant even a significant part of our current fossil fuel consumption.

With the realistic chance of a smooth transformation to a sustainable future almost certainly well gone now, we’re facing a difficult future even if, by some miracle, we start make wiser choices, and even the ideal way forward is extremely unclear. Somehow we need to cut the Gordian knot of our overentangled unsustainable existence without the whole thing falling apart completely.

So it’s temping to think (in the words of the Internet meme) “I don’t want to live on this planet any more”. Or, moving from Futurama to St Paul, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). If it were possible to precipitate the second coming and let God sort the mess out, I’m sure many Christian environmentalists would be tempted to do so.

What do we do and how do we respond to this situation? How do we keep going? Reflecting on these issues, I’ve found a few things helpful, which I’ll describe in part 2 of this post next week.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The depressed environmentalist? Part 1

  1. Ian Christie

    Fascinating. Thanks for this, and also to DD and CB for their work. I admire the honesty and clarity of Daniel’s outpouring. But I will reject it, for the reasons given below. Before that, anyone interested in extinction and its metaphysical import might want to read Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, a work of philosophy that assumes the meaningless of existence and the inevitability of extinction, cosmic as well as terrestrial. Brassier argues that extinction confirms the pointlessness of life and human striving – except the striving for Truth, especially scientific truths. So he contradicts himself – there is something worth living for after all, but he can’t find a transcendental ground of value from which that emerges. That is worth reflecting on for anyone tempted by Daniel’s essay: are you really a nihilist?

    If you aren’t, you are committed to the view that there are things, experiences and lives that are valuable in themselves, and that this value is somehow grounded in human or cosmic existence. Daniel himself senses the value of the world experienced as a Gift, even as he considers suicide, in fact especially as he thinks of the last days of his own exploring. Which brings me to reasons to refuse to follow him all the way.

    First, we are always already facing our own death. Does life lose value in the light of that? Our death is the end of our own world entire, yet so many of us do not see that as a reason for despair. Nor do we see the scenarios for cosmic extinction as grounds for hopelessness and suicide. We retain hope .. in something. Is this foolish?

    No, for two reasons in connection with DD’s essay. One is that his analysis of the inevitability of the NTE is by no means unanswerable. We have no good reason to assume that even climate disruption is unavoidable if we only get our act together politically and economically. We have no reason to think that we have all the knowledge required to make a NTE scenario the most likely. And in the light of that uncertainty, there is hope – diminishing, it is true – that a different set of futures can be generated by cooperation, courage, altruism and enlightened self-interest.

    The second is that in the last analysis, there is only one alternative to nihilism, and that is faith (= trust and hope, not certainty or blind belief) in meaning and goodness as intrinsic to the world, guaranteed by a transcendent source (I call it God) that will not let what is valuable ever perish (see the conclusion of McCarthy’s The Road). And that uncertainty which is faith can also give us hope that our action for a better world will always be meaningful even if not always successful in our lifetimes.

    Courage! Stay with us.

  2. Colin Bell

    Ian, many thanks for these thoughts. I wasn’t aware of Brassier but looks like something I should be reading. (I’ve linked to an online copy of the book.) Do you have an opinion on how it compares to John Michael Greer’s thinking (notably in the recent Not the Future We Ordered and the series of blog posts I linked to above?

    Looking at your sources for hope, this is something I’m exploring in a chapter I’m writing for a book at present, and they also, I think, parallel the ideas of proximate and ultimate hope that Richard Bauckham describes (see part 2 of this post).

    On the first, it’s very difficult to make a judgment call as to how much climate disruption is now inevitable, and even harder to work out what the popular view on this is going to be at a given point. I chose Drumright as a discussion partner because his more extreme position makes the questions clearer. I’m not nearly as pessimistic as him, but I think we’re foolish if we don’t plan for the situation where it becomes clear to people in general that major climate disruption is either on the way or already here. (This point has already been reached by many communities in the developing world: I reckon it’s more likely than not to be true in the UK by the end of the decade.)

    The second raises two fairly fundamental questions. One is how people who have no faith of this form will react, and what help can those of us who do have a faith give them. (This is the subject of the chapter I’m writing so I’ll hold off for now.) The second, relating to your historical note to part 2 of this post, is how resilient we are as individuals and communities compared to those who went through and survived previous crises. Again, this is a big and debatable issue, particularly as people often react surprisingly to extreme events. I’d say that our technology and globalised age gives us one big positive – communications – but also tends to make people rely too much on technology and the state to solve our problems. So working on personal and societal resilience for me should be a priority.

  3. Ian Christie

    Thanks Colin. The work you are doing sounds fascinating.

    The onset of major climate disruption will be very bad news for motivation and common cause: I think it would provoke political extremism, a lot of quietism and retreat into privacy, a lot of apocalyptic religiosity, and a widespread ‘survivalist’ response at personal and societal levels. It will also promote much action for positive resilience, but that is always going to be in danger of tipping towards defensive survivalism too, given grim political and social contexts and pressures.

    We need now to cultivate positive action for and visions of a sustainable society that does better than keep the civilised show on the road through resilience ( defined as what I call ‘feasible sustainability’ – an essentially downbeat vision based on the idea that we have left it too late to do ‘real SD’ ). We need the actors I mention in the second blog entry to take a lead here – especially cities, churches and alarmed corporate leaders. As you say, a vital role here is to motivate positively those who have no clear faith and hope, but who are not fatalists or cynics or ‘deniers’. The way to do this is not to preach in words but in actions – to show right example, and to look as if it is good news (which it should be!) to change course.

    Brassier is not much help concerning extinction, I fear: he offers a bracing, honest and utterly disenchanted vision of life – he thinks existence is ‘worthless’ and values only the quest for scientific and philosophical truth. I can’t see how he can generate an ethic or community from his thought; I don’t think he’d care about that.

    Read him by all means – but I would recommend instead Ronald Higgins’s great book of eco-warning and psychology for resilience, The Seventh Enemy (1978): this presents the most terrifying unsustainability scenario I have ever read, but also a way to avoid it, and a way to think about values with which to face the possibility of disaster.

    Good luck with the writing and keep in touch – am keen to maintain this kind of discussion and contribute to your thinking.

  4. Colin Bell

    Ian, we largely agree. I think what we’re seeing in response to the ongoing financial crisis is a rather ominous foretaste of what will happen when climate disruption becomes generally accepted, which is one reason I think the church should be considering this possibility with some urgency, alongside the teaching and witness work you outline.

    Higgins I’ve heard of but never read – will investigate.

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