The depressed environmentalist? Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I described some aspects of the current environmental and socio-economic situation that make one want to give up. Here’s what I’ve found helpful in deciding not to!

Let’s start with Carolyn Baker who wrote a long response to Daniel Drumright’s essay. She shares his analysis of Near-Term Extinction, an his imagery of us heading to death but uses the imagery of a hospice as she describes how we should choose to prepare for it consciously. NTE “demands that we confront our own death and the meaning of our life”. Hospice care provides the right setting for this:

People willingly enter hospice care because they clearly, consciously know, as my friend did, that they are dying. Typically, in hospice care they receive a quality of nurturing rarely found elsewhere. Not only are they bathed in kindness but if they choose, they are actively supported in reflecting on their lives and intentionally and lovingly prepared for their death.

There’s some ambiguity in her argument (perhaps deliberately) as to whether we should be entering this process as individuals or as an entire society and species. Perhaps the latter – it is our current overconsuming society that is fated to die, or needs to be put to death, whereas we as individuals will, we hope, live. But each of us still needs to discern the meaning of our lives and what it might mean personally in a different environment.

Two sections that particularly spoke to me as someone trying to communicate this to others:

The project of self-awareness is nothing less than an epic saga–a hero’s or heroine’s journey into our essence. It encompasses the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. It necessitates remorse as we look unflinchingly at the ways in which we have helped contribute to the annihilation of our planet, and it also includes intimate familiarity with the part of us that is inexorably whole and untouched by the madness of industrial civilization.

… living in the head as we prepare often feels safer than actually feeling what we’re feeling about the future. I regularly hear from people preparing for collapse that they feel safest when they are sitting at their computers amassing still more information about collapse or when they are busily engaged in some form of logistical preparation such as building a fortress or re-stocking food or medical supplies.

When we don’t feel we have the answers, particularly if we’re that way inclined (and I certainly am), it’s easy to retreat into academia and seek more data – and there’s plenty of it! But we’ve reached the point where we need to say what we do know, and be more honest about the uncertainty which is part of the problem. Part of the challenge of our new era is the newness itself and that our promises of increased growth, prosperity and certainty must inevitably fail, so we need to be comfortable with, or at least accepting of, what is to come, and support each other through it.

A second article which I’ve found helpful is by Robert Jensen, entitled “Apocalyptic Journalism” and Why We Need Reporters to Face the Reality of Crumbling Society.

Wide-ranging, and worth reading in full, Jensen’s argument is broadly that journalists – taking a wide definition of this – have a choice: ‘royal journalism’, writing from “inside the box” of our current culture, or adopt a more prophetic or apocalyptic approach. The first of these draws heavily upon Walter Brueggemann’s idea of ‘prophetic imagination’. Put simply, they speak out about the way things actually are rather than how they are perceived. “In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people are strayed.”

Apocalyptic journalism refers more back to the original meaning of ‘revelation’ than the contemporary one that doom is soon to be upon us. Similar to the prophetic, it is intended to give us a deeper understanding of the world and society around us, to remove the veils those in power want us to see, and the propaganda and self-delusion inherent in our society.

Neither forces us to have solutions to the problems we face: Jensen is honest that we seem to have reached a dilemma with our use of technology where going forward risks causing further environmental and social damage, but going back in many respects would both be socially unacceptable and reduce the carrying capacity of the planet.

But: “If we don’t have easy, upbeat solutions and conclusions, we have the ability to keep telling stories of struggle. Our stories do not change the physical world, but they have the potential to change us.” “To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. The royal must give way to the prophetic and the apocalyptic.”

Jensen’s goal is brave, but one I think I, and many reading this perhaps, should strive for. To speak and write about the way things actually are, rather than what our wider society would have us say. It reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah, for whom I’ve long felt an affinity. He saw his messages ridiculed, thrown away, and suffered indignity and isolation from his community. He also repeatedly railed against God, frustrated at the mission he’d been given and the lack of apparent success. Yet he carried on.

He might have seemed a person with little or no hope, but seems to have had the kind of ultimate hope that Richard Bauckham describes in his Ecological Hope in Crisis?, referred to here before. Ultimate hope depends on what God does and our eternal promises, as distinguished from proximate hope, dependent on what humans do and what we may (or may not) achieve. The following words are worth holding onto in a world where humanity’s future often looks at best uncertain, at worst bleak.

We are not engaged in a step by step progress towards utopia. What we are able to do in realising our hopes does not, as it were, accumulate, as though we were building he New Jerusalem brick by brick. Sometimes good follows good in a process of improvement, sometimes it doesn’t. But the value is not dependent on progression. We
have all been brainwashed by progressivism. For things to be worth doing and worth having they do not have to lead on to even better
things. They have value in themselves, and nothing will be lost in the end.

A second passage which was preached in Chapel here last week, is also relevant:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. Titus 2:11-15, ESV

The Christians of that period faced uncertainty and persecution, but were instructed to hold on, live good lives in the present age in the certain hope of a glorious future one whenever that would come (and we now know of course it wouldn’t for centuries, certainly not in their lifetime).

That is in some sense all we can do. Jeremiah couldn’t save his people from exile: they were unwilling, but he held firm. Whether we face extinction as a species, a crisis, or (by some miracle) a smooth transition to a more sustainable future, this should be our attitude: stand firm, support each other, and do our best to bring about less unsustainability.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The depressed environmentalist? Part 2

  1. Ian Christie

    Thanks for this very good piece.
    I would add that to give up now, when we have the technical, financial, ethical, economic and (sometimes) political resources to move to sustainable development paths, would be a betrayal of all in the past who strove to keep lamps lit in equally dark times with much less hope of rescue or improvement, and far fewer resources. (Think of Eastern Europe in 1939-45, the collapse of Roman economies in the 5th and 6th centuries, the trenches in World War One, etc.) Moreover, the argument that all is ecologically lost supposes that we know all we need to know about climate and ecosystem vulnerability and resilience: we definitely don’t, and in the margin of uncertainty lies hope and the grounds for keeping on campaigning for sustainability and – crucially – living it out.

    • Colin Bell

      Ian, thank you for those perceptive additions. One of the underlying problems we have is that we see only the “now” and ignore the needs and rights of our future descendants – I hadn’t thought to look in the other direction and see we equally disregard our partnership with the past.

  2. Ian Christie

    Thanks for this, Colin. NB I have also tried to say something constructive in reply to the Part 1 post.
    I see five major sources of hope for sustainability. First, the many city leaders around the world embracing SD and becoming militantly angry at the lack of national and global action. Second, the ecological awakening in the religions (and this blog is part of that). Third, the potential for SD and environmental values to become part of the consciousness and professional ethics of medical practitioners – see the brilliant work being done in the NHS on sustainability now. Fourth, the repudiation by many young people of an economic system that offers them so little, and of a story about Growth that benefits just a few – the ‘1%’ narrative has gone global. Fifth, the emerging minority of TNC chief executives and strategists who are breaking ranks with mainstream business, out of fear of an ecologically risky future, especially in the food sectors. And if all of those begin to move, our supposed political leaders will sooner or later choose the path of ‘followership’. We have only a decade or two to make all this happen, if we are to avoid much awful damage, but I believe it can yet be done.

    • Colin Bell

      Agreed with all these trends being positive – there is far more that can be said on both sides of the argument than can fit in a post or two! We will have to see how fast things can be turned around and how much damage we end up with. I’m not as optimistic on the amount of time we have as you are, but as I said in the post, whatever the scenario we need to keep pushing on as much as we can.

  3. Ian Christie

    Thanks Colin.
    I would not say I am very optimistic about the time we have on our side, but I don’t think we know enough to be envisaging imminent disaster as DD does. The sensitivity of the climate system to GHG forcing might be a bit less than has been feared: no room for complacency but maybe there is more time than expected to effect decarbonisation and adaptation. (The risk is that any such news will reinforce political elites’ lack of urgency.) There might yet be more negative feedbacks in the system (eg from clouds) than envisaged. I would not say that any of these possibilities would do more than buy us a few years’, maybe 1-2 decades’, grace in making the SD transitions peaceful and relatively smooth.

    • Colin Bell

      We’ll have to see. The trend in the last few years seems to have been lower headline temperature rises than expected, but greater climate sensitivity to those rises (the Arctic ice melt in particular), but whether this will continue and how they balance out is a bit of an unknown.

      There’s an important distinction to be drawn between imminent and inevitable disaster when it comes to talking about timescales given the lag and inertia in our atmosphere. Taking the standard 2 degree rise as a proxy, we might know that we aren’t going to hit the figure for 30 years at least in any plausible scenario, but also that we’ve passed the tipping point beyond which we cannot avoid hitting it. (This tipping point being about 2017 in some studies.)

      How humanity reacts in such a situation (when, of course, action is still required to prevent the disaster being even greater) is a real challenge for us.

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