One of the questions that’s been haunting me is ‘will we succeed?’ That is, will we succeed at stopping climate change? In my social world, this isn’t an acceptable question. It brings up the possibility that we might not, the overwhelming scale of that catastrophe, our grief, our feelings of helplessness, the pain of our complicity. It’s a difficult question to open to. But I think it’s essential, both for our personal lives and our collective response.
Part of the fear of facing this question is that our fragile hope will collapse into grief and despair. These feelings are a natural part of living in these times, stemming from our love of life. Personally, I want to live facing reality, including difficult truths, so that I can respond appropriately—for my both the welfare of myself and others. Opening to the uncertainty of our success and the emotions that orbit it can be the beginning of a path to psychological resilience and a new hope, grounded in realism.
Collectively, we fear that engaging the possibility of failure has the potential to undermine political action. But it’s important for activism too to be rooted in realism. Just as facing this question individually is part of the path to individual psychological resilience, facing it collectively is an important part of developing the collective resilience of our movements and our society.
A False Binary
The question of success or failure in responding to climate change is a false binary. Rather than success or failure, we’re facing an escalating intensification of climate disruption that is softened by whatever amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re able to prevent.
Scientists have tried to define limits under which we’re relatively safe—1C, 1.5C, 2C. While this is important for policy making, it creates the illusion of binary success or failure. Keeping global warming to only 1.5C or 2C is unsavory to consider a success. On the other hand, it matters tremendously how far above 2C we go.
The environmental movement has taken these targets and used them as rallying cries to catalyze action. The latest is that we have until 2030 to reduce our emissions by half in order to stop catastrophic climate change. While this offers an inspiring goal and a sense of urgency, it says that if we don’t succeed, it’s ‘game over.’ It creates a sense of desperation, and out of our desperation, we might seize hazardous ideas it would be best to consider with extreme caution—ideas like geo-engineering, eco-facism, austerity, and de-growth, which I’ll say more about in future pieces. Given the existential dimensions of the crisis, if success and failure are the only options and it’s looking like we won’t succeed, how could we not fall into despair?
A Different Kind of Hope
An alternative to this kind of desperate hope, the hope of needing the future to turn out a particular way, is a hope that encompasses uncertainty. As Rebecca Solnit says:
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.
Living in the rugged wilderness of this hope demands a measure of courage. However, in return it offers abundant blessings:
- It encourages us to find refuge in our intentions rather than our success or failure. By developing a generous and caring motivation as a basis for action, rather than desperation, we gain access to inner treasures like wellbeing, joy, and perseverance.
- Living with uncertainty allows us to consider the range of outcomes more broadly and with more nuance. For example, Charles Eisenstein asks, what if we succeed by completing our conquest of nature? What if we create a concrete world capable of supporting human life, but in which we live in climate-controlled bubbles, completely alienated from the natural world? There’s more at stake than just winning.
- By acknowledging the variety of our possible futures, we can find a course of action that is adaptive and beneficial in a wider range of futures. We can then consider climate change adaptation—not out of pessimism, but out of a balanced and realistic hope.
Resist or Adapt?
Underlying my question of whether we’ll succeed or fail is the question of whether my energy would be better spent on climate change mitigation or adaptation. As the first question is a false binary, so is this one. Given the climate disruption baked in, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions wherever we are along the curve of global warming, we need to do both. Rather than seeing them as two separate endeavors, they can be seen as streams of a single transition.
Joanna Macy calls this transition to an ecological civilization the Great Turning, and divides it into three parts—blocking actions that prevent further harm, the development of new systems, and changing the worldview and culture that enable environmental destruction. Whatever new systems we develop must be both ecologically sustainable and resilient to climate disruption. And more than that, they must be humane and socially just. This flows from the need to change our worldview—the same view that allows the exploitation and disregard for nature allows the exploitation and disregard for our fellow human beings.
There are many areas of practical convergence between climate change mitigation and adaptation, including transforming our food systems, building local community, healing civic society and institutions, fighting the power of capital, preserving and restoring local ecosystems, and shifting from a domination-based culture to a reciprocity-based one. All of these help reduce anthropogenic climate change, and will also help us live through it. Because they contribute to both mitigation and adaptation, these efforts are valuable whether we win or lose the fight against climate change.
The scope of change needed and the variety of areas of action call for a broad movement that encompasses many types of responses—a diverse ecosystem rather than a monoculture. This creates room for all of us to offer our gifts and be included in this movement, the Great Turning.
Finding a path forward, an individual and collective praxis that doesn’t depend on winning or losing, allows us to relax into the work rather than being caught in uncertainty and anxiety. This shift in itself is a shift from seeking domination over and invulnerability from nature to rediscovering our humility as a species. In turn, this helps us be aware of the impact of our actions and enter into a reciprocal relationship with the ecosystems that support our existence.