climate change

The Ministry for the Future: a hopeful vision for navigating our dire situation

The Ministry for the Future: a hopeful vision for navigating our dire situation

The Ministry for the Future, a new speculative fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a remarkable and urgently needed book. It portrays a near future that is dark enough to be plausible, consistent with the destruction that science tells us climate change will bring. Yet it tells a sweeping story of how humanity might navigate the coming chaos and tragedy, prevent the most catastrophic outcomes, and even transform our systems for the better. It presents a realistic future worth working hard for. By doing so, it’s managed to kindle more hope in me. And it’s a grounded, determined hope, not the draining hope of desperation.

Realistic, hopeful, compelling

The Ministry for the Future is realistic about the state of climate change, vividly describing the disasters it will bring. And it’s real about the current barriers to action. The response that humanity manages isn’t utopian, smooth, or easy. It happens in spite of and mediated through the complexity of international relations, political realities, and economic incentives. It grapples with geo-engineering, terrorism, and the power of capital and entrenched interests.

Although one of the main plots follows U.N. negotiation with central banks over creating a new currency to drive carbon sequestration, it’s a page-turner, brought to life by eye-witness accounts and personal stories that crystalize how life will change over the coming decades. It shows how the unglamorous work of countless people across the world, all contributing in different ways, can add up to reversing global warming and building more just and equitable systems.

Filling a gap in our collective imagination

Ezra Klein called it the most important book he’s read all year, and I’d agree. This is science fiction at it’s best, serving as an ‘intuition pump’ to help us imagine and live into the world to come. You can listen to his interview with the author here. They discuss themes and ideas that run through the book, but there aren’t too many spoilers.

If you can’t imagine how we could get anywhere positive from the mess we’re in, I’d highly recommend giving this a read.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Book Reviews, 0 comments
Practicing love when the future is uncertain

Practicing love when the future is uncertain

Dark clouds gather in the future and fog obscures our path. The days when the future seemed sunny and idyllic have passed. Occasionally, rays of sunlight shine through—promising news of a COVID vaccine, for example, or our recent election results. Have we, as we compulsively doom-scroll our excruciating national story, become so addicted to doom that good news hardly registers? Or is there simply so much darkness that these glimmers of light offer little hope?

Whether we see doom or the clearing of skies, we are obsessed with the future. And, not without good reason—layers of heavy conditions weigh on us. We’re waiting for them to be lifted, for things to return to normal. Four years ago or so, the toxicity and absurdity of our politics intensified. The anxiety-activating news cycle has seeped ever further into our lives. And, in March of this year, when we entered lockdown, we put on hold so many of the things that bring us meaning, direction, and joy. As our COVID-inflected present has stretched on, it’s been easy to defer life to the future, when we imagine things will return to normal.

Meanwhile, to the detriment of our collective wellbeing, much of our country has refused to likewise defer their lives. There’s something about this refusal to stop living that could be beautiful, if only it was paired with an active love of following public health guidelines. Somewhere in there is a commitment to appreciating and living life, in spite of suffering and uncertainty. These two sides, present-oriented aliveness and future-oriented altruism, roughly trace one of the perennial dialectics of the heart.

A dialectic of the heart

This dialectic is central to the endeavor of living well in an era of climate change. From one end we are squeezed by the destabilization the future holds, and from the other by our complicity in great suffering. Refuge in a secure future is no longer possible; refuge in the present is complicated by unfulfilled ethical responsibility. Neither climate action nor ignoring the future is satisfactory—what is called for is a richer and more nuanced inner conversation between surrender and peace on one side, and responsibility and love on the other.

Climate change invites us to surrender the search for a secure future

Climate change invites deep and radical responses. One of these is releasing our tendency to seek ultimate meaning, security, or resolution in the future. Our worldview, conditioned by fossil fuels, includes entitlement to progress and control over the future. These expectations are maladaptive in our changing world. Leaving the palace of fossil fuel based ways of life involves leaving them behind.[1]

Absorption in the drive to become diminishes us

The particular form of future-orientedness encapsulated in our expectations for progress and control Buddhism calls becoming: the security-driven process of envisioning a future state of being or identity, seizing it, and setting things in motion to become it. This natural process is vital to our engagement with life. It’s a way we express love and creativity. But it’s also something that we can get too absorbed in. When we do, we lose contact with all our other ways of finding meaning.

Jim Corbett articulates this well, tracing our relationship to time to our mode of subsistence. He contrasts becoming, which he calls man-in-time, with a more present-oriented way of being, man-in-nature:[2]

Pastoral nomadism is similar to most hunter-gatherer cultures in its concentration on the present, in its reliance on and adaptation to the given aspects of nature, and in its emphasis on unrelenting observation and awareness. Peasant and commercial economies, on the other hand, place their emphasis on the work needed to transform and develop unimproved conditions and raw materials into wealth. For the nomadic hunter-gatherer or pastoralist, wealth is created by sun, rain, and soil. To think of one’s life as time to be invested or to sacrifice the present to an uncertain future is foolishness for man-in-nature; it is as obvious that life is a gift rather than a reward as it is obvious to man-in-time, who labors for future fulfillment in an ever-dying present, that life can be supported only by work, investment, the accumulation of wealth—above all, that the past is dead and the present moment in which one’s life is trapped is just the point where the future dies. Man-in-time labors in an empty present that is death; he grasps for a future that must die when he touches it.

Jim Corbett, Goatwalking

It has always been true that finding ultimate meaning in the future is a lost cause. Climate change drives this point home—there is nowhere safe and the future can’t be controlled.

Finding meaning here and now

We have so much momentum driving us to orient around the future. Our biology, psychology, culture, economic conditions, and news media all push us in this direction. But we can change course and come home to the present moment, little by little. It’s here that we can find meaning independent of an unreliable future. And as the future’s uncertainty grows, it’s here we can find points of intervention.

As we return to the present we may discover anxiety fueling our drive to become, whether climate anxiety or otherwise. We can feel this in the body, care for it, hold it, breathe with it, let it settle. We can offer it warmth and space, and, in seeing it, become free of it’s power.[3]

When we relax our obsession with the future, we become available to what’s here and now, even if only temporarily. Then space is available for appreciating the traces of meaning in the present, and joys, large and small. Can these be enough?

Discovering world as gift

When we’re really here, not fixated on making something happen, not focused on creating some kind of meaningfulness or security in the future, we can see life as a gift. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of experiencing the world as gift:[4]

In the old times, when people’s lives were so directly tied to the land it was easy to know the world as gift. When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking “Here we are.” It reminds the people of the Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love, and respect.

But when the food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don’t feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return—that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; it is a theft.

How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers—the living world could not bear our weight—but even in a market economy, can we behave “as if” the living world were a gift?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Returning to the present, beginning with finding gratitude in small moments, is a beginning. When we step out of our future-based ambitions, the smallness of our lives can be seen in proper perspective. This lets us remember our belonging to a larger world. This belonging is not something we need to earn or prove, but intrinsic to our being.

Receiving the gift of the earth calls for reciprocity

And with this remembering, we can remember more— that the gift of belonging asks for reciprocation. We have a responsibility to the elements of our world—to the sky, the earth, and the other beings we share it with, human and non-human.

The resolve to care

As we loosen our grip on becoming and search for more resilient sources of meaning, it’s time to bring back the other side of this dialectic, compassion. Otherwise, we risk becoming estranged from the realities of the world and our responsibilities. So the second part of this contemplation is remembering the intensity of the suffering in the world, our complicity in it, and our ethical responsibility to care for it. These two sides, releasing the future and active love, or gratitude and reciprocity, form a dialectic in our hearts, an ongoing conversation that works on us as we work on it.

With hearts opened and nourished by gratitude, we can remember that the systems that support our comfort also create injustice and suffering throughout the world. We can drink this reality into the depths of our hearts, not letting impulses for urgent action divert it, but letting it’s dark waters pool in our depths, fermenting into resolve and seeping into the bedrock of our being as a refusal to participate in these systems. Its burning acidity can keep our eyes open and senses sharp for opportunities to intervene, to dismantle, to step aside, to yield, or to contribute to an alternative.

It’s true that we can keep our eyes open here and now, and it’s true that caring for the world requires thinking, planning, and considering the future. This conversation doesn’t end; the dialectic remains for us to carry in our hearts.

Shaping change, yielding to change

Ultimately, we can’t resolve the dialectic between surrender and action, we can only express it through living. When we, perhaps temporarily, abandon making demands of the future, our preconceptions for how it should unfold, our entitlement to control and progress, we can find an openness to the present, to touch and be changed by it, to be in relationship with life. I love the way Octavia Butler’s character Lauren Olamina expresses this:[5]

All that you touch,

You Change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

is Change.

God is Change.

Rather than being oriented toward fulfilling becoming, we can find ultimate meaning in being open to change, in learning from it, in being in communication with the changing unfolding of reality.

She continues (remember, God is Change):

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

This is another expression of the dialectic I’ve been discussing—between actively loving the world and surrendering, between gratitude and reciprocity, between shaping the future and yielding to it. And it points to how, along the way, we can find meaning in the process rather than the outcome.

References

[1] Edmund Mills, It’s time to leave the palace that fossil fuels built

[2] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking

[3] Edmund Mills, Building a home in our vulnerability to climate disruption

[4] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

[5] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
It’s time to leave the palace that fossil fuels built

It’s time to leave the palace that fossil fuels built

Climate change has ruptured the dining room wall of our palace, and is beginning to intrude further and further. We eat our breakfast, ignoring it. It’s been comfortable here, and we’ve been provided for materially. We’ve liked that as time’s gone on, it’s gotten more and more comfortable. We’ve imagined that, some day, everyone could live here in comfort and harmony. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore that the future of this palace, a society organized around fossil fuel intensive ways of life, the product of European-rooted civilization, colonialism, and extractive capitalism, is one of ruins.

And it’s not just climate change that’s degrading its structural integrity; the gaping hole in the wall reminds us of the other issues we’d prefer to ignore. It reminds us of existential ones like ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and our unsustainable consumption of limited resources. It also evokes certain uncomfortable psychological dimensions of living in this palace, like our alienation from the natural world, complicity in a great injustice, and the spiritual deadness of consumerism.

Yet we’ve lived our entire lives in this palace, tied our sense of meaning and security to it’s continued existence. How could we possibly live without these walls? What would it mean to leave it behind, set out into the wide open and uncertain world beyond?

Examining the palace, the bind in we’re caught in

When I write of this palace, I’m really referring to a few things—the organization of our society around the consumption of fossil fuels, the worldview that made that possible, and the ways that fossil fuel consumption has in turn influenced our understanding of our place in the world. We’ve lived through a very peculiar period of history, one in which our power over the natural world has swelled. We’ve grown accustomed to this power, and it’s conditioned the way we see the world.

Before going further, I’ll specify that by ‘we’ I mean the those of us in the global north, and particularly those who are white and class-privileged. We’ve benefited most from fossil fuels, contributed most to their extraction and consumption, and consequently been most conditioned by them.

The accumulation of power through fossil fuels is an extension of centuries of colonialism, of inflicting violence upon others in order to extract the wealth of their land. From the colonialist worldview, which already sees the resources of the world as ours for the taking, it was easy to include fossil fuels as one more thing that was ours to take. And unjustly, the most severe impacts of climate change will fall on people other than those most responsible for it—both because they won’t be sheltered by the economic power granted by fossil fuels, and by the geographic distribution of climate change’s impacts.

To give a sense of the devastation climate change is already causing in other parts of the world, David Wallace Wells wrote the following back in August:

Since the beginning of the year, billions of locusts produced by climate disruptions to local weather patterns have descended in clouds of as many as 80 million insects on some of the world’s most food-insecure regions, chewing up the croplands of the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, India, and Pakistan, pushing perhaps 5 million people to the brink of starvation and threatening the livelihood of as much as 10 percent of the world’s population. Just months after a historic cyclone “pummeled” the country, about a third of Bangladesh was underwater from torrential rains and flooding, while temperatures across the Middle East soared above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In Iraq, where it reached 125, the heat wave was compounded by power outages depriving Iraqis of air-conditioning that was, in these circumstances, almost literally a lifeline. Last month, as many as 38 million were evacuated to avoid hundreds of simultaneous river floods in China, where some regions received twice as much rain as normal in June and July, and where the massive Three Gorges Dam was sufficiently stressed by the excess rainfall it has produced fears, likely premature, that the epic dam itself might collapse.

This is our familiar predicament: the way of life we’re used to is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, while their use is unsustainable and tied to immense injustice. When we see with clarity how deeply our way of life is interlaced with fossil fuel consumption, how it conditions our worldview, and the injustice it causes, these can open us to a willingness to leave our familiar palace into the unknown, in search of an alternative.

Fossil fuels have made us royalty

I often reflect that the luxury of my life is comparable to that of ancient kings, and, in all likelihood, so is yours. I can eat whatever food I want, I can have it delivered and cooked for me, exactly as I please. I can have my room heated and cooled on command. I can travel almost anywhere in the world (or at least I could pre-COVID). I can call forth any of thousands of entertainers on a whim. And I can have almost any material object delivered to my door in just a day. All that I lack of royalty is the social status.

It’s important not to take this for granted as simply the way the world is, but rather as an anomaly in human history made possible through fossil fuels, the stored energy of millennia of sunlight. Before the industrial revolution, our power was provided by human labor, domesticated animals, wind, water, and wood. Through the exploitation of fossil fuels, our society has gone through a long period of generally increasing energy availability, shown below in the graph of the per capita energy consumption in the U.S. from 1790 to 2011.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Census Bureau; Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR[2]

To help us get a sense of the scale of this increase, Buckminster Fuller coined the term ‘energy slaves’: the number of people it would take, through human labor, to generate the energy we use. In 2019, the average person in the U.S. had approximately 150 energy slaves working constantly, without sleeping.[3] To avoid equating fossil fuel use and slavery, we could instead think of them as energy servants, and let them work 40 hours a week. Then we’d need 650 energy servants to support our lifestyles. In other words, it would take you 650 years of manual labor to fuel the lifestyle of the average U.S. resident for a single year.

Growing up in the palace has instilled a worldview of carbon privilege

Living through a time of anomalous prosperity and growth has deeply influenced our worldview. This worldview colors our experience of climate change and conditions our response to it. Jem Bendell’s notion of the ideology of E.S.C.A.P.E. describes six beliefs or expectations we have about reality: entitlement, surety, control, autonomy, progress, and exceptionalism.[4] These may be understandable human needs, but as the expectation of their fulfillment has grown, our capacity to make sense of a world where these are not met has withered.

I’d like to highlight three in particular—entitlement, control, and progress. Over time, we’ve come to feel entitled to the power and comfort provided by fossil fuels. We experience them as the natural order of things, as what is normal, even as what the world owes us. The continual increase in fossil fuel consumption has supercharged our ideas of progress; we expect that our wealth will continue to grow, and that the world inevitably gets better over time. And as their use has granted us more and more control over the natural world, we’ve come to expect and rely on this control.

These three limit our responses to climate change. Out of conviction in progress, people ignore or deny information that conflicts with its continuity. Or, through motivated reasoning, they place all their hope in things that will allow progress to continue, like the magical power of innovation or various technological saviors. Because of our entitlement, it’s hard to imagine a voluntary collective reduction in our material wealth, even as we know the fossil fuel use that generates it as an existential threat. I wrote about our expectations for control over the natural world in my last post, and the hubris of thinking we can always engineer the world into submission.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t work to improve society or influence the future, but that the worldview that demands control and progress, that stakes all meaning in these, is a fragile one. And while it may have been well suited for living through a period of unprecedented growth, it is not well suited to the future we’re entering, either for us as individuals or for us collectively.

Climate change is breaking down the walls of our worldview

Despite our E.S.C.A.P.E.-based expectations, climate change promises a future of uncertainty, lack of control, and deterioration, of numerous catastrophes and disasters. It’s almost as if all the vulnerability we’ve been warding off through fossil fuels is returning, amplified. This is true even if we significantly reduce carbon emissions, although that would make a profound difference.

The idea of progress is particularly threatened by climate change. Of this, David Wallace Wells writes:

It will not take a worst-case warming to deliver ravages dramatic enough to shake the casual sense that as time marches forward, life improves ineluctably. Those ravages are likely to begin arriving quickly: new coastlines retreated from drowned cities, destabilized societies disgorging millions of refugees into neighboring ones already feeling the pinch of resource depletion; the last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering.

David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth [5]

Impending climate catastrophes threaten the progressive worldview; it will be hard to maintain belief in the perfectibility of society and the ultimate controllability of the world. In the apex of faith in progress, the idea of progress performs the role of religion: the existence of suffering is redeemed by a mythic future society free of injustice and material want. This perfectibility of the future plays an important role in our collective consciousness, warding off the heartbreak of taking in the extent of injustice in the world now. When we no longer have a better future, how will we make sense of this?

When progress seems out of reach, we long for a return to the extraordinary normal of the privileged, to a world that isn’t wracked by disaster and tragedy, where material prosperity and security are available, where our children will have lives comparable to our own. But climate change puts even normal out of reach. It threatens to drive us towards the world already experienced by the global majority, one of precariousness, vulnerability, and relative powerlessness. To quote Vinay Gupta, “Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.”[6] Climate change returns us to a world where our vulnerability and mortality can’t be banished to the corners of our minds. The ideology of E.S.C.A.P.E. is incompatible with future we’re entering, and we need new ways—or old ones—of making sense of our place in the world.

Leaving the palace behind, finding new ways of making meaning

As climate change proceeds, becoming more and more present in our lives, the incompatibility of our expectations with our experience will only produce more dissonance. People will seek ways of resolving the contradiction—by doubling down, trying even more desperately to maintain control, or by searching for new ways of making sense of the world. Milton Friedman said “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” It would be good if the ideas lying around were good ones, beneficial for humanity and the earth.

As a return to normal becomes less and less plausible, promises of a return to normal won’t be able to resolve the dissonance between our experience and our expectations for the world. When this dissonance changes from a persistent discomfort in the back of our mind to a clear perception of the untenability and injustice of our worldview and society, we can give up hope on them and open to something new. What would it mean to step beyond the walls of this transitory palace, and find our way in the world beyond? What alternate stories would be compelling and useful for these times?

What I would like to be invited into is wholeheartedly living into the future as it’s forecast, among others doing the same. I’d like to be invited into helping fossil-fuel based civilization die well, into making amends and doing what we can to repair the damage done. I’d like to be invited into joining the exodus from its dying body. Entering new stories allows us to leave the anxious abode of our old stories behind. Our aliveness and creativity can awaken as we enter new ground. We can leave behind the anxiety of trying to escape the future and live with openness to the world as it is.

What are these new (and old) ways of life, new ways of making meaning that will prepare us for living in the world of climate destabilization? What supports us in our personal lives, and what would enable us to respond well, collectively? These are central animating questions for this blog that I’ll continue to explore.

Along these lines, I highly recommend Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. Stephanie LeMenager writes of it: The Parable of the Sower is “dystopian fiction which maintains some hope for change, or at least pockets of resistance, within worlds that have become unbearable [and] offers compelling strategies for shaping pockets of anti-racist, sustainable community”[7] More than anything else, it’s given me a tangible sense of how the future might be, and how the present is, from outside the blinders of the myth of inevitable progress. Published in 1993 and set in 2024, it is incredibly prescient, describing a world in which climate change, corporate power, and white supremacy have advanced only a little further than they have today, amidst partial social collapse. It’s the story of a young woman gathering an intentional community and weaving a new religion in a chaotic and brutal world. It does two vital things for these times—it reflects an image of the coming and current world that it is essential we consider, and presents a vision of a journey we could set out on.

References

[1] David Wallace Wells, What Climate Alarmism has Already Achieved, New York Magazine, 2020

[2] Jacob Goldstein, Lam Thuy Vo, Two Centuries Of Energy In America, In Four Graphs, NPR, 2013

[3] Using the assumption of 2000 KJ / 8 hours as the amount of work they do, from Energy Slaves (comic), and 305 BTUs as the energy consumption of the average US resident in 2019, from the US Energy Information Administration

[4] Jem Bendell, The Collapse of Ideology and the End of Escape, 2020

[5] David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Crown Publishing Group, 2019

[6] Vinay Gupta, Time to Stop Pretending (10 min video), Dark Mountain Festival, 2010

[7] Stephanie LeMenager, To Get Ready for Climate Change, Read Octavia Butler, Electra Street, 2017

Further Reading

Stuart McMillen, Energy Slaves (Comic)

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 1 comment