hope

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
Can we stop Climate Change? A different kind of hope

Can we stop Climate Change? A different kind of hope

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.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Back to Normal, Apocalypse, or Hope

Let’s let go of hoping that things will go back to normal. I don’t mean that we’re doomed to continue with how things are now, whether that’s being in lockdown, coping with a pandemic, or experiencing economic precarity. Rather, this moment of disruption has opened a tremendous range of possible futures, none of which is guaranteed. The new possibilities range from hopeful to dismal. We needn’t be passive victims—our choices influence the course of events. The fluidity of our situation allows us to imagine a new future and bring it into being.

Is this the Apocalypse?

The world is not ending, but we are facing an apocalypse in one sense of the word’s etymology: that of lifting the veil. As the pandemic lifts the veil, makes obvious truths that are usually easier to ignore.

The pandemic reveals our collectivity and shared vulnerability. It’s true that we’re all in this together, in our shared vulnerability to this illness and the disruption it’s bringing, even as some of us are in it up to our ankles while others are in over their head. This shared vulnerability can activate our generosity, compassion, and solidarity, as we see, in one example out of many, in the daily shows of gratitude for medical workers. This has always been the case, in that we are all always vulnerable to illness and death, to natural and human-made disasters. The pandemic simply makes it more salient.

It also reveals how our lives are intertwined, that our actions are important and touch the lives of countless others. When we act collectively, as we are doing with social distancing, we can save the lives of millions. This too has always been the case—that we have the power, especially when acting collectively, to dramatically influence the course of events.

The past few months have brought the unknowability of the future to the fore. Uncertainty is a fundamental reality of life and history, but there are also phases of relative stability and instability. To the extent that we’ve experienced the recent past as at least somewhat stable, the intensity of the disruption we’re experiencing marks a shift into a more unpredictable time—brought by the pandemic itself, its economic, social, and political effects, followed by the accelerating impact of climate change.

Why can’t we go back to normal?

As we enter a time of instability and loss, it’s natural to wish for things to go back to normal, to return to stability and predictability. Yet the pandemic has started many massive secondary processes of change that won’t automatically be reversed when the pandemic is over. The implications of these processes are uncertain, and their course depends on our choices. To hope to go back to normal is to disempower ourselves and close the paths to the more beautiful possibilities.

In the past three weeks, 17 million people filed for unemployment, almost twice the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession. Economists are projecting levels of unemployment comparable to or larger than the Great Depression. These cannot help but have massive ripple effects throughout our economy, leading to an intense economic crisis . I don’t pretend to know what will happen, but I don’t think we can count on a ‘V-shaped’ recovery.

Another of these processes is our social recession,”a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction”. This matters for our social lives and wellbeing, but it also has the danger of degrading civil society through the atrophy of local and communal organizations. We may become more atomized and isolated, leading to further collective disempowerment.

Thirdly, disruption and crisis are an opportunity for those in political and economic power to consolidate their power. Civil liberties are under attackenvironmental protections are being dismantled, and the government response to the unfolding economic crisis is skewed to benefit large corporations over people. These actions use the cover of the crisis to gain passive acceptance, hoping to pass off a diminished new normal for the old one.

The Possibility of Hope

Can we find any hope here? Hope, as defined by Rebecca Solnit, is acknowledging that the future is unknown, and that you can influence the outcome. In Hope in the Dark, she writes:

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.

The economic, social, and political story of this pandemic are still being written, and the future depends on our collective individual choices. We could passively fall into an economic calamity, or we can use it to advance economic justice, just as labor strikes in the Great Depression won the New Deal. We can let our society slip into further social atomization, or we can use this opportunity to strengthen civil society and build collective social power through organizing while sheltering in place. We could accept going back to normal, though a diminished one, or imagine and create a new world.

Through our practice of social distancing, the pandemic is teaching us about our interdependence, as well as our agency. It teaches us that that our personal behavior, in concert with that of others, can make a difference. Let’s not forget this. Rather let’s extend our understanding of it, and realize that by joining with others in movements, we can make profound differences for everyone in our society.

What new possibilities can you envision for the world? What kind of world would you like to return to when this is over? How can you help make that a reality? Particularly, who can you work with? What organizations, local or national, could you join to help bring about your vision?

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments