Doom and Gloom

As world leaders return from Copenhagen without an agreement that
will protect the earth's atmosphere from devastating climate change, we
ordinary people are forced to confront not only what we think, but
also what we feel.

When I was in elementary school in
the early 1950s we had air raid drills. Sirens would sound and we would
be instructed to "duck and cover" under our desks. There were plenty of
jokes among the kids about our instructions. "In the event of nuclear
attack bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass

Such a blase attitude concealed the fact that
I and my friends, like many of our contemporaries, took it for granted
that we were likely to die in a nuclear war. I certainly never expected
to live beyond twenty or at most thirty if the pattern of escalating
nuclear overkill continued unabated.

A recent late-night TV show joke expressed a similarly blase attitude about the threat of global warming:

"According to a new U.N. report, the global warming outlook is much
worse than originally predicted. Which is pretty bad when they
originally predicted it would destroy the planet."

Following the first explosion of an atom bomb, Albert Einstein warned,
"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes
of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Global
warming and other environmental threats intensified fears for human
survival. In 1977, political scientist Charles Lindblom wrote,
"Relentlessly accumulating evidence suggests that human life on the
planet is headed for a catastrophe. Indeed, several disasters are
possible, and if we avert one, we will be caught by another." He
enumerates population growth, resource shortage, and global warming.
"All this assumes that a nuclear catastrophe does not spare us the long
anguish of degeneration."

In 1992, the physiologist
and author Jared Diamond wrote, "Until our own generation, no one had
grounds to worry whether the next human generation would survive or
enjoy a planet worth living on. Ours is the first generation to be
confronted with these questions about its children's future." Two
"clouds" hanging over us raise these concerns: "nuclear holocaust" and
"environmental holocaust." These risks "constitute the two really
pressing questions facing the human race today."

years after Einstein's warning, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking
said, "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out
by a disaster," such as "sudden global warming" or "nuclear war."
Despite more than half-a-century's awareness of the possibility of
man-made doom, the drift Einstein warned of continues unabated. So has
passivity and paralysis in its face.

Despair seems a
natural, indeed, even an appropriate response to such a reality. It is
genuinely difficult to know how else to relate to threats to the
existence of our species that we appear powerless to halt.

Before we can think seriously about what to do about the threats of
doom, therefore, we have to think about our own responses. Is despair
warranted, and if so is it the only appropriate response? Is it already
too late to do anything? If a situation is hopeless, isn't
psychological denial appropriate - if we can't do anything about it,
shouldn't we just ignore it and get on with the rest of life as best we
can? Is the threat of doom likely to spur us to action? Or is it more
likely to make us feel helpless and turn us to apathy? Can despair be a
bridge to something else?

We have good scientific
reasons to expect that, without any help from us, the human race will
sooner or later become extinct and that eventually our planet will
freeze or burn up or shatter into bits. And we have good reason to
think that nothing we can do will avert such a fate.

But self-inflicted, man-made doom is different. It cannot be regarded
as something human beings are inherently powerless to avert. What we
appropriately experience is that we are powerless to avert it as
individuals. But collectively we could reverse the drift toward doom in
a day - if we agreed to do so -- simply by halting those activities
that are generating it. The powerlessness we experience is not the
result of our destructive capacity, but of our apparent inability to
organize ourselves to prevent ourselves from using it to destroy

These social roots of doom are part of a
common pattern that we can observe repeatedly in history. People live
their lives and pursue their goals by means of strategies that have
been developed over time. But sometimes they discover their established
strategies aren't working. No matter how hard they try, their problems
remain intractable. The natural result is despair.

many people are living the same experience, an entire social group may
be permeated with despair. They can express that despair to each other
in many ways - for example, in mordant jokes about doom.

But the awareness that other people are experiencing the same despair
changes the context in which it is experienced. It opens up new
possibilities. Perhaps the problems that we despair of solving as
individuals can be addressed through some kind of collective action.
When people begin to explore that possibility, the result may be a
social movement.

In short, the sense of despair in the
face of individual powerlessness can be the soil from which new social
movements and new forms of collective action emerge. Gloom is often
part of the process by which new social solutions arise. It is a
manifestation of the recognition that our current patterns can't solve
our problems. So our sense of powerlessness in the face of today's
impending doom can lead not only to despair, but also to a sharing of
despair, which can open the way for us to try new social strategies and
new forms of action in common.

Something like this
happened during the early years of the nuclear arms race. Awareness of
the futility of current strategies like security through nuclear
superiority and civil defense was initially expressed in the
hopelessness of "kiss your ass goodbye." But from that awareness
emerged the "ban the bomb" movement for nuclear disarmament and against
nuclear testing. As recent historical research has established, that
movement both influenced and intimidated world leaders. It played a
significant role in bringing about a nuclear test ban treaty,
U.S.-Soviet detente, and arms control agreements that reduced the
likelihood of nuclear holocaust for a generation.

has come to be known as the "Alcoholic's prayer" appeals for "the
serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the
things we can, and wisdom to know the difference." If the question is
whether any of us as individuals can halt global warming or remove the
threat of nuclear warfare, the answer is surely no.

But what we can or cannot do individually is not the measure of what we
can do together. If the question, conversely, is whether all of us
acting together could reverse the drift to doom, the answer is just as
clearly yes. But that doesn't mean it will just happen. It depends on
what people determine to do.

While people utilize their
established strategies, they also change them. And so how they will
respond to new situations is never fully predictable. The most terrible
events may be taken as a cause for despair or as a spur to change. The
close encounter with nuclear holocaust in the Cuban missile crisis
unexpectedly led both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to back off from the
mad pursuit of nuclear superiority and move toward a strategy of
detente and arms control. There is no guarantee that the Katrinas of
the future will have a similar effect - but there is no guarantee that
they won't.

The condition for human survival is a new
strategy based on the cooperation of all to ensure the survival of all.
I use the phrase "common preservation" to denote strategies in which
people try to solve their problems by meeting their common needs rather
than exclusively their own. Common preservation is now the necessary
condition for self preservation. None of us can count on survival, let
alone well-being, for ourselves and those we care about, unless we take
coordinated action to transform the current patterns of human life.
Self-preservation for individuals and groups can now only be ensured
through common preservation of our species and its environment as a

Doom sends out its harbingers. It was the
discovery of fallout from nuclear testing that made the threat of the
nuclear arms race real to millions of people who had previously
experienced nuclear Armageddon as only a remote and hypothetical
threat. Hurricanes, heat waves, and floods provide an almost Biblical
harbinger of the approaching catastrophe of climate change.

Is it already too late? We know that much is already lost. But there is
no way to know if all is lost. There is no way to know for certain in
advance what a collective response may yet achieve. We are in the
position of parents who, having already lost a child, now must decide
whether to fight for our other children who are threatened but still

If the earth could cry out like a threatened
child, it might cry in the dying words of the labor poet Joe Hill,
"Don't mourn for me - organize."

But the truth is, we
have to mourn. We have to mourn for the victims of Katrina, and for the
way of life that it destroyed. We have to mourn for the many other
Katrinas that have already occurred in Bangladesh and Indonesia, and
that are already fated to occur, whatever we may do. We have to mourn
for the polar bears whose habitat has been destroyed. We have to mourn
for each cherished piece of our own environment: a certain kind of
winter day or the songbirds who no longer visit an altered clime. We
have to mourn for what we will lose - what we must sacrifice - to do
what is necessary to ward off doom. Our grief is the only way to keep
faith with that which -- and those who -- have already been sacrificed
to our folly.

And yet, if all we do is mourn, are we not
colluding in the condemnation of additional peoples, cities, and
habitats to destruction?

Let us say rather, paraphrasing Mother Jones, "Mourn for the dead; fight like hell for the living."

Or, in the words of the African American spiritual that became an anthem of the civil rights movement:

"We are soldiers in the army
We've got to fight, although we've got to cry.
We've got to hold up that bloodstained banner;
We've got to hold it up till we die."

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