Over the last 10 years, I’ve been asked one question more than any other: Is there any hope? Or are we just f*cked?
Regular readers could be forgiven for concluding that we are, indeed, f*cked. On one side, we have the brutal logic of climate change, about which I wrote:
If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale.
On the other side, we have the many forces that retard or prevent change. Cognitively, we suffer from status quo bias and loss aversion. Psychologically and physiologically, we are designed to heed immediate threats with teeth and eyes, not long-term, incremental, invisible dangers. Socioeconomically, power is concentrated in the hands of wealthy incumbents who benefit from the carbon-intensive status quo: fossil fuel companies, the sprawl industry (roads, real estate), Big Ag, airlines, heavy manufacturers, and so on. Politically, we are gripped by polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis. Individually and collectively, we are extremely poor judges of risk, particularly the sort of risk posed by climate change. That makes social change, what Weber called the “slow boring of hard boards,” halting and painful at best.
And so we are stuck, as I said at the end of my TEDx talk, “between the impossible and the unthinkable.”
It’s difficult to see a way out of this dilemma that doesn’t involve considerable suffering. Limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the widely agreed-upon threshold beyond which climate impacts are expected to become severe and irreversible, is likely off the table. Widespread adaptive measures are slow in coming, far more expensive than mitigation would have been, and subject to enormous inequality of impact based on wealth and class.
So, in this grim situation, do I have hope? It’s complicated.
What does it mean, exactly, to have hope? It’s not a prediction. If we’re being coldly rational, we look to the climate and economic models that show current trends in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions extending out as far as the eye can see. A Vegas bookie making odds would probably say that the good money’s on us being f*cked.
And hope is surely not just about possibility. Sure, it’s possible we could stop rising temperatures at 2 degrees. There are scenarios floating around that demonstrate how it could happen, if we decided to make it happen. If all hope required was possibility, people wouldn’t be asking the question.
So, if not a prediction and not mere possibility, what are we asking about when we ask about hope?
I don’t think it’s about the future as much as it’s about the present. It’s about whether it’s worth it to learn about this stuff, carry the weight of it, talk about it with other people when they don’t want to hear it, fight against overwhelmingly steep odds, suffer daily disappointments and setbacks. If tomorrow we die, would it not be better just to eat, drink, and be merry? What good is all this anxiety, pain, and yearning?
We fear heartbreak. That’s why we reach out for hope.
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The sad truth is that there’s no guarantee against heartbreak, in this or anything else. It looks like things are going to get bad, possibly really bad, even within my children’s lifetimes. The decisions we’re making today will reverberate for centuries, and so far we’re blowing it.
With no obvious path to victory (where victory = minimizing suffering and maximizing flourishing in the face of climate change), the question is how to proceed. How do we maintain our equilibrium, our happiness and fighting spirit, with disappointments so common, victories so rare, and unthinkable loss looming?
Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory. For all our sophistication, we remain terribly inept at the simple task of predicting what will happen more than a few years out. All our models fail. That means those who predict a steady extension of the status quo will be wrong, too.
The outcome of the climate crisis depends not just on physical forces but on human beings, complex economic, social, and technological systems, and complex systems are nonlinear. We forget this; our instinct is to think the future will look like the recent past, only more so. We don’t anticipate the lateral moves, the lurches, the phase shifts. Because of this, the Very Serious thing to do is always to predict that things will not substantially change. If you say, “There will be a series of brilliant innovations that make clean energy cheap,” or, “There will be a sea change in public opinion on climate,” or, “Young people will take over and revive politics,” you sound like a hippie dreamer. Those aspirations are a matter of faith, a triumph of hope over experience.
And yet: things change! History unfolds along the lines of what Stephen Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium.” Things can appear stable for years and years while tensions gather beneath the surface, hairline fractures develop, and the whole system becomes highly sensitive to small perturbations. (The butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane, etc.)
We do not know what those perturbations will be or when they will emerge, but we know from history that Don Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” are inevitable. The North American natural gas boom, the precipitous decline in solar PV prices, the financial crisis — none were widely predicted. And there will be more like them.
Will unexpected, rapid changes in coming decades be good or bad, positive or negative? That depends on millions of individual choices made in the interim. Some of those choices, if they happen at just the right moment, could be just the perturbations that spark cascading changes in social, economic, or technological systems. Some of those choices, in other words, will be incredibly significant.
Which ones? That we cannot know. It could be any of them, any time. Precisely because we cannot know — because any one of our choices might be the proverbial butterfly’s wings — we must act. We must take advantage of every affordance, grasp every opportunity. We don’t know when history might unlock the door, so we have no choice but to keep pushing on it.
And really, what else are we going to do?
Remember, there is no “too late” here, no “game over” — it will be a tragedy to shoot past 2 degrees to 3, but 4 is worse than 3, and 5 is worse than 4. Being unprepared for any of those will be much worse than being prepared. The future always forks; there are always better and worse paths ahead. There’s always a difference to be made.
When we ask for hope, then, I think we’re just asking for fellowship. The weight of climate change, like any weight, is easier to bear with others. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in these last 10 years, it’s that there are many, many others. They are out there, men and women of extraordinary imagination, courage, and perseverance, pouring themselves into this fight for a better future.
You are not alone. And as long as you are not alone, there is always hope.