By Joern Fischer
A small number of people working on sustainability have long been convinced that we are heading for some sort of global collapse. But partly because collapse hasn’t happened, and partly because it seems counter-productive to predict collapse, most sustainability scientists have kept up a narrative of urgent optimism. But is this changing?
Over the last few months, I have had quite a few informal conversations with colleagues about the state of the world. And it seems that many who used to be optimistic are losing their optimism – and are increasingly using terms like “climate catastrophe” not as some outlandish thing that might happen one day, but as something that is entirely plausible in our foreseeable future or that of our children.
What does this tell us? To me it is a not-so early warning signal stronger than most, as well as an invitation to think once again what we’re doing in our science.
If we are in a situation where some kind of catastrophe has indeed become likely, how does this change what we do? To start with, how might it change our attitudes? – One might believe it will stifle all motivation and lead to depression; and therefore, we must not allow it. My sense is that this has been the dominant view among scientists – we’re not willing to face how bad things really are, because we believe that sending “negative messages” will just make everything worse, will lead to apathy and so on (and frankly, it scares us, as people not scientists!). But just like a grieving person eventually accepts her fate (for example, according to this conceptual model), there are aspects of what is happening that we simply must accept. The world as we knew it, is gone. Already, species have gone extinct. Already, we’re locked into some level of global warming. Sure, let’s work hard to minimize these problems, but already, it should be quite clear that as humanity, we are up for entirely new challenges and experiences; some further changes are already firmly locked in due to delays in system behaviour and associated feedbacks.
Facing this is not the same as giving up on a vision for a better world – but perhaps we should recognize more clearly that minor catastrophes are already happening right now, and larger ones are likely on the way. There is little benefit in denying this just because it might stifle blind optimism: if this is what is happening, then should we not face it best we can?
Having faced that many things are not going well at all means that our science can come out the other end in new, different ways. Essentially, what we need to do is navigate the trade-off between trying to rescue the systems that are (adaptation), versus letting them go, and transforming our world into a different set of systems. And importantly, we can do both: we can try with part of our energy to hang on to parts of the world as we know it (saving species, for example); but we can also prepare with the rest of our energy for a new world, at the same time. This isn’t giving up – it is seeing reality as it presents itself, and seeking genuine transformation; it is moving from denial and depression to finding entirely new ways to use our energy to make the world a better place.
And thus, as one hope dies, space emerges for a new type of hope: as hope dies that the world as we know it will persist, this makes space for hope that we can positively transform our world over the coming decades, using windows of opportunity as they arise.
If and when windows of opportunity open up – perhaps following small or major catastrophes – are we ready? Is our science ready? If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be? Which institutions would we favour? How would we transform our agricultural systems, personal time budgets and labour markets? Is our science sufficiently future-oriented to even ask such questions? Can we learn from positive examples, as well as localized disasters and collapses, so we can be somewhat prepared for likely small and major catastrophes? – My general sense is that most of our science wants the world to remain something it is unlikely to be; but because of this, we also miss opportunities for preparing positive visions for what a better future might actually look like.
I wonder if in hindsight, science will conclude that the Anthropocene will not be a geological era after all – simply because it will have been rather short-lived. At least the current phase of the Great Acceleration by definition cannot be sustained; so we’re out of the Holocene, but we’re clearly not yet in a new equilibrium. What we’re in right now is probably the middle of a major, global regime shift to … well, we don’t know to where.
In conclusion, then, perhaps it’s time to face that we are already facing small catastrophes, and larger ones are likely on the way. As these open windows of opportunity, it would be nice if our science is ready to offer new, positive visions for how to build something more durable than the current version of the “Anthropocene” – which, in its current, exponentially changing form, will only ever be a blink in our planet’s geological history.