A new kind of hope

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.

6 thoughts on “A new kind of hope

  1. Joern:
    At least within the sciences of plant and animal breeding, and genetics we’ve seen incredible advances in technologies and accumulations of vast datasets, both of which help us make improvements to crops and livestock much faster than we could even half a generation (human generation) ago. This gives me hope.

    Another trend I’d point to in the realm of our science is how it is paid for. Many generations back scientists were either independently wealthy and free to explore… or were the clever and curious with sponsorship by wealthy or political patrons. Then political support and public sector researches became mainstream, supported as much by military necessity as anything. By the middle of the 20th century we see the advent of corporate research sponsorship. With the capitalist drive backing R&D we see ever broadening gaps between rich and poor. This dampens the hopes I hold based on advances in technology.

    Paying for science in the public sphere is far more political and difficult to manage. In a capitalist venue the money goes where the results are. Back when I was in grad school we used to compare our potential career paths as: Public (University) – publish or perish; Private – put out or get out. If one has sufficient faith that markets and therefor capitalist concerns will always find the solutions we need then there is nothing to fear. We’ll invent our way out of anything on the horizon. Is such a faith justified? Hard to scientifically evaluate that question.

    Going off on a tangent, I do imagine that technocratic aspirations could do with some reflection about where we are headed on a longer time horizon. Solving immediate needs is very important of course – but blindly choosing a path just to survive until tomorrow (to kick the can down the road) can lead us into dead-end alleys from which we’ll eventually have to extract ourselves. Cleaning up and dealing with nuclear wastes comes to mind in this regard. For myself I like to imagine not merely what we must do to get through today’s challenges, but where are alternative paths and how might our grandchildren reflect on the path choices we make now? This is where I hope our better minds can focus. Hope is a powerful thing.

  2. Hi Joern – really nice post, lots to consider. Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out. So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium. Since then, whilst there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

    These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little *any* of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of *anyone* who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

    With respect to the question of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal and although I don’t buy into their certainty that there *will* be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to. Here’s a link to the project’s website:

    https://dark-mountain.net/

    I’m going to copy this comment over to my blog and link through to your piece because I think that this is an important discussion for scientists and society at large to be having.

    All the best,

    Jeff

    • Interesting, Jeff — thanks for the link to the dark mountain! I had not seen this. I find it somewhat a bit gloomy in tone, and a bit hmm …. not enough “love”. But of course, I only had a very quick look, so this is just a gut reaction no more than that. Thanks for your engagement with this post!! — Joern

  3. Pingback: Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty? | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  4. I’m glad you acknowledge that we are already facing many small catastrophes. It is too easy from the comfort of airconditioned first-world homes and offices to ponder thoughts like “we are in a situation where some kind of catastrophe has indeed become likely” oblivious to the fact that many, generally poor people, mostly in poor countries, are already facing catastrophe. The idea that catatrophe has merely become “likely” is actually holding back action, because it allows time for wingnuts to discuss how we just have to embrace solar radiation management geoengineering, or fourth generation nuclear, or whatever – while the Trumps and Salvinis of the world are building walls and actively pursuing the road to barbarism, as though they read Rosa Luxembourg’s dire prediction, and chose their side.

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