Our predicament is simple: the reality of certain slow and complex dangers* points to the fundamental unsustainability of the world as we know it, and we’re failing to produce meaningful action because our way of life and the society we live in are causing the very dangers we see on the horizon. We seem stuck in a paradox where most of the actions we produce to ”fix the problem” make things worse.
We have reason to fear the coming storm. But how are we going to deal with the reality of future dangers which seem beyond our capacity? Sit around and wait for them to happen? Go out into the streets and shout about them? Or simply hope or pretend they are not real – at least for now?
The last option seems to be the default mode amongst those who know something about the direction things are headed. While more and more climate scientists are becoming more vocal about their fears about the future, it is almost becoming a professional requirement to repress the fears that come from looking at the slow unravelling of the ecological balance of the earth.
An article in Esquire from back in July 2015 by John H. Richardson, ”When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job”, explores this in a series of stories and interviews with climate scientists and activists. The piece revolves around the author’s interview with Jason Box, the renowned professor in glaciology who started the Dark Snow Project, the world’s first crowdfunded science project. His work reveals the effect of soot particles from wildfires on the darkening inland ice sheet in Greenland.
The interview depicts Box struggling with the conflict he feels around his roles as a scientist and a parent, having to face the consequences of his findings on behalf of his children. The language Box uses is interesting. For example: “I’m not letting it get to me. If I spend my energy on despair, I won’t be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem.” And: “The question of despair is not very nice to think about. I’ve just disengaged that to a large degree. It’s kind of like a half-denial.” As well as: “Yeah, the shit that’s going down has been testing my ability to block it.”
The reality of the changes that the climate system is undergoing seems too dark to face. It leads to despair. Richardson quotes Gillian Caldwell, a human rights and climate change campaigner, who now consults on avoiding the ”climate trauma” she experienced through her work: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”
The coping mechanism Caldwell advocates is compartmentalising our lives. Draw boundaries around looking at the future and living in the present. Separate ourselves from the things we know so that we can live functioning lives. Towards the end of the article Richardson describes it in these terms: “We pour our energy into doing our jobs the best we can, avoid unpleasant topics, keep up a brave face, make compromises with even the best societies, and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead.”
Another take on this is Joe Duggan’s project Is This How You Feel, a website which showcases letters written to him by climate scientists who describe how they feel about the subject of their work. There is a common thread of deep worry – feelings of powerlessness, depression, sadness, tiredness, even dreams of houses on fire – mixed with optimism, excitement and awe of the earth. These conflicting and overwhelming emotions seem to be resolved by a will to optimism and a hope that humanity will turn things around.
What if optimism and hope become just another coping mechanism we use to ”block the shit that’s going down”? A way of allowing us to compartmentalise our lives and avoid facing our fears? This may work as a way of dealing with the slow and complex dangers of the future but isn’t there a real danger that by blocking an existential fear like this, we let it move into the deep recesses of our consciousness? That it will simply bounce back from the repressed corners of our awareness?
Here’s another way of putting it: do we simply want to ”survive the day”?
The trouble is that by avoiding this fear we don’t have any other way of dealing with it than escape. And there really is nowhere to escape to when the source of our fear lies in the future. How long can we keep up this ”half-denial” and subtle self-deception? Is it really true that we need to compartmentalise our lives and constantly block our fear of the future to be able to live fully in the present?
Is there any other option when facing our fears means losing hope? Could it be that we need to lose hope for a moment in order to see the consequences of our fears in their fullness?
Despair literally means stepping down from hope. The word seems to negate everything we are aiming for in life: as meaning-making creatures we have an innate tendency to make sense of our existence and despair is a state where meaning breaks down. If there is no hope, there seems to be no point in our actions. Being without hope is a mode of existence which is difficult to bear. Our energies are drained. Lethargy and apathy lurk just one step away.
And yet there seems no way around it, if we want to face the slow and complex fears of the future that the modern age has created.
Could giving up hope be a step towards a saner and healthier life?
If we can find an anchor point from which to descend from hope, we may not have to succumb to the full force of despair and become chronically depressed. An anchor that can support us through the difficulty. A person, a community, a place of beauty that can shine through the darkness when we let go. An anchor that can reel us back in when the absence of meaning threatens to pull us under.
What if despair is not the end point of such a dive?
When we lose hope and faith in the future we loosen those parts of our identity which are tied up in the ’success’ of the present. This allows us to look at our fear in a different way because what is it actually we stand to lose? Part of the problem with blocking fear and despair is that we draw a boundary around what it is we think we are unwilling to give up. A boundary which doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is foundational in our lives and what has just crept in because we are used to it. Then we can’t see our own vested interests in the status quo and in the very way of life which is creating the problems we fear out there on the horizon. It is a double-bind, which leaves us clinging on to the kind of life we know.
What exactly is our hope a crucible for? Because hope focusses our attention on the future it feels like the the slow and complex dangers mean an end to hope. Is there a way to discover the intrinsic quality of hope as a possibility of the present?
Giving up hope might help us to see the ways in which we participate in the reproduction of the status quo and the very problems we fear. It opens a door we couldn’t see before. If hope shifts our attention away from the present towards a future expectation – and that expectation is of something enormously horrible – our actions become defensive and centred on preservation of what we have in the present. Withholding our attention and directing it towards the present, we discover that the only way of ensuring the continuity of the things we love is to grow them from where we stand.
Then we might find that there is a certain kind of joy hidden in the discovery that we don’t stand to lose everything if the status quo does break down. That the things we cherish about life are not necessarily tied up with the machine of technological civilisation. That if we live our lives in order to nourish those things, we already have what we need to live a good life.
Facing the slow and complex fears of the future could hold a ‘joyful disillusionment’, as a friend of mine puts it, with normality and our emotional investment in everyday reality. A relief from the burden of having to defend the present against the Enormity of the future.
Despair and joy are both real possibilities when we step down from hope. They are often intertwined and they can reappear after we thought they lost their grip. That’s why we need an anchor point. A community that can help us through the hardship of letting go.
The fall from hope provides a certain impetus. Disillusionment activates a yearning for something deeper and more genuine than everyday normality because for a while we have to live with confusion and questions rather than the sureties of normality. The signposts we used to navigate by no longer seem valid, the values and ideas we took for granted are no longer certainties.
Mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw describes how disorientation can refresh our perception because we need to pay full attention to our environment. And how in the absence of stable structures of meaning a certain longing arises. This longing “pushes the imagination out towards deeper inflections of insight”. With careful attention and a reality-seeking attitude we may find new guidance and, perhaps, new allegiance.
Once we give up on our emotional investment in the normality of the everyday, it is possible to see that the Enormity of the future is contingent on a compromise that isn’t worth making: normality depends on a huge web of infrastructures which are turning the living earth into resources for the machinery of civilisation. ”Keeping the lights on” in this circumstance is a slow liquidation of the diversity and beauty life. The compromise is to pretend that this situation can be made ”sustainable”. So we keep hoping for a cure: a turn around, a technological fix, a collective awakening, a different diagnosis. And we keep living as if we don’t have to give up hope in continuing the kind of lives we lived at the beginning of the 21st century.
Disillusionment is a tough fall. It leads to despair. But it also opens up new possibilities: opportunities open for refiguring what we think ”the good life” means. We have a chance to rediscover our allegiance to the wider community of life, which was given to us at birth. Perhaps, it is possible to find ”hope beyond hope”.
But first disillusionment disorients us.
It calls us out on our folly.
It pains us to lose hope….
“If you awaken in our time, you awaken with a sob!” Stephen Jenkinson observes. We would do well to take grief seriously.
And as we descend from hope, the dark clouds move a little bit closer, the ground gets a little more precarious and the roadsigns are barely legible.
Do we have the courage?
*Insert your own greatest fear about the future here. If nothing comes to mind try: war, genocide, deforestation, pollution, resource conflicts, natural disasters, mass extinction, melting icecaps, exploitation and slavery, ocean acidification, the disappearance of cultures and languages.