It’s a two-part question: can we and should we?
Being the self-anointed EcoOptimist, these days (can I say “in the current environment” or “in the current climate” without being tongue in cheek?) can sometimes be quite difficult when, with each passing day, we hear about another legislative rollback, another record high temperature or another iceberg calving off Antarctica. Indeed, it raises the question of whether being – or attempting to be – optimistic is a good approach. In one sense, the answer is no if it encourages reducing the pressure to act by saying that we can ‘do this.’ On the other hand, as I’ve stated elsewhere, becoming an ‘Eco Pessimist’ can be akin to giving up. Since we’re doomed, a pessimist might say, let’s just enjoy things – drive, fly, be carnivores, live in McMansions – like there’s no tomorrow. Because maybe there isn’t a tomorrow?
OK, that’s taking the pessimism a bit too far, but you get the idea. The question is which is more effective: optimism or fear? The carrot or the stick?
As with much else around us, this isn’t a binary choice. We need both: fear of what can happen and the hope of solutions. One without the other is not likely to get us to the necessary results.
Greta Thunberg, whose powerful fearlessness is perhaps the most positive thing that 2019 brought us, is great at combining the two, while also shaming us into action. Speaking to British MPs, she said “The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I’ll skip the hardest in favor of trying to be optimistic here. (And the linked article about the speech in the Guardian was headlined “’You did not act in time: Great Thunberg’s full speech to MPs.” So, I’m being selective in my quotes.)
Project Drawdown also says we know what to do but gets specific about it. In Chad Frischmann’s TED talk he says “we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today.”
In the midst of an otherwise thoroughly depressing Washington Post article titled “The 2010s were a lost decade for climate. We can’t afford a repeat, scientists warn,” a cherry-picked paragraph reads:
[Surabi Menon, vice president for global intelligence at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a steering committee member for the U.N.’s emissions gap,] draws hope from progress that has been made on the ground in the past decade, even as global leaders fell short. Global renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, largely because of improved technology and falling costs, she noted. People increasingly see climate change as a threat; a Washington Post poll this year found that 76 percent of American adults view the issue as a “major problem”or a “crisis.”
Hope and fear.
At the end of every year, we get inundated with all those year-end summary articles. You know, the ones that appear in every newspaper or TV channel and attempt to provide some insight into the events of the year but usually end up feeling like treacle-y filler: “The ten best [fill in the blank] of the year.” I mostly ignore them because, well, treacle is way too sweet.
Two of them, though, were about the positive (treacle-free) aspects of an otherwise dreadful year for environmental news. EcoWatch, one of my favorite blogs, posted “20 Reasons Why 2019 Gave Us Climate Hope” and, while not exactly an end of the year review, the Huffington Post chimed in with “We Spoke To 5 Climate Experts About What Gives Them Hope.”
EcoWatch’s twenty reasons basically boil down to four: increased public interest (reasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and part of 5), the pending slow demise of fossil fuel companies (#’s 5 and 6), increased media coverage (#’s 8 and 9), and celebrity and political candidate positions (#’s 7 and 10). Nothing that new. Celebrities, for example, have been doing this for years, usually to no avail or, worse, causing a backlash. And the downturn of the fossil fuel industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. But perhaps the twenty reasons are significant in their totality.
While none of the Huffington Post interviewees got down to the specifics of Project Drawdown, they still – to state the obvious – give us hope. More or less.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA Secretary under Obama back when the EPA actually protected the environment, said “my hopeful energy comes from young people.” But that can be read as doing exactly what young activists are complaining about: kicking the can down the road. You can almost hear the “OK boomer” exasperated response.
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sounds much like Frischmann or Thunberg. “I am certainly bolstered by the fact that we already have all the solutions we need.” Her caveat: she predicates her hopes on having a new president.
Weather and climate expert Marshall Shepherd sounds like a true EcoOptimist when he says “we are seeing a genuine ship-turning moment…. Fortune 500 companies, faith-based communities and the military recognize the ‘here and now’ threat and are acting. There are genuine bipartisan efforts now in our Congress and within states.” Forgive me if I ditch my optimism and find his faith in Congress to be unrealistic in even an EcoOptimistic mindset.
Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, pins her hopes in multiple fronts: fossil fuel companies “starting to be held accountable,” youth pressure, and presidential candidates trying to one up each other supporting the New Green Deal. But she ends on a less than optimistic note about people losing money and the disproportionate impact on the poor.
Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and co-creator of the famous “hockey stick graph” depicting rapid global warming, takes a measured tack, “The good news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable. The bad news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable.” He, too, however, finds hope in the youth climate movement. It’s hard, though, to accuse him of abdicating leadership and passing on the responsibility since he’s been one of our most vocal environmental advocates.
Gizmodo Earther reporter Brian Kahn along with writer/activist Mary Annaïse Heglar tackle ‘the hope question’ head on. Hope, they say, is not sufficient and perhaps, given the state of climate inaction, we’re beyond the point where hope is useful. Kahn writes “I get that hope is a thing we’re all looking for amidst the worsening climate carnage, but I firmly believe hope isn’t the most useful thing to steer us away from a worst-case scenario.” EcoOptimism, however, is not ready to give up on hope as part of the path to solutions.
Heglar, in what became a lengthy Twitter thread, says the question of hope is “stale AF” and writes “my wish for 2020 is for people to stop asking climate activists what gives us hope and start asking ‘how can I help?’” This is closer to the EcoOptimist position of combining hope and fear, adding action into the mix.
Kahn’s concise version is: “Fuck hope. Long Live Action.” As with EcoWatch, he reaches out to climate activists to ask, “how can I help?” Among his respondents, 350.org founder Bill McKibben replies he’s concentrating on taking on the financial industry that bankrolls fossil fuels. Margaret Kleinman, founder of Climate Mobilization, directs us to “Break the silence: Start talking about the climate emergency and the need for WWII scale climate mobilization — in a realistic, blunt, emergency-focused way.” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance echoes Kahn, albeit in a slightly more family-friendly way: “Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.
Still, I think there is a place for hope – and that it’s actually necessary – so long as it’s in tandem with both fear and action. The realistic EcoOptimist will say that we can really only hope that the seemingly hopeless events of 2019 will result in governmental change. Will the massive heat waves and fires in Australia cause voters to depose their anti-climate change prime minister? Will China’s tepid attention to climate change expand? And the big one, will this country be able to vote out (I’m not placing any hope in impeachment – I’m not that optimistic) a president (there are too many derogatory adjectives I could have put in front of that word) who has single-handedly put us decades back in time?
We can still be optimistic while holding our breath. Better yet, let’s mix optimism with action. Anyone want to go to DC with me and get arrested with Jane Fonda? I’m in, so long as we don’t fly there.