As the Earth’s ecological systems upon which we depend accelerate in their slouch towards Bethlehem, our society faces an existential crisis. The effects of climate change are far direr than we initially expected. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen to 415 ppm for the first time in over three million years. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C describes that we face an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees C as soon as 2040. Furthermore, the two degrees of warming that scientists widely argue is the final major threshold before permanent, large-scale climatic shifts leading to ecological collapse, is no longer some far-off possibility or hyperbolic fear-mongering, but an imminent reality. The future we face in this new Earth is marked ever more frequent and intense fire and flooding, famine and disease, droughts and storms.
Similarly, compounded by decreasing habitat availability from deforestation, overfishing, and resource overuse, climatic shifts are already being accompanied by staggering and consistent losses in biodiversity. Published last month, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ Global Assessment Report concluded that the second-fastest mass extinction event in planetary history is underway; the current rate of extinction is 100 to 1000 times greater than historical background rates. Over one million species are at risk of extinction within the next few decades.
As they perceive the horsemen beginning to saddle up their mounts, many of my friends and colleagues in the environmental community have succumbed to anxiety, if not despondency. It is all too easy to become overwhelmed and unable to make a decision on how to proceed given the enormity of the problem and the lateness of the hour. Indeed, given their scale, global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss have been called hyperobjects which humans cannot comprehend despite their pervasive effects that are and will be experienced by everyone in some way.
We have been taught to be hopeful in the face of adversity, as evidenced by the preponderance of media offering reasons for optimism in the face of ecological catastrophe. Some argue that we only need to make simple changes in our personal lives that collectively will suffice to halt current trends of environmental degradation; we just need to give up eating meat, stop flying, or stop using disposable cutlery. Ethical consumerism promises that we can minimize our environmental impact by buying the right product. These small lifestyle changes have become moral imperatives that are increasingly being written into law. Others tout that we are on the verge of technological breakthroughs, such as fission power, electric cars, carbon capture, or any number of geoengineering solutions, that will address the problems we face. However, while the analgesic nature of these articles may briefly buoy our hopes that we still have an exit strategy to extract ourselves from our current crisis without substantive changes to our lifestyle, they serve as a red herring.
First off, placing the onus of responsibility of solving this colossal mess on individuals rather than on the economic and political actors who created it to further their own gains, actively undermines efforts aimed at achieving necessary systemic changes which cannot be fulfilled on a collective individual level. Our ability to deal with these problems has not been limited by a lack of personal action. These are not glitches that can be solved by the economic and political systems that created it. This is not to dissuade anyone from changing their behavior and consumption patterns, but their collective impact would be dwarfed and rendered negligible by the negative impact of corporations and industries over which we have no control, whose responsibility is to their shareholders rather than humanity, and often operate outside of the control of the rules and regulations we have collectively established to protect society. By propagating the fairy tale that we bear a responsibility to clean up their mess and have the capacity to do so, these very groups have delayed the necessary and systematic changes that would make a difference, precisely because such a shift would undermine their power and profit. Furthermore, this implicit deceit has been complemented by a more explicit and overt campaign to spread misinformation, foment skepticism regarding environmental research, and undermine legislation that would begin addressing environmental issues.
Second, the touted solutions are often unlikely to be effective. We have reached the point where the feckless environmentalism of anodyne half-measures will not suffice. Many technological solutions are unlikely to be achieved soon enough to avert the worst of climate change and environmental degradation. Furthermore, most have their own set of socioeconomic and environmental problems that undermine their sustainability. Similarly, even if a substantive proportion of individuals were convinced to make personal lifestyle changes to minimize their environmental impact, which is highly questionable (if only given the time frame in which we need to develop a solution), feedback loops in environmental processes will result in continued climatic changes even if we were to cease all anthropogenic carbon emissions immediately.
The problem with hope is that it is fickle. It can give way from beneath your feet, allowing you to fall into despair. In fact, despair’s etymological roots can be traced for the Latin words for “down from” and “hope.” In the absence of stable footing, we are left unmoored and driftless as fear creeps in. The antidote to this fear is courage, which is not the lack of fear, but having the conviction to strive forward despite it.
We may be less prone to falling into despair and inaction if we embraced the absurdity of this situation rather than depend on hope of emerging from it victorious. This is not to capitulate to the fatalistic laziness of nihilism or denial. In fact, what we do matters very much. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t recycle, subscribe to renewable energy suppliers, or take public transport to work rather than drive. However, what matters is not its impact something but the doing itself.
In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished by the gods for trying to cheat death, cursed to roll a boulder up a mountain for eternity, only to have it fall just before he reached the summit. Sisyphean tasks are those which are likely doomed to failure, regardless of our best efforts, and should be avoided at all costs given their hopelessness. However, rather than give up, yielding to the inevitability of defeat, Albert Camus suggested that we imagine Sisyphus happy as he strides back down the mountain to bear his load again. This is how he can liberate himself from the oppressive shackles of his fate. If we forgo expectations of having a meaningful impact, what is left is the work itself and the satisfaction of doing a good thing well. Sisyphus’ curse is self-imposed by despising rather than accepting the situation’s intractability. Camus argues that the way victory can be achieved in this unwinnable situation is to revolt against the assumption that this failure was an outcome to be dreaded, saying, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted with scorn.” As a result, we become resilient to the challenges and failures that we will inevitably encounter upon this path.
Of course, there are risks associated with this approach as well. The systematic changes that are necessary will be difficult and frightening. Accepting the sacrifices that must be made as a result of this systemic change will be a bitter pill to swallow. They are likely more difficult and less comfortable than making small changes that are ultimately of little consequence. We must accept that this is ultimately apostolic work for which we will likely pay a high price in the short term without any guarantee of seeing the long-term results.
It can be tiresome to pursue the seemingly insurmountable, making all the more important to care for oneself. Camus’ novel The Plague describes a deadly epidemic that decimated the population of a small town. The residents worked indefatigably to care for the sick and dying, despite the lack of any reasonable hope of success. Amidst the chaos, two of the main characters went for a leisurely, restorative swim before returning to the fray. The lesson here is to learn how to rest rather than give up. As is summarized by the novel’s narrator, the story of The Plague is, “not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
But let’s strip away the pretense of philosophical jargon to conclude, instead using the plain, unassuming language of the plain, unassuming folks who have always done the lifting and will need to do so again now. The challenge that lies before us seems difficult at best and insurmountable at worst; it may not be any easier or more likely to end in success if we take it together. However, though the hour may be late, it’s never too late to express the goodness that is within each of us. Even if this world is failing, we can still plant the seeds of a new one in the shell of the old because it’s the only thing we can do and because it will be more fun that way, if nothing else. Let’s put our hands in the earth and our shoulders to the wheel. Let’s live up to the standards we set for each other and forgive one another when we fail. Let’s cultivate new relationships with one another and the land that honor the dignity of both. Let’s take it easy, but take it.