Mainstream debates on climate mitigation and adaptation have long assumed that only if we expect success can we be motivated to do anything at all. For a time it seemed like another narrative was beginning to take hold: the one where to find the strength to act we first need to feel deep in our bones the enormity of all that’s heading our way. It may not last, as calls for embracing climate optimism and rejecting ‘alarmism’ are again pushing back hard. But in the face of inescapably worsening planetary conditions, the narrative of success as the only way to motivate climate action risks leaving us vulnerable to the morale-shattering impact of climate disasters that will expose any optimism-based motivation as ultimately unreliable and leave us cognitively and emotionally stranded.
Ten years ago the provocative thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who gave us the concept of Black Swan events (improbable but impactful shocks to a given system that we ignore at our peril), published Antifragility: How Things Gain from Disorder. In the book he developed another concept, that of antifragility: the ability of a system not only to withstand shocks, but to grow stronger and better in their wake. Inspired by Taleb’s insights, in a 2021 article I proposed a concept of ‘climate antifragility’: a perspective that allows us to engage in environmentally and socially vital initiatives not less but more decisively even as the planetary conditions in the coming decades inevitably deteriorate.
With the narratives of success sooner or later bound to collapse under the weight of broken promises, those invested in them will be deprived of reasons to carry on. Worse still, clinging to optimistic hope as a supposedly indispensable component of our rationale for acting in the face of the planet-wide disruption, we risk being buffeted by repeated catastrophic events only to fall for suicidal delusion or into utter despair. Climate antifragility offers a better framing of our situation – one that will sustain us, come what may. While success-oriented individuals and institutions will lose their sense of purpose, those that embrace climate antifragility will only redouble their efforts.
To become climate antifragile, our actions need to be motivated by factors that can’t and shouldn’t be expressed in the harmful and fragile language of success. The real indispensable component of our rationale comes down to anchoring our actions in the moral and ethical dimension. Only if our efforts are self-sustaining in terms of being justified by the very act of doing the right thing, regardless of the ultimate outcome, will we be motivated to carry on even as things get worse. Indeed, the worse things get, the more motivated to carry on we will be. The more human and non-human suffering climate disasters inflict, the harder we will try to alleviate it; the fewer viable ecosystems remain, the harder we will fight to save them; the less habitable space is left for us to share, the harder we will work to make the most of it.
Not as paradoxically as it may seem, the less dependent we are on any imagined favourable outcome, the more likely we are to achieve it. Only once we’ve given up on the belief that we must succeed can we truly hope that we succeed after all.