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Should we hope? And also, ‘Life & Fate’

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Image by Shandi-lee Cox/Flickr

I might have mentioned that I’ve been working, with a co-author called James Whitmore, on a personal handbook to help people survive climate change. It’s with the publisher now and should be out later this year.

Last night I was part of a panel with Alice Robinson and James Bradley, along with moderator Tony Birch, discussing climate change as the new dystopia. Talking about climate change is hard. I really, really believe everyone needs to personally care about it, but I’m also very aware that nagging them to do so is completely pointless. I feel a huge responsibility to openly and honestly say what I believe to be true – that the world is in terrible trouble, that anything we do now can only reduce and not stop climate change – but I’m also overwhelmed by the pointlessness of doing so, and by my embarrassment at expressing strong feelings. So mostly I say a couple of little things then cover up the discomfort with jokes.

Our book is about what individuals and small groups of people can do to live with and survive the extreme weather, food shortages, social disruptions and despair that come with climate change. It’s about personal adaptation. Some people hate the idea of talking about adaptation – they think it’s giving up. I reckon it’s part of living as though we believe climate change is real. I think it’s part of the package of harassing politicians to do something about emissions, getting your own money out of fossil fuels, holding the media to account and all the rest of trying to reduce the nastiness of climate change. We have to do all of it because we’re now stuck with at least 2 degrees of warming and probably a fair bit more, and because no one seems to be doing anything much to protect us from the effects that will bring.

Does accepting that we need to prepare ourselves for climate change mean I’ve given up hope? I don’t even know. Sometimes I feel cheeriest when I think about how the world had had five major extinction events in its history, and after each of them life has eventually bounced back in a wild tumult of diversity. That’ll probably happen again. We might go. Tigers, elephants and just about every other species you’ve ever had a crush on (unless you’re a huge algae fan) definitely will. And then new things will come along. Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, is very good on this.

lifeandfateOn the other hand, I feel pretty hopeless when I try to think of any scenario in which Australia might seriously do the things that are required to significantly reduce our emissions. Neither of the major parties want to do it, no one in big business wants to do it, and between them they seemed to have convinced the rest of the country we don’t want to do it either. Even if we did, we’re signing up to things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which are taking away our power to do anything about it.

There are many studies on how hope or despair about climate change affects the way we act. Clive Hamilton has researched this topic and found we come up with the best strategies when we feel everything there is to feel about climate change, including despair and hope.

I am reading the 15th book of my TBR20 challenge: Vasily Grossman’s Life and fate. Set in the siege of Stalingrad in World War 2, Grossman’s epic is about the ideologies that take over our life, the ‘isms’. He is most concerned with Fascism and Communism, with the total violence of the totalitarian state and with our willingness to submit to it in the name of our beliefs. And this is what he has to say about hope:

A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed. The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave is astounding. The soil of hope – a hope that was senseless and sometimes dishonest and despicable – gave birth to a pathetic obedience that was often equally despicable.

The Warsaw Rising, the uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor, the various mutinies of brenners, were all born of hopelessness. But then utter hopelessness engenders not only resistance and uprisings but also a yearning to be executed as quickly as possible.

People argued over their place in the queue beside the blood-filled ditch while a mad, almost exultant voice shouted out: ‘Don’t be afraid, Jews. It’s nothing terrible. Five minutes and it will all be over.’

Everything gave rise to obedience – both hope and hopelessness.


20 thoughts on “Should we hope? And also, ‘Life & Fate’

  1. The book sounds terrific and the thought of “…living as though we think climate change is real ” is inspiring. And a bit scary.
    +1 to your list of buyers.

    1. I feel like we’ve gotten to a situation where neither of the major parties is going to offer us the chance to vote to do something about this. I think it’s going to be like the offshore detention situation or national security – any differences are cosmetic, no one will make the kind of dramatic changes necessary to reduce our emissions to the level needed. And most people would be freaked out by the idea of voting for the Greens even if they’re the only ones offering a policy that approaches what’s required. If the voters start yelling for action, the ALP will probably offer them something that does 5% of the job and most people will be satisfied.

  2. I often contemplate the world in the near future and the challenges we’ll face – food shortages, water shortages, extreme weather to list the obvious, not to mention the myriad of changes we haven’t even accounted for (humans are masterful at underestimating effects) – and all my dreams start to look a bit ragged. For instance I love coffee, have started my own coffee business, but I think, when we finally wake up and realise our way of feeding the world and the huge environmental impact importing and exporting has on the world, this business I envisaged will no longer be possible, for any number of reasons: Coffee production requires lots of water, most coffees are found in other parts of the world, only to be imported, so there’s pollution there in transportation, and then there’s roasting, mostly using gas, but nevertheless a fossil fuel. Have I mentioned all the packaging and plastics from roaster to cafe? My point is my dream, fostered by the free capitalist state we live in, is unsustainable and I wonder when I’ll have to stop pandering to my selfish indulgences, which brings me to a sombre conclusion: should I continue pursuing it at all. I’d be curious what you have to say in your book, Jane, about such hopes that may have to be abandoned and how will people replace them.

    1. Nathan, your comment makes me want to start a website for the book so there’s a place we can all talk about questions like yours. Because the book covers a lot but not everything, and while we talk about hope and abandoning future dreams it’s probably not in the level of detail you’re looking for. I’m going to look into what more we can do.

      1. Thanks Jane. I’ll be eager to see what comes of the book and the discussion it provokes. It’s funny, I remember giving a talk about the greenhouse effect when I was nine or ten (I’m 38 now and for the life of me I can’t remember how it came about, but it was for school) and some of what David Suzuki was talking about at the time featured in it; it disappoints me but not much seems to have have happened since then. Being an environmentalist at heart (I studied zoology/ecology at Uni) it’s disheartening to see the lack of conviction, resolution in world politics. My personal solution is to eventually put a house on my parents property and get off the grid, solar, underground water, chickens and pigs, if I can. Of course it can’t be totally off the grid, but there’s something about self-reliance that’s terribly empowering. Fortunately, my partner feels the same. Are we just romantics?;) Anyway, best of luck.

      2. Jane, I definitely think you should make sure there is an online space (and maybe a real space too) for discussion after your book is out. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Great post that I suspect gets to the heart of what most of us feel Jane. Like you, though, I think the least we can do is learn to adapt and that that’s not giving up. But, we need to do whatever else we can to reduce/slow down/stop (?!) the change. Whatever we do, someone is out there saying, “no, that’s not the most helpful thing you can do, do this!” but we just have to DO something because, really, who know that the MOST helpful thing is?

  4. I love Rebecca Solnit and I love this article, in which – whisperinggums – she urges us to act even though we don’t know what will work and what will not. Highly recommended reading:

    “You have to be willing to gamble on a world not dominated by fossil fuels and the power that fossil-fuel fortunes give to a handful of people and corporations. You have to be willing to imagine a world in which we recognize that what we’re called upon to do is not necessarily to sacrifice; instead, it’s often to abandon what impoverishes and trivializes our lives: the frenzy to produce and consume in a landscape of insecurity about our individual and collective futures. It also means appreciating the value of many other things—confidence in the future, a greatly reduced fear of contamination or poisoning, economic justice, local engagement, decentralization, democracy—in which we’ve been poor during the Age of Fossil Fuel. These are the things we stand to gain if we conquer the fossil-fuel industry and reinvent energy in our time.”

    1. What a beautiful paradigm shift – to think of the changes that we need to make to our lives and to society as a move towards something positive rather than a sacrifice. I suppose many of us already think of things this way (e.g. cycling rather than driving to work in an attempt to do one’s bit for emissions reductions ends up becoming a big positive in many people’s lives), but examples are few and far between (and if we were all compelled to give up our reliance on cars, that would be seen as a great sacrifice rather than as a widespread opportunity for something positive).

  5. My wife and I live on the coast of Florida that will be submerged–sooner rather than later– by rising ocean levels, and have planned already to move more inland to Georgia, but this is a temporary measure; the reality of course is that surface heat in the U.S. will make large portions of the American continent, like Australia, untenable for living.
    I never stop hoping that awareness and ingenuity, and new technology will stave off the worst effects of climate change, and I look forward to your book.

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