Climate Grief and Societal Catastrophe

Posted on June 25, 2019

Can we have an adult conversation about a very, very serious topic? What is your felt reality about climate change and the way it affects us? I want to share my felt reality about this topic, and that means sharing my grief and fear and anger and despair with you.

As a retired academic I have had plenty of time to read up on this problem that changes everything. I agree with Noam Chomsky that climate change and the threat of nuclear disaster are the two most pressing concerns of mankind right now. While I am worrying about climate change for quite some time now, it never was a cause for me to give up or risk my scientific career and become an activist. But right now we see that what the most courageous academics are doing is precisely that: the admirable David MacKay gave up two years of his academic career to research and write Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, and more recently sustainability expert Jem Bendell took the risk to publish his paper Deep Adaptation, despite the fact that it was rejected by the most prestigious journal in his field. Bendell mentions that many of his students are turning away from science now to become activists.

This is encouraging. One of reasons why the messages of climate scientists are dismissed is not because what they are saying is unreasonable or implausible, but because most scientists who are addressing the general public do not practice what they preach. Flying to exotic places to take part in conferences to issue dire warnings about the disastrous effects of flying on the planet, that is not exactly the most clever way to get a hearing. It makes it look like you do not really believe in your own message. Every return flight from Europe to New York costs the Arctic three square metres of ice, as is pointed out in David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth. We may assume that climate scientists know this. But they keep flying.

As is made abundantly clear by authors like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Jem Bendell (and many others), the root cause of the threat to our survival is the way in which our current economic system is geared to economic growth. To understand this, the only thing you have to understand is exponential growth, the sequence 2, 4, 8, 16, … Even a modest expansion of GDP by 3 percent per year means that the size of the economy doubles in 23 years. Clearly, this is unsustainable, and yet, politicians who challenge the idea of economic growth will not get reelected. Still, sustainable growth or green growth does not exist, because it is a contradiction in terms.

Capitalism and the way money functions in our society are the main obstacles to change. If we want to stave off disaster, the whole current economic system will have to be replaced. Since it is not likely that those who benefit from the current system will give up their privileges without a fight, these changes will have to be forced on those who are now in power, by grassroot action. If that fails, civilization as we know it will most certainly collapse.

We are impermanent. If we are conscious individuals we occasionally reflect on our own impermanence. But thinking about death is like gazing into the sun, as La Rochefoucauld reminds us. It is not a thing we can do for long. Reflecting on our future death as a species is vastly more difficult. Yet, our species is also impermanent. Earlier species of humans have all died out: Neanderthal man, homo erectus, … Why should the fate of homo sapiens sapiens be any different?

We all grew up with the myth of progress, the idea that human civilization is on a steady path of improvement, the hope that the lives of our children will be better than our own lives. Thinkers like Steven Pinker still believe in that idea, for they believe that progress is the result of problem solving, and clever humans are solving more and more problems. But to me it seems clear that problem solving is not the answer and that the possibility of infinite progress is an illusion. Even Steven Pinker admits that the two biggest dangers facing us now are climate change and the nuclear threat, but he considers it improbable that disaster is going to happen.

Of course, we want the human species to survive for many more centuries. A century or so ago, the planet seemed robust enough for that. But the current situation is much more precarious. So much more so that sustainability expert Jem Bendell was moved to ask himself five very serious questions:

He asks us to read the paper that resulted from engaging with these questions on a what if basis. What if climate disaster cannot be prevented any longer, because the way we have already messed up our environment is irreparable? In other words, Bendell poses, as the first among climate scientists and sustainability experts, an existential question. What if there is no more time for climate science as usual? What if the careers of climate scientists will be drawing to a close because the collapse that climate science predicts might happen actually happens?

What if societal collapse is imminent? What Jem Bendell means by societal collapse is “the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning.” If the question is posed like this, we suddenly realize how much we depend on very complex structures to provide us with water, food, shelter, and meaningful interaction and communication with fellow humans.

Jem Bendell is performing an experiment with “living in truth”, to use Vaclav Havel’s famous phrase. Living in truth is giving up censuring one’s take on reality due to how we think it might affect others: our neighbours, our political oppressors, our scientific peer community, or the public at large. Often we act like a doctor who witholds bad news from the patient because it might affect his chances of recovery. This is what climate scientists and sustainability experts are doing all the time. David MacKay, who died of liver cancer in April 2016, admitted in his final month that he saw no possibility to replace the abundant supply of energy that fossil fuels currently provides with an equally abundant supply of sustainable energy. According to his calculations, it simply could not be done. Jem Bendell decided to be equally honest in asking himself the question: is a transition to a global sustainable way of living that prevents climate disaster still possible?