The moral imperative of hope
& the wasteland of climate cynicism
by Margaret Klein
However grave our situation, the hopeful, moral response is to work, to fight & not to give up
Since publishing my article Living in Climate Truth the only disturbing response I have received is cynicism. Several people have told me that I am naïve for thinking that climate change can possibly be solved; that there is no hope, and thus no point in trying. The climate is too damaged, the State too fascist, the problem too intractable. I am wasting my breath; the only thing to do now is count down to the apocalypse.
Climate cynicism is all too common. In casual discussions about climate change with friends and acquaintances, cynicism is frequently expressed. “We are fucked,” people say, which pretty much ends the conversation, short-circuiting any discussion of organizing, or fighting back.
Climate cynicism is an extremely dangerous attitude (in part because is can be both seductive and contagious); it is important to understand how to evaluate cynical claims, what drives cynicism, and how we can fight it in ourselves and others.
Evaluating Cynical Claims
Are the cynics correct? Are we “fucked?” The only honest answer is: I don’t know. No one knows. There is no way to know, with certainty, what the future holds.
Scientists offer a range of predictions about the impact of climate change. Some of them are incredibly bleak. The most horrifying prediction I have ever read is James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock claims we have forced Gaia into a “hot state” in which the Earth’s carrying capacity will be reduced to only a few hundred million people within decades. That would mean the death of more than 5 billion humans. It's pretty horrific.
And it is possible that this damage is already locked in, and nothing that humans can do now can change it. This is a possibility that must be admitted.
But I fundamentally disagree that it is the only possibility, and that what humans do now will have no impact on our fate. Human induced climate change has never happened before; there is no test case. No one, not the IPCC, nor James Hansen nor a climate denier nor a climate cynic can know, with certainty, what the future holds. The future is unknown and unwritten.
This gives us a huge responsibility. In all likelihood (and according to most scientists), what we do now will have a fundamental impact on the fate of the climate, and on humanity. Though we cannot stop climate change in its tracks, if humanity acts with focus and urgency, we can prevent the worst damage, and thoughtfully respond to the changes in the climate we have already caused. The question is how to achieve the political will necessary to fight back. As David Roberts puts it, we are stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable. It seems impossible to muster the level of societal change that we need to protect our collapsing climate, but the alternative—the collapse of our climate and of human civilization— is unthinkably terrible, and must be avoided at all costs.
It is likely that a WWII level effort against climate change would save human civilization from chaos and ruin. This is a critical period. Our actions, and our attitudes, may be decisive in the scope of human history. That is a huge responsibility, and a terrific opportunity to do good in the world.
David Orr, discussing the climate crisis, said that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” Our situation is indeed grave, but the hopeful, moral response is to work, to fight, not to give up. Cynicism is a noun sitting on the couch. It is our moral responsibility to get off the couch, find hope, , and roll up our sleeves.
What Causes Climate Cynicism?
Cynicism is a defense mechanism. The cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect him or herself from further disappointment. Do you know people who are cynical about romantic relationships? These people say, “All men are pigs” or “Women just cause trouble, who needs ‘em?” or something along those lines. People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (ie. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain.
It is understandable that people would be cynical about climate change. The pain of reality is very great. It makes sense that people would pack their hearts with ice; numbing their fear and despair.
This also explains why climate cynics get angry at people, such as myself, who carry a message of hope. Hope threatens the defense. Some of the ice starts to melt, and raw emotions start to come through. “You are naïve!” They tell me, trying to maintain the safe, numb feeling “You are a fool.” People cynical of romance are similarly negative towards those in love; its painful to be reminded of what you have forsaken, so they attack the reminder.
The Moral Imperative of Hope
The terrific 1989 film Glory contains one of the greatest scenes I have ever watched, and an excellent lesson on hope and courage. Glory chronicles the 54th of Massachusetts, an all African-American regiment that fought during the Civil War. The campfire scene takes place the night before the 54th was leading the charge on Fort Wagner, which was heavily defended. The men knew they would likely die the next day. But tonight, they gathered around the campfire, singing, praying, sharing hope and mustering courage.
Our attitude and our actions are the only things that we can control
When Denzel Washington’s character says, “Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we?” he is expressing a courageous moral stance. He is saying, “To fight with you all tomorrow, is the best that I can do. I am giving my all, risking my life, everything I have, for the cause I most believe in. This is what gives me honor, what makes me a man. The outcome, what happens tomorrow, is irrelevant, it is out of my hands.”
None of us caused climate change, none of us chose to be born into this world, or this era. But here we are. This is our challenge. We have a responsibility to fight back. Declaring defeat at this point is abdicating any and all responsibility. Climate cynicism violates the most basic of social contracts. It says, “Even though I recognize calamity is upon us, I will not fight back. I will not fight for myself, or my family, nor for you or your family. The odds are against us, and so, I will give up.”
A more moral, hopeful, honorable stance is one that says, that Morgan Freeman' character describes:
“(God, if we die tomorrow)… we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy! We want ‘em to know that we went down standing up! Amongst those that are fighting against our oppression. We want ‘em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom!”
As we face the terrifying, unknown future, we have a moral imperative to maintain hope; to keep our sleeves rolled up and keep fighting. We might lose, that is true, and it would be a terrible thing. But if we should fail, let us die facing the enemy; let us go down standing up.
Some people call this naïve. I call it hope. And it takes plenty of courage.
◊ Published by agreement with the author. You can keep in touch with her ongoing work at The Climate Psychologist.