Between despair and hope: it’s the end of the world, but I feel fine

One of the neglected aspects of the “climate debate” is our own personal reflections, fears and hopes about the future. Many of us concerned with climate change have had to cope with some quite profound existential fears. So I’ve decided to explore the issue from a very personal and human level over the next few posts. Yes, we should be talking about a price on carbon, new forms and energy and adaptation strategies. For those looking to debate policy, my apologies. This post follows on from yesterday, and addresses the question of maintaining hope – Mike aka Watching the Deniers

The temptation to give up is easy.

In the face of increasingly bad news about the pace of climate change, the spectre of peak oil and the inability of our political leaders to agree on a “price on carbon” it is very easy to feel despair.

Despite nearly thirty years of discussion, large segments of the Australian population, media, political and business elites still question the science of climate change.

For many, the debate taking place in Australian on the “carbon tax” is dispiriting.

Activists and scientists – indeed anyone familiar a basic understanding of climate change – are increasingly acknowledging just how unlikely it is we will avoid some of the more serious consequences of climate change:

“…I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist. I haven’t given up the cause. I still work overtime to promote clean energy, and I take solace when top climate scientists say we can still avoid the worst effects of global warming if we move quickly. It’s just that, well, we’re running out of time.” – Mark Tidwell

Clive Hamilton in his recent book, “Requiem for a species,” neatly sums up a growing mood of pessimism. Hamilton’s book is not for the faint hearted, it is indeed is grim reading.

He paints a picture of what the world may look like in 2050, when temperatures have risen four degrees. In short we can see:

  • more extremes in weather
  • growing problems with food security (more people are going to get hungry)
  • the potential for political instability

He has taken this from the 2009 “Four degrees and beyond” conference, in which the consensus from many of the conference participants was that it is unlikely we will prevent significant warming over the coming decades.

So we’re all doomed!

Time to start building bunkers and stockpiling food?

Not exactly.

It’s the end of the world and I feel fine

That we will not avoid significant warming is a hard message to digest, and will most likely prompt despair rather than action. Why bother… why reduce your personal carbon foot print? Why bother getting a hybrid car or installing solar panels if my individual actions mean so little?

Hell, why even get out of bed in the morning!

I’m not an “alarmist”, nor am I prophesising the end of the world. Truth be told, I have very little idea of what the world will be like in ten years, let alone twenty or thirty.

But based on the science, we can intimate that it will be hotter, wetter and with more extreme weather events. It may not be as bad as some fear, or it could be a lot worse. As to the political situation I dare say it is impossible to tell.

Even so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and simply give up.

And I have a confession to make.

For some time I did give up.

It felt too much.

But I got over that.

As the old REM song goes, it may be the end of the world but I feel fine.

Simple solution: start acting

For over a year I ran a blog called “Watching the deniers”, which was relatively successful as far as those things go. The blog focussed on the activities of the “deniers” as well as tracking some of the science.

After a year of being involved in the climate debate I felt burnt and out, and if I was honest somewhat depressed.

Clearly the science implied climate change was speeding up.

And clearly the political will to tackle the growing crises was lacking:Copenhagenwas a failure, while the then PM Kevin Rudd backed down from introducing and Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The effectiveness of the deniers seemed to be growing: now matter how absurd their claims or dishonest their tactics, they were finding an ever increasing audience for their misinformation.

After all they have a soothing message: don’t worry, be happy! There is no such thing as climate change! I can see why so many people would be tempted to swallow that line.

So between despair and denial what can one do?

Start acting.

Get out there and start talking to real people.

Five simple steps for getting over despair

How did I get over my own inertia and despair?

I adopted five simple strategies:

  • Stop thinking and about climate change for a while – don’t loose focus on other aspects of your live. For a year I ran a blog while holding down a full time career and raising a child. This meant I was up early in the morning to write, and spent hours every week immersed in the scientific literature. Having such a narrow focus in not healthy. My advice? Stop thinking about it all the time. Go for a walk, have coffee with a friend and talk about something else.
  • Talk to others interested in the subject – via my blog I started having conversations with readers and other bloggers about climate change and my concerns. It turned out that others shared my concern. The simple act of expressing ones worries is often helpful enough. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved.
  • Get active, but don’t over commit – worried about climate change, peak oil or the environment. Then find a local activist group. I’m in the process of doing that in my area, and have started talking to these groups about how I can help them. But like everything, do it in moderation.
  • Accept what you can, and can’t do – unlike the movies, where the hero saves the day and often the world, climate change is long running problem to which they are no easy solutions. So be reasonable in your expectations. If you’re planning on being an activist, then focus on your local community and local government. You will achieve far more working with like minded individuals at this level than bombarding the Prime Minister with angry emails.
  • Stop worrying about the future all the time – climate change is a long term, multi-generational problem. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you simply live for today and leave the problems for future generations to tackle. Take those small, practical steps you can make and stop obsessing about rising sea levels, climate induced wars and species extinction.

So no grand solutions there!

The feeling of frustration at the politicisation of the science, anger at the deniers and the fear that the future wasn’t going to be a “happy place” was overwhelming. But they were feelings that had to be overcome. I could deny I was experiencing grief, or accept that fact and confront my own sense of despair.

Doing so was hard, but in the end liberating.

It might be the end of the world, but I feel fine.


4 thoughts on “Between despair and hope: it’s the end of the world, but I feel fine

  1. “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” Antonio Gramsci

    A good motto for all of us.

    We know it’s likely/ certain to get pretty awful for a lot of people in a lot of places. But we, and others like us, will take effective action – even though it may be too little too late for some people and some species, it will get done.

    (And it is both acceptable and reasonable to ‘cry into the pillow’ every now and again when we’re overwhelmed, knowing that it could have been avoided.) Just dry your eyes and live the best life you can.


  2. Nicely said. All long-term climate activists face this – of looking into the abyss and having it look back into you.

    I think your list is a good one. I would add staying physically fit is important too… Healthy mind in healthy body and all that…


  3. Well said. I actually have a post in my drafts that is pretty much an outpouring of the very frustrations you’ve mentioned here. The worries – should I learn how to farm my own food, and just work the highest-paying job I can find for a decade or so and try to insulate myself from future shocks? Is science communication even worth pursuing as a method to facilitate change? The frustrations – politics, conferences and seemingly, only poorly thought out or even negative ‘environmental’ policies (biofuels) getting off the ground.

    But you’re right. We need to do what we can, when we can, but still live our lives, because if we all burn out and switch off, there will never be enough support to make the changes we need.


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