Sunday, December 31, 2017


Honest Hope, Redux

The national political situation is a disaster, with unsettling news daily.  Besides Trump's daily atrocities, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are setting new boundaries for just how much ecological damage a cabinet appointment can wreak.  But for those of us who have our eye on climate change above all other issues, simply because it is the fulcrum upon which the whole human project rests, don't blame Donald Trump.  Our course was set before he was elected.

The key decision at a very late moment in the battle to temper CO2 emissions was Barack Obama's decision to prioritize health care reform over curbing climate change during his first term.  He eventually decided to make climate the priority of his second term, but by then it was too late.  Of course, the rest of the world needed to do their part, and I argued long ago in this space that China was likely to be key in that process.  They are stepping up now as the global leader in slowing down emissions, but this too is too little, too late. 

It is true that Trump has had more success in slowing down regulatory and diplomatic progress on climate than in pushing legislative change to the Right's hated “Obamacare.”  But thankfully, corporations, large metro areas, and states (especially California, the world's sixth-largest economy) have picked up the slack in leadership after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord. They were a significant alternate delegation to this year's IPCC convention, and Governor Brown has planned a big-tent climate mitigation jamboree for next spring. 

So if CO2 emissions are already over the limit , where now is our hope for civilization, and the remnant of the Cenozoic era?  I wrote a few years back about the difficulty of having honest hope.  Most hope these days is cheap, shallow, and dishonest, and this is true of the climate left as well as the denialist right.  But today, I received a message sponsored by Climate from the writer-activist Rebecca Solnit ("Hope in the Dark"), one of my most trusted commentators.  Though she is pitching for a small climate justice organization, she speaks honestly, saying we need to “feel the horror and the hope, and choose hope. Hope doesn't mean pretending that climate change doesn't exist or that we can erase it.  It means we fight for the best outcome instead of settle for the worst.”

Must we fight if we have hope?  The inverse holds, as the limbic system supports the link.  But as a contemplative who took to the streets for more than a decade, I have found what feels even more honest in the outlook of Paul Kingsnorth, founder of a project that is deeply searching and probing, but not fighting: the Dark Mountain Project, out of the hinterlands of the UK. Paul is author of  the seminal Orion essay “Dark Ecology.” Dark Mountain's manifesto is entitled “Uncivilisation,” essentially embracing what I feel is already happening, rather than denying or fighting it. 

In a recent audio interview, a junior editor at Orion puts the question, “Paul, people say that your message leaves them without hope. Do you hold any hope?” Kingsnorth answers, “It depends upon what you are hoping for.”  He goes on to make it clear that he does not hope for a solution to climate change, avoiding imminent collapse.  But he is not as pessimistic as James Lovelock, who envisions “Isolated mating (human) pairs in polar regions overseen by warlords” by early next century, nor Guy McPherson, who warns of a mass extinction event in the northern hemisphere by 2035.  Like most whose hope is honest rather than feathered by denial, he makes it clear that the foundations of global modernist civilization are rapidly crumbling, and the massive feedback loops of climate disruption have already engaged.  A man who owns twelve different kinds of scythes, and loves uses them, his best hope is for a chastened human presence working within a nineteenth century level of material existence (similar to James Howard Kunstler's “World Made by Hand” series).  But he acknowledges even that is a long shot. 

As for the fighting stance, Naomi Klein has written a series of penetrating analyses of global capitalism,  and I respect her research and analysis.  But when it comes to reforms which could be bolstered by honest hope, she comes up short.  In her latest major work "This Changes Everything," Klein places her hope in a global socialist movement arising before 2020 which would radically re-order global priorities and stop the emissions curve short of catastrophe.  She has famously denounced Kingsnorth as a traitor to the environmental movement. Listen to her critique, and it is clear that he makes her blood boil.  But just as our country is not ready for a socialist revolution, despite the mounting excesses of the Right, the world does not seem posed for the kind of radical change which Klein feels those excesses have made inevitable.  And the emissions curve against which she strains heroically has become much steeper since she published her latest call to arms.
Climate betrayal by conniving, dishonest Republicans and their disinformation campaign? Perhaps, if you expected them to behave like responsible politicians.  Environmentalists betrayed by a good, smart man in Paul Kingsnorth? Not at all, for  the truth is that the environmental movement has betrayed itself.  Environmentalists may not think they hold mainstream values, but by and large they live like the masses.  And, except for their laudable subsistence farming and Luddite fringe, they either openly or secretly believe that human technique will save us.  The problem is that environmentalists, as Kingsnorth argued in “Dark Ecology,” came to depend early on upon quantity, rather than quality, fully swallowing the assumption that measurement and the context of scientific data is the path to slowing down the awakening Climate Beast (Tim Flannery).  But the science of measurement should only be an accoutrement to the central work, which involves unexamined modernist values

And what is the alternative?  A couple of years ago, a young Baptist woman with whom I have worked in faith-based local environmental work was asked to give the sermon at First Baptist in Spruce Pine.  This looked to me like another instance of grudging acknowledgement of the problem, with the pastor lacking the courage to put his job on the line.  But unlike myself, who, like a good liberal,  has included climate science and even some statistics in my climate sermons, Starli spent her entire sermon describing the way her grandparents lived.  She concluded by asking where the climate change issue would be if we had continued to practice the old ways of the Southern Appalachian mountaineers.  Going even further back, we have the Cherokee and Catawba from whom we stole this land.  That is another story, but the sad point is that it is better to set your compass aright and continue to steer by it than to try to reconstitute a whole set of skills with diminished resources in a world of runaway climate change and an additional 6.5 billion earthlings.

So we are back to the moral and imaginative ground of last month's posts. Rather than trying to solve the problems of technology with more technology, expecting human nature to change, or mounting a global socialist revolution, we need to learn to live in place, guided by the old stories that places will tell us if we would only listen. And let our hope be guided by the voices of place, which we must attend, one by one.

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