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Giving Thanks for Hopeful Pessimists

November 25th, 2010 · 1 Comment

For a long time, I described myself as a pessimistic optimist (or an optimistic pessimist — just couldn’t remember which …). This changed recently as I learned a critical definitional issue.

An optimist is assuming things will work out and it doesn’t necessarily rely on their efforts or necessarily require any special action to end up with the desired result.

Someone who is hopeful, on the other hand, understands — often very clearly — that there are challenges and risks to achieving a desired result with a conception that their actions can contribute to avoiding the dangers and coming out with a better result.

Thus, I have been transformed from optimist to hopeful — even as my concerns over our ability to navigate the treacherous Perfect Storm of economic and climate chaos, anti-science mania, and Peak Oil give rise to my pessimistic side.

When it comes to thinkers — and doers — I am not interested in those who peddle gleeful predictions of some back-to-the-future wonderland, seeking to tell us (all of U.S.) that some simple snap of the finger (tax cuts for all?) will solve all our problems. We face serious challenges, across a broad front, and “smile, be happy” just doesn’t do it for me (or for U.S.). Don’t take action because there’s no reason to doesn’t pass the laugh test in face of these challenges.

Going to the other extreme, perhaps because I have young children, those who exclaim that the Rubicon has been crossed and that we’re past the tipping point taking us (the U.S. and all of us) into massive and irrevocable deathly disaster doesn’t speak meaningfully to me. ‘Party hard because the party’s over’ is a message that strikes against my core … and seems counter to basic human nature.

Those who speak most powerfully to me are those who recognize the serious nature of our intertwined challenges … and provide paths to ameliorate or even gain from confronting those challenges. For good reason, from flames around Moscow to overheated temperature records in too many countries to global high temperatures to melting ice to …, these voices are becoming more strident in expressing their fears (their reasons for pessimism) and more concerned about whether their concepts for navigating the worsening Perfect Storm have any potential for bringing us out to the end.

There are many hopeful pessimists out there but I want to, however, raise four names — authors, thinkers, hopeful pessimists who help enrich my thinking, deepen my understanding of reasons for pessimism, while providing me concepts for what we might hope to achieve and provide hope that we might find meaningful (and valuable) paths forward.

We are Down to the Wire, now, when it comes to Climate Change. A professor of environmental studies with multiple books to his name, David Orr educated me to the importance of distinguishing between optimism and hope. Down to the Wire painfully highlights the risks and challenges before us. Orr moves to a call for a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. political system to address the challenge of navigating a path forward.

The real fault line in American politics is not between liberals and conservatives…. It is, rather, in how we orient ourselves to the generations to come who will bear the consequences, for better and for worse, of our actions.

While Orr’s hopeful concepts speak to me, nodding head in terms of ‘yes, we need to end Corporate personhood’, some of his concepts seem well beyond where our society is willing to go — even as we should be moving down such paths. Orr’s thoughtful eloquence cannot be overstated.

We are, collectively, shifting our planetary system toward more Hell and High Water. At Climate Progress, Joe Romm has established himself as perhaps the most powerful blogosphere voice on the overlap of the risks of catastrophic climate chaos, energy, technology, and politics. Even as he decries the worsening political environment and documents the ever-more dire climate crisis, Romm provides a window on technological developments that offer hope for a cleaner energy system to serve as the foundation for a prosperous, climate-friendly future.

We, by nature, tend to believe in cycles and in a basic stability — which is based on the millenia of roughly stable climate in which modern human civilization has developed. The massive changes that we have wrought through, mainly, GHG emissions are increasingly throwing that stability into the dustbin of history, with Earth perhaps our past and Eaarth our future.

Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

That new planet is filled with new binds and traps. A changing world costs large sums to defend—think of the money that went to repair New Orleans, or the trillions it will take to transform our energy systems. But the endless economic growth that could underwrite such largesse depends on the stable planet we’ve managed to damage and degrade. We can’t rely on old habits any longer.

Bill McKibben has long been one of the most eloquent voices translating science to the general public when it comes to climate change. He is also one of the most effective organizers, now at the core of 350.org. His activism is an outgrowth of his ‘hopeful pessimism’. Bill is (too) knowledgeable about the changes we are creating and fighting — with all the tools he knows how — to foster a shift away from the mounting catastrope. And, with Eaarth, Bill has provided a hopeful path for navigating the inevitable challenges — a call for fostering stronger, more sustainable local communities.

We are ‘down to the wire’ and it is time to truly embrace a Plan B.

The combination of efficiency advances, the wholesale shift to renewable energy, and expansion of the earth’s tree cover outlined in Plan B would allow the world to cut net global carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. In contrast to today’s global electricity sector, where coal supplies 40 percent of electricity, Plan B sees wind emerging as the centerpiece in the 2020 energy economy, supplying 40 percent of all electricity.

We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet and avoid the resulting rise in sea level? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau? Can we stabilize population by lowering birth rates before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising death rates?

“Yes,” affirms Brown. “But it will take something close to a wartime mobilization, one similar to that of the United States in 1942 as it restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months. We used to talk about saving the planet, but it is civilization itself that is now at risk.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us must push for rapid change. And we must be armed with a plan outlining the changes needed.

“It is decision time,” says Brown. “Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has long been a strong voice for the need to address our environmental challenges — while providing paths that enable strengthening (rather than sacrificing) modern civilization.

This diary is inspired, in fact, from reading the first few pages of Brown’s forthcoming book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (out in January 2011, but initial chapter free on line). Brown lays out the dire nature of our challenges, pointing to mounting signals like the Russian fires, and highlights the utter inadequacy of how economic thought structures our concepts of civilization. With some dire reasoning, Brown states that he now thinks that “not only food could be the weak link but that is the weak link” underpinning the threat of collapse of modern civilization. Even as each day brings some 250,000 additional mouths to the dinner table, our agricultural system is getting ever more stressed.

One thing is certain — we are facing greater change than any generation in history. What is not clear is the source of this change. Will we stay with business as usual and enter a period of economic decline and spreading chaos? Or will we quickly reorder priorities, acting at wartime speed to move the world onto an economic path that can sustain civilization?

While fearful (with reason) that it is the first, Brown (again) lays out a path for the second.

While well grounded in reasons for pessimism, Brown provides a framework for hope.

On this Thanksgiving eve, young children soundly asleep, I give thanks to these four — and to the thousands and millions of others — hopeful pessimists who recognize the seriousness of our challenges and provide hope for our ability to surmount the challenges presented by the economic, energy, and environmental Perfect Storm engulfing us.

Tags: catastrophic climate change · climate change

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