Image credit: Kevin Dooley, used under Creative Commons license.
The predicted apocalypse may have come and gone last weekend without too many signs of rapture, but anyone who is aware of the multiple environmental crises we face most likely can't help themselves but contemplate some pretty dark scenarios for the future of humanity. When I wrote before about the Dark Mountain Project, arguing that disasterbation can turn you blind, Paul Kingsnorth responded suggesting that it was irresponsible to ignore the evidence mounting up around us and to keep peddling "false hope". Lately I've been wondering, is it possible to contemplate disaster and keep a sense of optimism for the future?Evidence Mounts that We Are in Deep Trouble
From worrying signs of a sixth mass extinction through the cultural and economic implications of peak oil to the alarming prospect of runaway climate change, Kingsnorth was right to point out that there are very real, very worrying evidence piling up that our present system is not just unsustainable, but dangerously close to finding out that it is unsustainable too. And those lessons will not be easy to learn.
When the Truth Hurts
Robert Jensen has a fascinating essay at Yes! magazine (also reprinted in UTNE) looking at how we can contemplate disaster honestly, when such an honesty is unwelcome. His thesis is that in the face of the unquestionable economic, cultural and ecological crises we face, it only makes sense to contemplate the fact that our children will live in a profoundly altered world—yet a culture of denial means that anyone who is proposing this notion is labeled as alarmist, or worse:
Those emotions come from recognizing that we humans with our big brains have disrupted the balance of the living world in disastrous ways that may be causing irreversible ecological destruction, and that drastically different ways of living are not only necessary but inevitable, with no guarantee of a smooth transition.
This talk, in polite company, leads to being labeled hysterical, Chicken Little, apocalyptic. No matter that you are calm, aren't predicting the sky falling, and have made no reference to rapture. Pointing out that we live in unsustainable systems, that unsustainable systems can't be sustained, and that no person or institution with power in the dominant culture is talking about this--well, that's obviously crazy.
Humanity Must Learn Humility
Jensen talks to aging grandmothers in co-housing developments, reformed drug addicts who see denial all around them, and an office worker in Chicago who reminds us all that humility may be our best hope. As Jensen puts it: "Humanity's last hope may be in embracing a deep humility, recognizing that our cleverness is outstripped by our ignorance. If we become truly humble, we can abandon attempts to dominate the natural world and instead find our place in it."
We Must Learn to Contemplate the Worst
It's a fascinating piece, not least because of my own bias toward optimism. The fact is that we are in trouble, and even though our collective efforts have produced countless potential solutions to different parts of the sustainability puzzle, we are nowhere close to slowing down the destruction—much less turning it around and beginning to repair the damage we have done. We can and must have honest conversations about worst case scenarios—but we must also hold on to positive, ambitious goals and a sense of hope for the future. Whenever I have had a problem with apocalyptic predictions it has not been because people are contemplating disaster, but because they have decided it is inevitable.
The Future Hasn't Happened Yet
I have no idea if my grandchildren will be living in post-apocalyptic floating settlements, low impact woodland dwellings scratching out a living from the land, high-tech green cities or figuring out their place within a no growth economy. I have to face the fact that they may not even be alive.
But I do know that the best hope for their future lies in a collective decision to face facts, in a commitment to evidenced-based discussions about the challenges we face, and in ambitious but achievable goals to forge a different path. And all of these require an ability to contemplate the possibility, even likelihood, of disaster. But they also require that we do not to become obsessed or paralyzed by it.
Quite a challenge. Anyone got any ideas on how to go about it?
More on Sustainability and Potential Disaster
Disasterbation Turns you Blind
Is Being Uncivilized Sustainable? Keith Farnish on Disconnecting (Video)
2012 and the Mayan Calendar: It's Not the End of the World
Why Climate Change May Still Be Compatible With a Brighter Future