Image credit: Funny Corner
I may be in danger of repeating myself here, but I have been thinking a lot about pessimism, nihilism, and a certain schadenfreude that pervades some parts of the Green movement. From the Dark Mountain Project's rejection of environmentalism to James Lovelock's assertion that mankind is doomed, there seems to be no shortage of greenies who don't just believe that we are all screwed, they also seem to take a certain pleasure in declaring it. So where does this embrace of pessimism stem from? I'm not going to argue that civil disruption, climate chaos, or even the end of humanity is not going to happen. That would be stupid. Just as we can never know for certain that our time is up, we also can never know for certain that it isn't. Our knowledge of all systems—both natural and societal—is just way too rudimentary to make absolute claims. As I've argued many times before, choosing a future and working towards it is always the most effective strategy. To put it another way, activism always beats prophecy. Oh, and enough with the 2012 Mayan calendar stuff already!
What interests me is not whether the pessimists are right or not, but why they choose to believe what they believe. And why many seem to take such a perverse pleasure in asserting it. I have a half-baked pop-psych theory to offer on the matter.
It may all come down to the fact that environmentalists are used to being marginalized.
Anyone who has spent time leafleting over environmental issues, protesting, or handing our petitions will know that there are many people who consider environmentalism a radical and deluded concept. From the very early days of my environmental activism, I remember folks telling me that jobs were more important than spotted owls, that it was arrogance to assume we could effect the Earth's climate, and that I should probably take a shower and get a job. As anyone knows, hostility breads hostility. So is it any wonder that some environmentalists are so quick to say I told you so?
Of course environmentalism has come a long way. With many major corporations at least taking steps toward sustainability, and clean energy, organics and many other environmental issues moving into the mainstream, it is beginning to be accepted wisdom that we can't just do as we please with the planet and expect to survive. But just because we recognize the problem does not mean we are anywhere close to developing a solution. And that mismatch between understanding and action—with governments recognizing the severity of climate change but offering paltry cuts in CO2—certainly makes a potent case for pessimism.
But the trouble is that this pessimism is a one-way street to trouble. Sure, it makes sense to learn to grow your own food and get some practical skills in case our economy goes to hell in a hand basket, but beyond that, what are you really going to do if the worst comes to the worst? I remember once a permaculture teacher of mine, who in many ways was one of the most positive individuals I have known, declaring that when society collapsed, it would be "people like us" who would be most in demand to help grow food, and lead folks in an effort for self-survival.
Besides the obvious desire to be taken seriously, and to prove that we were right all along, to me there was something worrying in that vision for the future. Not only did it rely on the inevitability of a collapse scenario, and even betray a certain glee at the prospect. But it assumed—somewhat naively in my view—that permaculturists, back-to-the-landers and the like would somehow surf the chaos that followed and come out on top. (And probably everyone would apologize for being so mean to them back in the late 20th Century...)
I have no argument with those who say our economic and social well-being is severely threatened by climate change and resource depletion. Even those who say it is inevitable may have plenty of evidence to back up their claims. But hoping for it, even secretly, is misguided beyond belief.