Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A bet you're not allowed to make

What chance do we have? Are we going to make it? Are we doomed to a future of worsening outcomes and increasing ecological hostility? How do we face a dark horizon and keep going?

Bill McKibben was recently asked, in an interview with Yale Environment 360:* "what gives you any reason, any optimism at this point, that it is going to get dealt with?"

The "it" in question is the worsening climatic outlook as decade follows decade with very minimal action on a cumulative problem that gets more difficult, threatening and intractable as time passes. McKibben's answer:
"Well, I’m not all convinced it is going to get dealt with. You know, you wrote that we seem to be on kind of a suicide mission as a civilization. And that case is easier to make than the case that we’re going to figure out how to deal with it. So I don’t know. I’m very hopeful that in the last few years we’ve finally built a big global movement that gets bigger all the time that didn’t exist before. And I’m hopeful that we’re getting closer to the nub of the problem. [...]

If you were a betting person, I’m afraid you’d be wise to bet that we might not pull this out. But I just don’t think it’s a bet you’re allowed to make. I think the only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that ever happened is happening is try and figure out how to change the odds — with not any guarantee that it’s all going to come out OK. Because it may not. I mean it clearly isn’t going to come out 100 percent OK. We’ve already had big losses and they will get worse. Whether or not we can stop short of complete catastrophe, we’ll find out. And we won’t find out in a hundred years, we’ll find out rather more quickly than that. Our lifetimes will be more than long enough to see whether or not we actually grabbed hold of this problem or not.

I guess the only other thing is just that this, what’s the alternative? [laugh] Existential despair just seems like a kind of poor strategy in many ways."
This puts in a nutshell an attitude I've been trying to articulate for some time. A reasonable evaluation of our likely chances of avoiding very serious negative consequences would rate them as slim at best. Damage is already apparent; considerably worse is already built in due to the inertia of the climate system; catastrophically worse appears highly likely as the result of political, economic, infrastructural and cultural inertia. When "success" now means reducing a threat from catastrophic to very bad, and the chances of achieving even that are slight, then things might seem hopeless. But in the face of such a scenario, the attempt to "change the odds" is really the only morally defensible position. This does not mean to "change the odds" that my family and I might somehow escape unscathed, or even that life as we presently know it might somehow continue, but to change the odds that our planet will remain more or less suitable for flourishing human society and more than human life, to diminish the extent to which the possibilities of human (and more than human) wellbeing are permanently constricted by the effects of our present actions.

Now, one can disagree with the scientific, political or moral assumptions behind this line of reasoning - and I'm quite happy to have those discussions - but if we are indeed in such a position, then finding reasons to continue with creative persistance will only become ever more important on the path ahead.
*The full interview also touched upon the XL tar sands pipeline, the influence of money on politics and the strategies of ecological activism. It's worth a look as I think McKibben has many interesting things to say. H/T Lou.


byron smith said...

I also wanted to record a comment from Adelady on Lou's blog that I thought was worth repeating.

"I think he’s right that existential despair is not the way to go.

"What we will do is to behave the way families do with a severely disabled family member or a diagnosis of terminal illness. You cry into your pillow at night. You know life will go on one way or another.

"You smile at the shop assistants despite your aching heart. And you know, all the time, that things will get much, much worse before they get any better at all. And you also know that when it’s dealt with, you’ll still carry grief and regrets for the rest of your life.

"But you still feed the chooks and wrap Xmas presents and go to work in the meantime."