How to be optimistic about climate change

reclaim the street, brighton

Climate change is depressing. Really depressing. And yeah, I know the apocalypse is like sex because every generation thinks they’ve discovered it. But it does feel a bit end times. Properly end times. We maybe don’t admit this enough, but it really, really is.

I think it is still possible to have hope though. Moreover, it is possible to have hope without (a) being naïve about some magic technology fairy or (b) sticking your head in the sand when it comes to the science. The trick is to dislodge science from the centre of the debate and replace it with politics.

I appreciate this might sound counter-intuitive and I want to stress this is not the same as ignoring the science. Let me explain.

Some background: On Thursday, I was in the audience for an event at the LSE looking back at the Beveridge Report’s idea of “Giant Evils“, and what a social state might mean in 21st century. Zoe Williams started things off with a call to move away from the pessimism of austerity which too easily plays into the hands of those who want to cut for other reasons (see her piece on their blog, complete with ref to Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect”). She noted the way in which a sense of pragmatism is often claimed as a way to limit options and laugh at socialists as unrealistic. The left’s response, she argued, should be to regain a bit of old school hippie optimism. She mentioned, almost in passing, that the environmental movement had fed this pessimistic narrative. When picked up on this in the questions, she defended the point, although also stressing it’s complex, and expanded it to say she felt it was no accident that Cameron had, at least initially, aligned himself with the green movement. That trip with the huskies wasn’t just a way of expressing a conservative pride in nature; there are ways in which Tory stories of austerity dovetail very neatly with modern environmental stories of scarcity.

In many ways, I agree with Williams. Indeed, I’d say it’s a point of longstanding tension between some elements of left thought and parts of the green movement. The problem is that it’s not just something greens say. It’s part of several discourses, including many scientific ones. The idea that there are limits to what we can do to the Earth isn’t some neo-con conspiracy to quash hippie dreams.

So, how do we find hope? Evidence-based hope? We should shift our focus from debating the science so much and talk more about what we want to do about distributing those resources which we do have, including one resource we maybe have too much of: people. How we choose to manage this is very much up for debate. Our plans might well go left, right or some other frame entirely, but I do think that a focus on what people choose to do is where the sort of freedom from pessimism Williams wants can be found. This is not a new idea. Neither is it simple. It’s a huge global challenge. Way more radical than anything Beveridge faced. I’m not entirely sure it is possible (I’m not sure I’m personally that optimistic about people). But it’s where the hope can be found, I think.

Science can be a big part of this. As Williams said in Q&A, there’s a way in which stories of climate change can be used as a reason to inspire positive change. Scarcity is often as reason to divide and rule, but it can be otherwise. Moreover, I’d add that science can give us a lot more than doom and gloom. Modern science is the best way we have of knowing about the world and, for all that science can be the origin of a fair few dystopic visions, it can give us new ways of seeing things and unravel further options too. It’s also happens to be one of the best expressions of how a group of internationally well-networked humans working together is so much more than the sum of its parts. We’re often invited to wonder at science’s ideas or the objects of nature it uncovers, but it’s a massive social achievement too.

I’ll end with an attempt at a bit of inspiration from a trained scientist famous for insisting there is no alternative: Thatcher. In some ways, her radicalism proves the hippie cliché that another world is possible. Even if we might disagree with the world she helped make, it shows that social structures can be dismantled and re-fashioned. And others can be dismantled and re-fashioned again. And again.

20 thoughts on “How to be optimistic about climate change

  1. Joe Smith

    Yes agreed. Though I’m not sure it *is* way more challenging than anything Beveridge ever faced. I’ve argued a few times that in terms of historical references in relation to climate change we need to stop the martial (WW2) rhetoric and focus rather on how the postwar consensus/settlement was formed out of a patch-together of shared interests across labour and business, but also wider cultural changes (including changed ideas about class, gender and ‘mixing’). A diverse mix concluded that the best chance for society and the economy in much of Europe in the post ward period would be delivered by what became labelled the welfare state. Something of a distracting title, as it makes it easy to forget that most of industry and the centre right viewed it as the ‘best possible shell’ for capitalism in the period. I believe the same patch together is possible around global environmental change issues. Keep trying to find the time to write this up again with refn to recent events. Will signal if I do. So – RE one of your other posts on Guardian site – when I referred to ‘climate change is our moonshot’ I didn’t mean the politics I meant the extraordinary ambition – and difficulty – of the interdisciplinary research task. I didn’t mean to suggest that the politics is like a moonshot. No: the politics needs a ‘spirit of 45’ moment (in all its political and cultural diversity). Joe

    1. alice Post author

      Spirit of 45 stuff part of why I think it seems more of a challenge (as well as it being global issue) – the Welfare State was built on unusual social connectivity of war. Maybe you’re right though. This stuff is complex and uncertain. I want to believe it *is* possible. Wouldn’t get out of bed otherwise.

  2. Helen

    Thanks for the really interesting and well argued blog post Alice. I’m sure you’re aware of this stuff, but I think there are some interesting parallels between what you are saying and the emerging climate pragmatism movement, e.g. the idea of focusing on more immediate problems such as resource distribution or more short term environmental health measures, which can help to replace the paralysing apocalypse narrative with one of empowerment and increasing human dignity. Here I’m thinking about things like the Hartwell paper. Also see this more recent blog by Martin Mahony on the topic

    1. alice Post author

      yes, this was 850 w that could only scratch surface, lot of really interesting history and philosophy here and stacks of stuff in the middle – the climate pragmatism point is v v interesting, because I don’t think it necessarily fits the pessimistic/ optimistic dichotomy which Williams set up and, honestly, I feel a bit constrained by (and think the more nuanced ends of green thought are well versed in working through). Still, it plays a role in the construction of these discourses. At the LSE debate, the word pragmatic was v much seen as a rhetorical tool for closing debate. One of the things I edited out was a ref to the way Hayes uses it, which I do think maybe can attach itself to this stuff, but not in a clear cut way. At one point it sounded a bit like Williams was saying greens were handmaidens of social inequality (she clearly didn’t mean that, I thought, but it could’ve been taken as such).

      1. Helen

        yes, Martin and I have been talking a lot about the multiple uses of the word ‘pragmatism’ with regards to climate change – and increasingly related to geoengineering. I think ‘pragmatic’ is often used in place of sensible, reasonable or rational, to imply that the route the speaker is arguing for is the only conceivable option to take in the face of complexity, uncertainty, extreme consequences, etc – as a tool for closing debate, as you say. It’s interesting to see how these interact with the use of pragmatism in its formal philosophical meaning, or its use in attempts to provide more positive and conciliatory alternatives.

        1. alice Post author

          yes, multiple way to go and yes, v much around geoeng…. The right/ left history Williams flagged up is interesting though and resonated with some of my problems with the word “security” which was another thing I edited out of my notes in drafting this piece… You writing a paper on this? Cos it totally could be done.

          1. Helen

            Sorry, only just seen this. Hadn’t thought of paper writing, but I agree it could be a good ‘un. Not sure quite how I could justify it to my PhD supervisor at the moment, but Martin could take it up in his post-PhD submission bliss period in October! Will have to do more thinking…

  3. Christine O

    It’s important to find this hope and optimism, because depression blocks action to solve the problem. I quite like the visioning Forum for the Future has done – I think courage flows from hope. It’s not necessary to see this as a ‘hippie cliche’ – isn’t it an inner struggle anyone who believes the climate science, and feels compelled to act, goes through? Otherwise, what’s the point in acting?

    Liking the analogy of post-war collaboration. But how far along does climate change have to get before such action is taken. Wouldn’t it be better to take collaborative action (relatively) pre-crisis?

      1. Christine O

        Totally circular. Instead of getting into that downwards spiral it’s about doing the opposite. I’d risk it involves a bit of personal development of some variety.

  4. sdesaille

    Apart from a ‘me too!’ to most of what you’ve just said, I’ll add a possibility, which is the fairly visionary re-envisioning being done by some ecological economists at CASSE ( I’m not quite ready to jump on the steady state bandwagon yet, but I do think these are solid ideas worth exploring, and certainly an antidote to the despair produced by the desperately un-economical austerity anvils that keep dropping on our heads.

  5. tallbloke

    “what we want to do about distributing those resources which we do have, including one resource we maybe have too much of: people”

    Will the people who are going to get redistributed have any choice in the matter, or is this a Thatcher-style command economy which is envisaged.

    Just asking because I once got redistributed from the Stonehenge Beanfield into a cell by Thatchers black boiler-suited non-numbered thugs back in 1985 when I was living the hippie dream.

  6. tallbloke

    OK, I like the sound of democracy and people having choices. Seems to me that since you can’t fit a fag paper between the policies of the three ring circus in the UK, there isn’t much of one really. So maybe it’s time to go Italian and have some Grillo-style shake up.

    Then we can reclaim our streets at a grass roots level and feel more empowered to make our political class revisit the fact that they are our paid servants, not our masters.

    1. geoffchambers

      The Grillo-style shakeup so far means an unelected comedian and his internet guru telling 100+ elected senators and deputies how to vote. And those who complain get their comments erased from the movement’s website. That’s not very leftwing, is it?

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  10. Will Arveschoug

    You might find this one interesting then, from a hundred years ago:

    ‘And always the hope is latent that “something will turn up” which will solve all the unfortunate social problems, and make everyone happy and content. Sometimes it is to be the advance of mechanical discovery, sometimes a new spirit of kindliness and patience: sometimes fuller conquests of trade or commerce or Imperial dominion; but always the bringing in from outside of a Deus ex machina which will supplement nobody’s loss with everybody’s gain. The advance in acquisition during a century of invention has been so astonishing, the progress of whole classes from a low- grade, comfortless, ignorant life into a highly-paid, skilled, intelligent working-people so remarkable, that to many the continuance of such a process seems inevitable.’ – ‘The Condition of England’ by Charles Masterman


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