Category Archives: future

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.