It's not game over, it's game on

Despair is harmful to our health — not only does it constitute suffering in itself, but it leads to worse outcomes. Whether dressed up in fancy clothes like Deep Adaptation, or unadorned and unnamed hopelessness about a looming, shadowy future, people who lose hope during the climate crisis won’t just fail to contribute to the response, but they may actually hurt it.

But it’s one thing to say that we should keep hope in the face of this dire situation, and another entirely to find a sound vessel for that hope. We cannot, and we are not, asking for people to find hope in the face of actual futility. If an asteroid several kilometers across were detected that was to hit Earth squarely with only two days warning — that would be a close-to-futile situation, and we could justifiably spend our last hours with family. But we are far from that situation, and it is completely inappropriate to throw our hands up at this point.

As I survey the current landscape, I see a number of concrete reasons that succumbing to climate despair — and, in doing so, failing to mount the best possible response — is out of line with the reality of the situation.

1. We really don’t know what will happen.

“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done.” – Winston Churchill

The essential future is always unforeseen. – Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

We must be humble in the face of uncertainty. It is either arrogant or simplistic to believe that any specific outcome is overly likely, let alone predetermined — the Earth system is far more complex than we are able to predict in detail. While climate science has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that average temperatures are increasing, that it’s happening fast, and that human activity is responsible, these is so much beyond these basic facts that we do not know.

Our uncertainty is not limited to geophysics and atmospheric science. Perhaps more importantly, we do not know how human society will react in technological, political, and cultural terms. There is great longing to reach back into history for examples that can illuminate our situation, and seemingly few optimistic lessons to be drawn from doing so. While human nature includes some very dark elements, centering those in one’s analysis should be recognized for what it is: a rhetorical and ideological choice, not an objective appeal to any settled body of knowledge. Human society is different now, for better or worse, in its power to mold itself and the planet. There is no historical precedent that provides a reliable guide for how today’s civilization will respond.

We do not, any of us, have sufficient intuition about the nature of nonlinear change to see with confidence what our situation will be like in 30 years’ time. But each year that passes with less warming and more preparation buys us better odds of turning the corner before some of the worst possibilities come to pass. Buying time doesn’t just buy time, it gives us more rolls of the dice and improves the odds.

2. Every tenth of a degree matters.

The problem is people think the response is all or nothing, as if if we fail to keep global temps from rising 2C, all is lost. In actuality, keeping temps from rising 2.5 or 3C would be a hell of a lot better than 4 or 5C so collective efforts are meaningful even if we miss 2C. – Josh Busby1

This isn’t a 2ºC or bust fight. It’s a fight for every 1/10 of a degree. 2.1º, 2.2º. Until we get to zero emissions, that’s our goal, in every scenario. Curves just keep getting steeper. It won’t be “over” in our lifetimes. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4ºC. For future generations, 4º is better than 4.1º, etc. Even the catastrophic outcomes aren’t the apocalypse, just appalling tragedy. We have a duty to people who’ll live after them. The world won’t end: that’s why this planetary crisis is such a heart-rending failure. The responsibility relief of “game over” is not reality. It’s not game over, it’s game on—for the rest of our lives. Sorry, but that’s the truth as I understand it. – Alex Steffen2

Call it the Every Tenth principle: warming is not something that either happens or not. There is no point at which we have lost or won; less warming will always be better than more, and more effective adaptation will always be preferable to the alternatives. The ”inevitable collapse” narrative of Deep Adaptation is a grasp at simplicity and certainty in the face of uncertainty; as climate scientist Michael Mann points out, “The concept of ‘uncontrollable levels of climate change’ is both unscientific and nonsensical.”3

The Every Tenth principle means we should strive for a public understanding of the climate crisis that encompasses both the magnitude of the challenges we face, and how diverse local responses are capable of creating positive feedback loops that can birth a new vision of human society.

This is not to say that there is a simple, linear relationship between effort and outcome. On the inputs side, some actions are much more effective than others — although we do not yet have good, practical methods for evaluating different options that take into account 2nd-order effects and nonlinearities. In terms of environmental impacts, the Earth system is highly interconnected, and there are tipping points that, once triggered, create a step change in local or global conditions. But there isn’t just one tipping point, and even if we touch off the first ones, we must still try to avoid reaching the next ones!

3. Giving up will make it worse.

No matter how much we want more certainty, we just don’t know what will happen. Additionally, Every Tenth matters, and business as usual will lead to a lot of tenths. Put these together, and we come up with, to me, the ultimate reason not to give up: Giving up will make our lives, and our children’s lives, and their children’s lives, much worse. The clear-eyed, responsible, and ethical thing to do is not to accept societal collapse, whatever that means, but to work like heck to reach the most livable and just outcome of the many that are still possible.

Inaction (and so-called “moderate” approaches, for that matter), is not a morally neutral path but an unethical and harmful one. The climate crisis is multi-layered, and densely connected. Any segment of society that opts out of the larger campaign to reduce the severity of the problem, in favor of preparing for collapse is making things worse in at least three ways. First, and especially to the extent that those opting out are smart, resourced, and privileged, this means that less will get done in their abstention, which Every Tenth tells us is harmful. Second, any prominence or credibility that such a group achieves may influence other people to reduce their level of effort.

And finally, giving up has its own positive feedback loops: many who give up will end up in despair and fear. Fearful people with no understanding of how they can improve the situation treat other people as “other”. That breeds conflict, which can then feed on itself.

There is a relevant Twitter thread that has stuck with me since I read it:

I’ve done Twitter AMAs for years, but this is the first time a majority of the questions have been about whether humans and the planet are doomed. I’m not just seeing anxiety; it’s hopelessness. I think we’re failing people if this is the message they’re getting.

“…we must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there’s nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing.” (Margaret Atwood)

To me, pragmatic optimism isn’t pollyannaism. It’s a commitment to solving problems because we don’t have the luxury of inaction, either from despair or from the naive hope that someone else will save us. It’s stubbornness, with your eyes wide open. Forget climate hawks and doves. I’m a climate musk ox. Musk ox are matriarchal. They tough out the worst of the Arctic winter through sheer will. When one of their herd is vulnerable, the strong circle up and protect the weak, facing outwards like a circular phalanx of badassery. Musk ox are tough, resilient, ice age survivors. Be like the musk ox. – Jacquelyn Gill4

I saved this one for last because that Atwood quote, while powerful and true, needs the context of the preceding sections to be properly received. It is possible to put up a beacon of false hope, and to do so deliberately in order to prevent people from doing “worse than nothing” as the inevitable unfolds. But that is not the situation here. What we do matters, and it all adds up.

That’s a scary prospect — some might call it inconvenient — because it calls each of us to look inside ourselves and ask what we can do with the time and resources we have. “Inevitable societal collapse,” certainly sounds unpleasant, but knowing it is coming and the “responsibility relief” that nothing we do matters, is absolutely a palliative. Instead, in the real world we must sit with intense, sometimes agonizing uncertainty, and we must continually re-evaluate whether we are doing the best we can.

Every tenth of a degree matters!! Find the biggest lever you can and use it to push the world onto a better track. – Jesse Jenkins5

  1. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. ↩︎