Climate disruption's assault on all we believed—endless progress, a stable future, our capacity to control the natural world with science and technology—will corrode the pillars that hold up the psyche of modern humanity. It will be psychologically destabilising in a way exceeded in human history perhaps only by the shift to agriculture and the rise of industrial society. Already we find psychiatrists and psychologists issuing guidelines on how to respond to the emotional and psychological distress associated with awareness of climate change, although the leading therapeutic recommendation of 'be optimistic about the future' suggests that the mental health professionals have yet to grasp the seriousness of the threat posed by global warming.25 We can expect that, for a time, the loss of faith in the future and in our ability to control our lives will see a proliferation of mental disturbance characterised by depression, withdrawal and fearfulness. It is well known, however, that one of the most effective responses to depression is to act. Helplessness is immiserising, and we should not capitulate to it even when things appear irredeemable. As Pablo Casals is reputed to have said: 'The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step.' Finding meaning in adverse circumstances is one of the most remarkable human qualities.26
If it is too late to prevent climate disruption there is still much we can influence. Any success in reducing emissions is better than doing nothing, because warming and its effects can at least be slowed down. Resisting those who want to capitulate is a fight worth having. And we can begin preparing for the impacts of climate disruption not by self-protection but by vigorous political engagement aimed at collectively building democracies that can ensure the best defences against a more hostile climate, ones that do not abandon the poor and vulnerable to their fate while those who are able to buy their way out of the crisis do so for as long as they can. For we should remember that once the dramatic implications of the climate crisis are recognised by the powerful as a threat to themselves and their children they will, unless resisted, impose their own solutions on the rest of us, ones that will protect their interests and exacerbate unequal access to the means of survival, leaving the weak to fend for themselves. This is how it has always been. We must democratise survivability.
Climate change represents a failure of modern politics. Elected government should execute the people's will yet, in this greatest threat to our future, governments around the world have not represented the interests of the people but have allowed themselves to be held in the thrall of a powerful group of energy companies and the ideology of growth fetishism they embody. It is apparent to even the most dim-witted observer that these corporations are 'more interested in commerce than humanity', as Thoreau wrote, and are run by executives who are, to put it most charitably, misguided and self-interested. This is truer today after the remoulding of democratic political systems to give greater influence to lobbyists and insiders. The climate crisis is upon us because democracy has been corrupted; influence has replaced representation, and spin now substitutes for honest communication. The 'professionalisation' of the major political parties has turned them into finely tuned vote-getting machines. Instead of being the expressions of competing social forces and ideologies they are driven by polls, focus groups and minute demographic analysis. Political campaigns now occur largely in the mass media, a channel between the people and their leaders that is filled by an army of specialists whose task is to craft messages and cultivate editors. This is possible because the power of social movements has waned, and visionary politics has been swamped by the lure of affluence. For the most part, environment organisations too have been sucked into the political game of influence-peddling and media management, with their leaders resigned to incremental-ism, a strategy now mocked by Nature's powers.
The passivity of the public has allowed our political representatives to become more and more dominated by a professional class of power-seeking individuals who stand for little other than self-advancement. Political parties have been hollowed out, with memberships shrinking and those remaining deprived of all influence. In Britain, for example, with the expectation that after years of New Labour the Conservatives will form the next government, lobbying companies are relinquishing staff close to the Labour Party and hiring Conservatives with a view to having instant access. The Sunday Times reports that 'more than 50 prospective candidates chosen by the main parties are already working as lobbyists and public relations executives and are deeply enmeshed in the world of spin and politics'.27 PR veterans describe the two career paths, lobbying and politics, as 'a natural fit'. The influence of corporate lobbyists is checked only when it becomes too transparent or when the pressure to ease up on regulation jeopardises the system as a whole, such as occurred with the deregulation of finance on the United States before the crisis of 2008. Reclaiming democracy for the citizenry is the only way to temper the effects of climate disruption and ensure that the wealthy and powerful cannot protect their own interests at the expense of the rest. To do so requires a new radicalism, a radicalism that refuses to be drawn into short-term electoral trade-offs and aims to shift the ground of politics itself.
We all value and benefit from a law-abiding society. Yet at times like these we have a higher duty and are no longer bound to submit to the laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens to destroy the habit-ability of the Earth. When just laws are used to protect unjust behaviour our obligation to uphold the laws is diminished. In the usual course of affairs, it is right to allow the normal democratic process, however slowly its wheels may turn, to change the laws to reflect the new reality. In 2008 the truth of this was acknowledged in the case of six Greenpeace protestors arrested for causing criminal damage to the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant in Kent, to wit, scaling its smokestack and painting a slogan on it. Persuaded by the defence's argument that the protesters had a lawful excuse—for in causing damage they were trying to prevent the greater harm being done by the power plant to the climate—the jury of ordinary citizens acquitted the six.
Global warming presents us with a uniquely challenging historical predicament. In the great struggles for universal suffrage and civil liberties, and against slavery and unjust wars, victory meant the end of the problem, or at least the beginning of the end of the problem. In the case of climate change victory can come too late. A sudden awakening in a decade by governments and the people to the dangers of climate change will be too late; the global climate system will have shifted course and the future will have been taken out of our hands. In such times we have moral obligations other than obedience to the law. We feel we owe obedience to a higher law even though we have to accept the consequences of disobeying the ones in the statute books. It is for this reason that those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens—those who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process.
With runaway climate change now jeopardising the stable, prosperous and civilised community that our laws are designed to protect, the time has come for us to ask whether our obligations to our fellow humans and the wider natural world entitle us to break laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival.
Despair, Accept, Act. These are the three stages we must pass through. Despair is a natural human response to the new reality we face and to resist it is to deny the truth. Although the duration and intensity of despair will vary among us, it is unhealthy and unhelpful to stop there. Emerging from despair means accepting the situation and resuming our equanimity; but if we go no further we risk becoming mired in passivity and fatalism. Only by acting, and acting ethically, can we redeem our humanity.
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