Despair

A few decades hence perhaps historians will characterise the last three centuries as the era of struggle between political philosophies, each of which promised a utopian vision of the future. Certainly in the century and a half to 1989 world history was in large measure the story of the contest between the opposing forces of capitalism and socialism, with fascism interceding for two decades in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, climate disruption will increasingly push all utopian visions and ideological disputes into the background. Abandoning the pursuit of utopias, including the last great utopian vision of endless growth, our task will be to avoid a dystopia. The triumph of liberal capitalism, which was hailed prematurely as the 'end of history', coincided precisely with the dawning realisation that industrial progress has been transforming the physical environment in a way that threatens the demise of the world that liberal capitalism promised to create. Distracted by the triumphalism of the 'end of history' there crept up on us the end of progress, so that now we are staring at a century and more of regress, an unwinding of the revolution that began three centuries ago with the liberation of the forces of science, technology and economic expansion. We can now see that, like a teenage boy who suddenly acquires the strength of a man, humans proved insufficiently mature to be entrusted with the powers they unleashed.

Awakening to the prospect of climate disruption compels us to abandon most of the comfortable beliefs that have sustained our sense of the world as a stable and civilising place. We are now led to question our faith in human advancement—the constant we have used to connect the past with the future—and the psychological stability it has provided. We will have to accommodate the fact that, due to our own actions, Nature has turned against us and can no longer be relied upon to provide the conditions for the flourishing of life. The foundational beliefs of modernity—the unlimited scope of human achievement, our capacity to control the world around us, our belief in the power of knowledge to solve whatever discomforts us—will collapse. Science and technology—which we moderns take to be the grandest testimony of human superiority, our claim to some form of divinity—will be turned from a celebration of our improving powers into our only means of saving ourselves and staving off the ravages unleashed by our hubris. If the great forces of Nature on our home planet turn against us, who will not feel abandoned and alone in the cosmos?

Relinquishing our rosy view of how the future will unfold is a task more difficult than it may appear because the vision of a stable and sympathetic future undergirds our sense of self and our place in the world. On a small scale we see this in daily life. We have all constructed in our minds future worlds based on an expectation of securing a new job, building a new business or making the perfect marriage. Over weeks and months we assemble a picture of a new future in our minds and the new life becomes incorporated into our conception of self. When the expected event does not occur we can feel crushed. Even though our lives are unchanged, our dreams have been shattered. The loss is no less real psychologically than if it had actually occurred, so that the process of bringing our newly constructed self back into conformity with an unchanged reality can be traumatic. Subtly, our hopes for our lives and those of our children and grandchildren all depend on an expectation that the world will unfold in a certain way, as an enhanced version of the world we have now. If the evidence is that the future will in fact be a diminished version of what we have now—that life will be harsher and more unpredictable as the patterns of weather that govern the rhythms of daily life can no longer be relied upon—then our conception of the future and the hopes that are built on it are illusory. When we recognise that our dreams of the future are built on sand the natural human response is to despair.

In the face of the evidence of climate disruption, clinging to hopefulness becomes a means of forestalling the truth. Sooner or later we must respond and that means allowing ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, in short, to grieve.1 Climate disruption will require that we change not only how we live but how we conceive of our selves; to recognise and confront a gap between our inner lives—including our habits and suppositions about how the world will evolve—and the sharply divergent reality that climate science now presents to us. The process of bringing our inner experience into conformity with the new external reality will for many be a long and painful emotional journey. What are the likely elements of this mourning for a lost future?

Rather than passing through well-defined stages, grief is characterised by strong episodic feelings and a persistent sense of background disturbance.2 When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, many people embark on a process of anticipatory mourning; for those who confront the facts and emotional meaning of climate change, the 'death' that is mourned is the loss of the future. The first phase of grief is often marked by shock and disbelief, followed by a mixture of emotions: anger, anxiety, longing, depression and emptiness.3 To regulate the flood of unpleasant emotions, humans deploy a number of strategies to suppress or buffer them. Among them John Archer includes numbness, pretence that the loss has not occurred, aggression directed at those seen as responsible for the loss, and self-blame, which are similar to the methods we use to deny or filter climate science. This suggests that the widespread prevalence of forms of denial and avoidance among the population may indeed be defences against the feelings of despair that the climate science rationally entails. The study of grief suggests that accepting a loss is more difficult when there is room for doubt about the death or when someone can be blamed for it,4 both of which apply to the loss of the future under climate change.

While attention is usually focused on the emotional expressions of grief, the process is as much a cognitive one as we first learn to cope with the severe disruption to our conception of the world, and then begin to build a new conception of the world that we can live by. It is sometimes feared that those who grieve too early will experience premature detachment—or 'decathexis', as the professionals call it. In a famous example from the 1940s, an English bride whose husband went off to war was convinced he would be killed. She grieved so deeply that when he returned alive she divorced him.5 Those who say we should not despair but always remain hopeful in the face of climate science are perhaps afraid we will detach ourselves from the future completely, and then sink into apathy or go on a binge. It seems to be a recipe for a kind of nihilism, like that glamourised in the Sex Pistol's song lamenting 'no future'.

It is true that, in the words of one expert, healthy grieving requires a gradual 'withdrawal of emotional investment in the hopes, dreams, and expectations of the future' on which our life has been constructed.6 Yet after facing up to the truth and detaching from the future few of us will just call a halt and remain trapped in a slough of despond or refuse to think beyond today. Humans are not built that way. After detaching from the old future we will construct and attach to a new future, just as we eventually do when a loved one dies. Yet we cannot build a new conception of the future until we allow the old one to die, and Joanna Macy reminds us that we need to have the courage to allow ourselves to descend into hopelessness, resisting the temptation to rush too soon into a new future.7 She quotes T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,

For hope would be hope of the wrong thing.

Waiting, I will suggest, does not mean we should be passive. The nature of the mourning process will vary with the individual, depending in part on the strength of their attachment, conscious or unconscious, to the future. Some people live largely for today and give little thought to tomorrow. Others have a deep sense of attachment to the healthy evolution of their societies, the natural world or civilisation. Those with an interdependent or metapersonal self-construal are more likely to feel distressed by the threat posed by climate disruption to the future welfare of other people or the natural world. In some cultures, people feel a much stronger attachment to their ancestors and descendants. How we mourn will be influenced by how our society and those around us are responding to the loss. At present, the early mourners feel lonely and isolated, sometimes keeping their thoughts to themselves for fear of alienating those around them with their anxieties and pessimism. It is as if the doctors had declared there is no hope of recovery for a sick child, yet all around friends and family are saying, 'Don't worry, she will be fine'.

Against this, I expect to see a new genre of humour, not as a way of ridiculing but of accommodating the facts. Here is the first one I have come across:8

I, for one, welcome the coming apocalypse. We can have a world where all a man needs to make his way is some stubble, a mullet and a sawn off shotgun, and women are beautiful, deadly and clad in leather. One can live by your wits and your nerve, fending off hordes of mutants, cannibals and assorted beasts.

Much like Basingstoke on a Saturday night, in fact.

In addition to a rash of gallows humour and post-apocalyptic novels, at some point we can expect to see a period of nostalgia for the future lost, including a 'life review' that may take the form of an outpouring of books and public discussion reflecting on the era that is passing, an era that will glow more golden in retrospect.

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