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Contemplating Catastrophe, Environmentalists Embrace Existentialism

Giving up on climate change means giving up on being human.

This year’s edition of the State of the Climate Report came out this week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the news is not good. As expected, 2014 was the warmest year in recorded history. Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached an average of 397.2 parts per million for the year, just below the 400-parts-per-million threshold considered by many the point beyond which disaster lies. Sea surface temperatures are higher than ever, and average sea levels rose to a record high. Summer snow melt in the Arctic now occurs nearly a month earlier than the average in 1998–2010. Nearly all the indicators point in the wrong direction. 

The relentless grimness of such reports has a numbing effect, leading to a new psychological diagnosis: “climate defeatism.” With the international climate talks in Paris just three months away, many activists, overwhelmed by the inexorable progress of climate change and the utter inability of the world’s governments to slow it, have started to throw up their hands, retreating from a struggle they no longer believe they can win.

The most famous recent example is the British author and environmentalist Peter Kingsnorth, whose embrace of carbon-fueled pessimism was featured in a New York Times Magazine article last year. He further outlined his views in Orion magazine with a nose-thumbing essay called “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” In it he bid farewell to activism: “I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

Walking away, Kingsnorth says, is not giving in to despair. Far from it: though he denies he’s a nihilist, he has a nihilist’s glee at the collapse of the phony world, the illusion that we can keep our technological society and our cars and computers and our cheap food grown half a world away, just by building more stuff and being smarter. The world, if not modern techno-civilization, will persist. We might destroy ourselves, but nature will outlive us. That’s all that really matters.

That strain of barely repressed satisfaction at seeing the pillars of capitalism tremble runs through the work of James Howard Kunstler, in Too Much Magic, and Naomi Klein, in her latest jeremiad, This Changes Everything. We are not going to survive by getting better at doing what we’re already doing, these writers argue; what’s needed is an end to materialist, capitalist, industrial society, so that something more noble and more sustainable can rise from the rubble. We are all living in Berlin in 1945. Let it fall. Let it burn.

Such neo-Spenglerianism is pleasant enough if you can contemplate it from your solar-heated cabin in Maine or your townhouse in Brooklyn, while sipping hand-picked Darjeeling and nibbling an artisanal scone. It’s different if you have to live in the real world, like the 15 million residents of Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose homes are likely to be submerged within the next two decades.

For the rest of us, climate change has become an existential threat in both senses of the word: it endangers our existence and it forces us to reconsider our position as free and responsible individuals inhabiting an absurd universe, on a planet rapidly becoming inhospitable to the civilization we’ve built upon it.

In that sense, climate defeatism may be a salutary movement, requiring us to continue to act and struggle even as the ultimate victory, indeed the outcome, recedes beyond our view. That’s the essential nobility of the human condition, according to Albert Camus: like the mythical Sisyphus, we eternally push a rock up a hill, never to reach the top. Courage lies in doing that every day without succumbing to despair or defeat.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Addressing an audience at Yale upon receiving the Chubb Fellowship last year, the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, 79, put the same thought another way in arguing against abandoning hope that the climate can be saved: “Hope is a different thing from optimism,” he said. “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are gonna turn out. Hope is grounded in the present; it’s not about the future. It’s about the reality of possibilities, this sense of possibility that you can do better. Friends, others give me hope. Hope lives on hope.”

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