Jun 14, 2010

Escaping despair

A few times in this series I've talked about just how dire the status quo is. I think people outside the sustainability advocacy community often fail to grasp that when we describe systems as "unsustainable" we mean this entirely literally. This is neither about some minor luxuries we'll have to live without in future nor about problems so distant or theoretical that we can afford to ignore them: it is about whether society organised the way it is today can survive for as long as I intend to live.

At the same time, we know the task ahead if we are to change the status quo enough is intimidatingly huge. The world has sunk tremendous resources into building a fossil fuel dependent economy, most people seem desperate to keep the status quo, there are immense vested interests in keeping it so for as long as possible, and we are already seeing the damage we have caused to ourselves. This leads inexorably to a state that we must avoid: despair.

I think that despair is a particularly grave sin in so many religions because it leads people to stop trying, and the only way we can guarantee failure is by giving up. It really is a kind of cop-out; "I don't need to change my behaviour because all is lost anyway". But it's also a very understandable, very human trait to fall into this trap. I wrestle with despair routinely—especially when events like the Deepwater Horizon disaster or the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks shine a light on how bad things really are—and most people who are deeply involved in the sustainability movement do at least some of the time. So it's really important that we work out a way to deal with the risk of despair and not become paralysed by it.

For me at least, despair comes from mistakenly seeing major environmental problems as binary: broken vs fixed; good vs bad; success vs failure. Seen in this light, we have already failed, so despair is inevitable. In the real world, though, there are always degrees of success and failure. We could stop global warming at the 1.5-2°C we're already stuck with and do some serious work to protect coastal communities, limit desertification and manage flood risks, or we could let it run much further. We could continue to accept the virtual inevitability of more Deepwater Horizons, or we could act to reduce this risk. We could accept the significantly shorter life expectancy of residents of the most polluted parts of Seattle (which are also some of the poorest districts), or we could do whatever we can to improve the situation.

Doing something—anything—turns out to be liberating. It's much easier to wallow in despair when using it as an excuse to do nothing at all, but if you start to do something about the problem it's much easier to fight that off. There is also a measure of detachment required, though. Not detachment about the problems we face, or denial of the problems or their scale, but a more personal detachment from the messianic idea of being able to fix everything. Accepting that all I can do is play my small part makes me much more effective at it than I was when I was fixated on the enormity of the trouble we are in, and how limited my own power is to sort it out.

There's no denying that humanity is in deep trouble if we don't change our ways, and it is entirely normal to respond to this with despair. Yet a better world is possible if we all do what we can and don't allow the despair to paralyse us or become an excuse for complacency. Escaping that trap requires us to do what we can to make the world better, and stop beating ourselves up about the limits to what we can do.

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