Best viewed as a PDF
Download This Chapter As A PDF
Please ensure you have
the latest Adobe Reader
When I am teaching “Environment and Society” I worry that I am inflicting environmental despair on my students. This year I set a reading on the Orangutans of Kalimantan and palm oil. A student wrote that she was glad the pictures were hard to see in the black and white photocopy because she would have drowned in a flood of tears.
I have a particular take on environmental problems that is probably what most people would regard as a bit extreme. Even quite well educated people are not always aware of the extent of the global warming crisis. As a sociologist one is aware of just how difficult it is for our society to deal with it effectively. All of this can be disturbing. I had an environmental nightmare this year when I was teaching about this topic. I was standing at a corner waiting for a bus with an old friend. There were some people in front of us closer to the road. As the bus came round the corner it was a huge military armoured affair with enormous wheels. It started to run towards the pavement where we were standing. We jumped back but the people in front were not so lucky. Someone was being crushed under the front wheel, which was spinning around. I rushed up to the door and banged and screamed. The driver could not hear me – or was not listening.
I think quite a likely scenario is that the only habitable places to live in a hundred years will be south of Melbourne or north of London. The rest will be arid desert. It does not take much imagination to think what will happen as people fight for the crumbs of our dying civilisation. Just as the human race is gradually getting things together we will be hit by an unimaginable disaster, which will inspire the very worst that we are capable of. Even what has – or almost certainly will happen – is bad enough. Fifty percent of the bird species that used to be common in Australian cities are now rarely seen. The polar bear is likely to go extinct in the wild. Rainforest could be all but eliminated in 30 years.
I have been finding it hard not to let this get to me, so I can see why it could be difficult for my students. It is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Of course this is not the only possible outcome. We could be rescued by an effective mobilisation of social will or even by a set of technological fixes. Or maybe a plague will wipe out most people, reducing impact and shutting down fossil fuel energy production. Or maybe this is all just a bad dream and more than ninety percent of climate scientists are wrong, as some right wing commentators keep telling us. But at the moment none of this seems very likely and even how far we are prepared to risk things is upsetting enough.
My own personal history makes this all very shocking. I was raised through the fifties and sixties on the story of progress through science. My grandfather was an engineer. He worked on the overland telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin. My father was an industrial chemist for BHP and later taught chemistry at the Technical College. One of my favourite toys as a child was a steam engine with a methylated spirits burner. I read big colour picture books that documented scientific progress, with titles like “From Magic to Medicine”! I remember my father’s enthusiasm as he explained how it had been possible to produce these unprecedented works in full colour using the latest printing technology.
I am not the only one who has been brought up to foresee a continual improvement of life through technology. A sense that anything at all is possible is also conveyed in the very architecture and design of our science fiction cities. But this turns out to be a sham – a cheap trick. The global warming crisis is the worm in the bud. All this technological mastery is not based on “science” and human wisdom at all but rooted in the abundant energy of fossil fuels, simply dug up and burned to create heat.
Another difficult thing to come to terms with is the ethical disproportion between the disaster, which is likely to be visited upon us, and the minutiae of decisions of daily life. Our grandchildren will starve to death or die in civil wars because we are driving to work, turning on an air conditioner or taking a holiday in Bali. A bad cosmic joke surely.
So what to do about environmental despair? One could believe it is all part of God’s plan. I don’t so that doesn’t help. Activism and taking steps to pull oneself out of complicity is certainly a help, and relieves guilt. But it does not do much to deal with the sense of desperation as we watch the society at large fumble and miss opportunities.
I want to recommend three therapy tricks to deal with environmental despair.
The first is one of the AA and Alanon twelve steps. It is called “Let go and let God”. As a person who is not religious I see it as being an acceptance that your own efforts are a small part of what is going on. You do not have the capacity to determine the outcome and you do not need to take responsibility for it. Things will work out as they will – for good or evil. Even your own ability to make an effort is not under a central mental operator control in your own head. Your history and subconscious all play a part. Do not beat yourself up over something that is deeply rooted in social forces going back millennia.
The second is probably related to Buddhist meditation. It is paying attention to the beauty and wonder of the natural world as it now is. We may be lucky to be one of the last two generations to enjoy a reasonable part of what humanity has looked upon since the stone-age. Go for bushwalks. Cultivate your garden. Go bird-watching in the local patch of bushland. Take photos of weeds flowering untended on the side of the road. Go for a walk in the evening or at daybreak. Watch the sunset and the approaching storm clouds. Go surfing or fishing. Enjoy your pets. Watch a nature doco on TV. It could be worse. Be thankful that there is a rosella or a top-knot pigeon to look at, a rainforest to visit or a bit of old growth that the loggers missed a hundred years ago.
The third and most extreme step is to imagine a future after this crisis has passed. Imagine it any way you want.
Humanity has died out and after 250,000 years the seas go back to normal, the ice caps return and new species start to evolve out of what life is left. As one of my more cynical interviewees put it, humans will die out like the dinosaurs. But the earth will be left and will recover. This can be cynical if it is an excuse for doing nothing – but it does not have to be. It can be reassuring if you just use it to take the long view.
Or inhabit your future with a more reassuring conclusion. Humans get it together and rescue and restore a beautiful natural world and live in a sustainable paradise, lightly on the earth, surrounded by old growth forests and the wealth of intriguing and marvellous life. This crisis passes and while it is tragic for those who have to live through it now, we can imagine a better future in the long term.
I find that any of these techniques will work to relieve environmental despair. They are unfortunately necessary once you get a good grasp of the problems and the most likely outcomes.