So, I was talking to one of the students at university a while ago. She’s doing a PHD on paleoclimate and she told me that in her expert opinion we are “properly screwed”. She then went on to tell me that for a long while, she had virtually given up on trying to act in an environmentally conscious way as it was all pretty hopeless. This got me thinking. There are many different reactions to environmental problems, from sheer disbelief, to anxiety, anger and depression; and (in my experience) environmentalists are often the most depressed of the lot. There is a shadow of despair at the heart of the environmental movement, a grief that the natural world is broken and can never be repaired.
I expect that many of you will be familiar with the Kübler-Ross model of grief (I didn’t know it by that name until I looked it up) it’s better known as the five stages of grieving. I think there is a pretty strong argument that human society is undergoing trauma as we come to terms with the irreversibility of the environmental damage that we have caused. When you start looking for it, the signs are more or less everywhere:
This is most evident as a reaction against the science of climate change, but crops up in plenty of other places as well. The effect of this denial is to attempt to develop a false, preferable reality. This can range from national governments and political parties (see the views of the UKIPPERS) to the views of individuals (Bjorn Lomberg) or the media (The Daily Mail).
This too can be seen at a national level, the language used in the recent Copenhagen summit is a good example. I’ll admit that I don’t run into this personally very often any longer, I suspect that it’s because I live in the UK and a large portion of the anger is directed at us (and other Western countries) from outside. As the first industrial nations we were the ones that caused a lot of the problems. We also benefited from the situation so we are now much more heavily insulated from the consequences than elsewhere (where I expect the anger lies).
This is so common it’s pretty ridiculous. Carbon offsetting, greenwashing,biofuels… the list is basically endless. Most of it can be described as a tool to maintain the status quo without guilt. How can I buy my way out of this problem? Of course this strategy has a tendency to export environmental problems elsewhere, and is usually only viable if there are sufficient resources (or economic imbalances) to support it…
I expect that this is where a lot of environmentalists sit. On bad days, I think it’s probably where I sit as well. We do our best, but we live in a society that is so fundamentally unsustainable that it’s virtually impossible to do the right thing. Even if we were to act this radically, we know that many other people wouldn’t. It is hard not to see the whole of modern society as a train wreck waiting to happen.
So, what would acceptance look like? Isn’t this just admitting defeat and accepting that we are (as my friend put it) screwed? I’m not so sure. I wonder if this would look more like a re-evaluation of how we use our time and effort, and a change of outlook. I don’t want the environment to be broken, and I feel really bad that it is. I am also beginning to accept that some of the damage is now impossible to prevent, and some of the causes we cling to are perhaps, a little (whisper) futile.
I’d genuinely like to hear what you think on this. If you think I’ve got it completely wrong (or right!) then do let me know. Are we building a sustainable future and saving what can be saved? Or are we trying to prop up systems and practices which will be lost in spite of everything we do?
Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here