How to prepare for life in a hothouse

In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes. Tommy Lynch (2017).

The week started with a bit of a downer. While we were sweating through the peaks of this summer’s heatwave, several articles about climate change were doing the rounds. Nathaniel Rich’s captivating novella “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” took over the New York Times Magazine. It reads like a movie script, covering the period of 1979-1989 when we started coming to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change. The article centres around the efforts of two individuals, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen, who worked tirelessly to bring climate change to the forefront of the public and government’s attention. As the piece sweeps through their efforts over a decade, it then questions who is to blame for the inaction on climate change. Rich argues that it was not the fossil fuel industry, nor the politicians, but rather something that’s in our human nature.

Soon after this was published, Naomi Klein delivered a well-articulated critique of its central assertion and a number of scientists disputed some details in the narrative. Human nature, Klein argues, is not what killed our climate momentum, it’s the reigning ideology of deregulated capitalism, a topic she so elegantly writes about in “This Changes Everything”.

Then, the Stockholm Resilience Centre released a paper saying that even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of entering a state they dubbed “Hothouse Earth”, where several positive feedback mechanisms come into play, driving temperatures to an average of 4-5°C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60m higher than today. As I read this, I recalled the moment, many years ago, when I felt a quiet surge of panic reading James Lovelock’s stark warnings about positive feedback loops causing non-linear shifts in our climate. While our climate modeling has presumably become more sophisticated since then, it feels the less optimistic forecasts have remained roughly the same and are in line with what we’re experiencing.

While taking this in, a colleague at my work shared a new paper from Professor Jem Bendell on the subject of Deep Adaptation, which invited readers the opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. A heavy subject matter but a much-needed discourse for our times with some useful framings.

As we witness the impacts of extreme weather across the world this season, some people’s fears of climate change have been heightened. A friend of mine was feeling particularly despondent with this pending sense of calamity. She felt a powerlessness and judgment that many people around her, people that she loves, seem not to care about impending ecological collapse. She can’t understand why they are carrying on as normal. She asked me to provide some words of comfort, to which I could only say:

  1. You’re definitely not alone in feeling the despair, sadness and panic. I’m right here with you. We’re in this one together.
  2. One positive thing we can do, which is important no matter what, is to love each other and party hard. This suggestion came from my wife’s colleague, who is having a similar discussion about life and purpose in the face of climate change. Another friend of mine once said we should “dance while we got the chance”. I like that.
  3. Third, for all our predicaments, there’s some light. It may only be a small glow, but as Steven Pinker says in his TED talkwe are doing way better on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and various other measures, than 30 years ago. While we will never have a perfect world, he says, when we apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing, there’s no limit to what we can attain. While this feels disputable in the face of climate change, it’s still important to recognise some of the positive progress. When interviewed after his presidency, Obama also had a similar sentiment: “the world is healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant, more sophisticated and less violent than just about any time in human history…If I had to choose any time in history to be born, I’d choose now”. There is so much to be thankful for.

I’m not sure that we can simply “solve” climate change. We’ve designed systems (food, energy, waste, economic, ideological and so on) that are extremely difficult to maneuver through a radical transformation. Yet, we must respond to climate change with bold action, shift what we can shift, with compassion and cooperation – leaving as positive of a trail as we can in our lives. This is no small task at all. How can we have compassion when we see others wilfully or unwittingly killing the planet?

There’s something about compassion or love being at the centre of this change that I’m now thinking about. How can we build and maintain a deep love both for our environment and of each other? There’s something about trying to be compassionate in the company of taking positive, radical actions that feels right to me. Both in our work and personal lives. It feels much better when we are able to participate in building a better world and not just talk about it from afar. That’s why the simple act of growing food or planting a tree is so powerful. It provides a positive narrative and some sense of hope in the chaos around us.

Jem Bendell, in his Deep Adaptation paper which I recommend reading, writes further about how we might guide discussions once we recognise climate change as an unfolding tragedy. It’s also a conversation I know the Dark Mountain project has long explored. While difficult, we shouldn’t shy away from this conversation, it’s too important.