Some conversations are difficult to have, aren’t
they? Some are perhaps too
difficult. Who begins the
conversation? Who is willing to risk the
loss of friendship, or status, or income, in order to initiate a difficult, yet
Socially and culturally, we are faced with just such a
The evidence for environmental collapse, and therefore
social collapse, is mounting almost weekly.
We may have already tipped the tipping points of climate chaos. It may be that we have passed the opportune
time to make the changes necessary to avoid runaway climate change. It may be that no matter what we do now, we
will not be able to keep global warming beneath 2 degrees C.
If that is so, and the likelihood is extremely high,
then what sort of conversations should we be having? At a minimum the conversations need to focus
on: can we adapt to a rapidly heating world, how do we do so, what do we focus
on, do we need to change focus?
What might a post-collapse society look like? Asking that question is not meant to elicit
simply possibilities; such a question requires some deliberate thought put into
what do we do to prepare, and what do we do to increase the chance that some
form of human existence will rise from the ashes of collapse? Whatever that future looks like, there is one
thing we can be certain of – it will not look like the current society, it will
not be a return to “business as usual.”
Those are difficult conversations.
They are difficult because they challenge our sense of
hope, they challenge our desire for control, they challenge our wish for
certainty. Fundamentally, they challenge
our mortality. They challenge our
self-preservation instinct. They
challenge us psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Tragically, the longer we remain trapped within the,
now redundant, conversation of how to avert, stop, and reverse climate chaos,
then the longer we put off the conversations that we need to be having.
We had chances before
Since the mid-20th century we have had
chances to engage in difficult conversations – and failed to take them. Had we taken those chances then, we may have
been in a different place today and not have to engage in the difficult
conversation about what to do in the face of environmental and social collapse.
In the late 1960s through to the late 1970s we had
warnings of environmental crises. Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, followed by books such as,
The Population Bomb, A Blueprint for Survival, the ground-breaking Limits
to Growth, and Small is Beautiful.
All these pointed to the degradation of the environment and suggesting
that a change was needed in our approach to living with Mother Earth. These writers and others hoped for some
difficult conversations. They did not
happen, or at least did not happen at a large enough scale.
During the 1990s we had a chance to have another
difficult conversation – this time about global warming (later termed climate
change and now climate chaos.) Bill
McKibben’s The End of Nature in 1989 heralded the possibility of such a
conversation. Although a global climate
conference had been held as early as 1979, it was not until 1988 that the
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. Since then there have been numerous reports
and conferences related to climate change.
It would be hard to contend that the difficult conversations needed then
(twenty or thirty years ago) took place.
The difficult conversations related to climate change have only begun to
occur in the last decade or so.
Far too late!
Climate change has passed us by whilst we stood about
engaged in small talk.
Will we let this opportunity to initiate difficult
conversations also pass us by?
The conversations we need to be having now are even
more difficult than the ones we should have had over the past sixty years.
Recognising Our Mortality
It is claimed that human beings are the only species
able to contemplate our own death. Other
species (e.g., elephants) do seem to mourn the deaths of one of their own, but
we do not yet know whether they associate that with their own eventual
death. Understanding that we will die on
an individual level confronts us with our emotional and psychological response
to that knowledge. There appears to be
two broad responses; a fear and anguish-inducing despair, or a calm and
deliberate acceptance, almost a contented yearning (for some.)
At a societal and cultural level any talk of demise of
humanity raises possibilities of despair and dismal gloominess. Such feelings can easily lead to inaction and
a lacklustre outlook – a “what’s-the-point” attitude.
These difficult conversations will need to acknowledge
and embrace that possibility.
However, recognising the collapse of society need not
be faced with despair and anguish.
Moving beyond despair, anguish, anger, and denial may enable us
(collectively) to re-discover what is beautiful in the world. We may move into a realm of love born out of
our grief. Rupert Read, an English
academic and active in the UK Extinction Rebellion movement, counsels that, “Grief
is how love survives loss.” Wise
For the future post-collapse to embrace beauty and
love we need difficult conversations. We
need to be able to move the conversation from one based on fear (the threat of
climate change) to one based on love.
Charles Eisenstein notes in his book Climate: A New Story1
that what often brought people to an environmental awareness and activism was
love – a love for the forests, bush, mountains, oceans, birds, animals,
It is possible to re-animate that love of nature and
beauty, even whilst acknowledging social collapse. Those who are closer to the end of their
lives may be able to recognise that easier than someone much younger. Yet, paradoxically, that is why we must
engage in the difficult conversations.
Older people must engage with younger people. Because the older generation failed to have
difficult conversations in the past, it now means the older generations have
failed their children and future generations.
We must have difficult conversations.
We need to tell the truth. We
need to acknowledge that we have failed.
Trying to protect children from that truth is another failure. We must have the difficult conversations even
if it means admitting that our previous failures have condemned future
generations to ecological and social collapse.
We must not fail again.
Colonising cultures must engage with colonised
cultures. The colonisers of the world
(primarily euro-centric, western-styled cultures) must admit that our impact
upon the earth and upon indigenous society has been a failure. Ignoring that and continuing to act as if we
can “solve” the problems we have wrought is another failure.
No matter who we are, or where we are on our
individual life’s journey – we must have difficult conversations.
1. Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story, North
Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.