Socially and culturally, we are faced with just such a decision now.
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 words.
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, trees.
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.