The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World - Paul Gilding (2011)
Chapter 8. Are We Finished?
By now, there is a reasonable chance you’ve been having some fairly dark thoughts. You may be wondering if my view, that we will make it through this, is correct. You might be thinking those who argue we will just slowly slide into collapse may have a point.
Even if you haven’t gone there, you may be having moments where you wonder: “What if this all goes horribly wrong?” Maybe moments of despair at the suffering to come, frustration that we’ve left it this late in the process, anger that it got to this stage, and confusion as to why. You may have considered what it all means for you personally—your family, your security, and the young people you know.
If none of these reactions apply to you, feel free to skip to the next chapter and get straight into what happens next. But I imagine most of you have had these moments. I certainly have. In that case, read on.
I have spent many years considering these questions. Whether this is a crisis we’ll pass through or if we’ll just face collapse. Whether a rational look at the science and politics warrants a response of despair or hope. I’ve also discussed these issues with corporate executives, activists, policy makers, and leading scientists over many years and considered their responses and approaches.
My conclusion is that over the next few years, the attitude we adopt—for simplicity let’s call it hope versus despair—is perhaps the most profound issue we will face. I think it will be more influential on our future than technology, politics, or markets. This is a big claim, so it warrants some serious discussion.
The challenge we face with the Great Disruption is, in severity and scale, unprecedented in all of human history. The situation we will find ourselves in and the consequences that will unfold will be very severe. However, I have no doubt that we can survive and move through virtually any scenario imaginable if, and only if, we stay focused and determined and act together as a species. This conclusion is based on some important assumptions that are different from how many others see the world, so it’s worth sharing them.
First, we have to accept that things are going to get ugly and prepare ourselves for this—physically, economically, and psychologically. This is not going to be inconvenient or unpleasant, this is going to be what James Kunstler described in The Long Emergency—a generations-long crisis that will need to be managed with focus and determination.
Second, we must drop the dominant assumption that has been held for decades, of how change will occur—steady, market focused, and by global consensus. We must rapidly get our heads around how it will actually occur—discontinuous, chaotic, and transformational change, driven by a war-footing type of response.
Third, we must now understand that the type of change we need will require a major evolution in human values, politics, and personal expectations. This is not a single technical problem like fixing climate change; this is a system design problem. We will therefore need profound shifts in how we behave personally and collectively.
Fourth and perhaps most important, we have to accept that this issue is now a human one. For decades people like me have advocated protecting the environment or preventing significant global changes to the ecosystem. We have to accept that it’s too late for that. It is now inevitable that the whole planetary system will be profoundly changed by our actions, with implications for thousands and possibly millions of years.
This means we need to forget about “saving the planet.” The planet will be just fine, it will recover very nicely, and it’s not in a hurry. If it takes a million or a hundred million years to recover from our impact and get back on a new evolutionary path, this is no intrinsic problem from the planet’s point of view. No, our issue is now our issue—do we want to “save” civilization and allow it to keep evolving and developing from the base we have built over the past ten thousand years? Or do we want to go back to a few hundred million people or fewer and start again? That is our choice, and it is the only choice we now need to make. It is a choice we can make, and getting through this is an outcome we can achieve, but only if we decide to do so. This is a future we get to make.
That’s how I see it. You can make up your own mind as we explore these questions and our potential responses over the remainder of this book.
First, though, and within that context, I want to focus on the vexed issue of hope and despair. This is not an issue just of intellectual interest, though it certainly is very interesting. This is a determining issue. If we get this wrong and slip into collective despair and fear, we risk creating a self-fulfilling attitude. This is important at the collective level of broad society, but more urgently it is an issue for people actively engaged in these issues now. We cannot afford to have the most informed and engaged people withdraw, lose focus, or act even subconsciously in a halfhearted way. We have to believe we can succeed, and we have to believe it every day. As I said earlier, we can do this, but only with focus and determination.
I used to think despair about our potential in this area was a personality-driven response. That optimists were full of hope and pessimists went to despair. I think I was wrong. My view now is that despair is a completely rational and logical response to what we have learned about our situation. Confused? Read on.
This is not an intellectual question for me. It is deeply personal, and I have dived down into the depths of it. Let me tell you that part of my story. When I first started writing and presenting on “Scream Crash Boom” in 2005, I noticed I was much more engaged and passionate about the Crash than I was about the Boom, and partly as a result, so were my audiences. At first I thought this was just because I understood it better, with my background as an environmental campaigner and the amount of time I had spent examining the science of sustainability and climate change. It also had the drama of a crisis, making it an easier communications task.
To correct this, I spent more time exploring the extraordinary range of exciting activities around the world being undertaken by people preparing for the transition to a new economy. There are so many amazing stories, some of which we’ll cover later, it is easy to get excited about what’s possible. Despite learning a great deal and being inspired by the stories and people I came across, I found that my approach didn’t fundamentally change. It was the Crash that got the attention and energy of both my audiences and me.
Then, when I was presenting to a Cambridge BSP seminar in New York in 2007, to a largely business audience, I was going through the Crash and was suddenly overwhelmed by a great sense of sadness, and I actually started to cry—not a good look for a big Aussie bloke!
Afterward I gave this a great deal of thought. Given that my purpose in doing this work is to motivate people to be inspired and active, projecting despair was not likely to be effective.
When I returned home, I was telling my wife, Michelle, the story of my tearful speech and we both started crying! We both felt the pain and the sadness but still didn’t fully understand it. We were sitting in a café at the time, and I wondered what others would think if I said, “Oh, we’re crying because the world is on the verge of a systemwide crash that will see massive global suffering and chaos for decades.” If I did, they would look around at the lovely autumn day and probably call the mental health authorities to have us taken away.
Over the coming year, I noted my moods as I was presenting around the world and found I often went into a depression for several days after a big presentation, with the sense that the work I was doing was probably hopeless. I wondered if I was kidding myself that we had any hope of turning the situation around. An aspect of this was purely in the realm of personal psychology, and I put a lot of effort into looking at that. I wanted to know how much of this was about my response to the data rather than the data itself. However, this personal work, and the fact that there were plenty of data points around me, convinced me there was more to it than just personal psychology.
A new development in the issue had unfolded over the period 2004-2008. Some of the best-informed people in this area started to come over to the view, usually expressed in private, that we were just buying time and we wouldn’t actually succeed. This development was not of the kind that is often dismissed as the “end of the world, survivalist” phenomena we have seen at other points in history. These were highly educated and experienced global experts who were analyzing the data and drawing the conclusion that it was simply, physically too late.
One of the more public and prominent of these experts is James Lovelock, a giant of a thinker in this area over many decades, who effectively founded the whole area of earth system sciences, the study of the earth as an integrated system. He was the founder of the Gaia theory—that the earth can be understood as a self-regulating organism. With a number of broad accomplishments under his belt, this is a serious scientist.
Now over ninety years old and still brilliant, Lovelock recently wrote what may be his final book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, in which he argued that the collapse of civilization was now inevitable. His primary reason for this conclusion is that as humans, we are just not smart enough to respond to a complex problem like climate change adequately. Like Collee’s medical comparison earlier, it will overwhelm our response and bring us down. He believes we may end up with as little as a few hundred million people left on the planet, concentrated in the few areas still suitable for growing food.
He is far from alone in this view. Australian Clive Hamilton’s most recent book, Requiem for a Species, takes a similar view, as evidenced by the title.
So feeling despair and a sense of futility is not just an emotional response driven by personality type. According to some seriously wise and highly informed people, it is a rational conclusion, drawing on human history and the scientific evidence. While I have absolutely been in that space, I have now come out of it, and I think they are wrong.
We will spend quite a bit of time on why they’re wrong in a technical sense in the coming chapters, where we’ll detail just how we can turn this around and why I think we will do so. Bear in mind that recent studies show that if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, temperatures would stop rising almost immediately.1 We’re not locked into climate disaster any more than we choose to be. Of course, stopping all emissions overnight would be politically impossible and inflict huge suffering. But avoiding any further warming is scientifically and technically possible, as we’ll show. The principle challenge is finding the motivation to cut emissions with sufficient speed. For the moment, though, I want to focus on the attitude of despair and why we should be optimistic and believe that avoiding collapse is politically and humanly possible.
From my observations and discussions with others, I think despair is a stage we have to go through. It is in fact a positive sign and an indication of coming to the end of denial. On sustainability, most people start with denial—there is no serious problem. Then comes what we’ll call “denial breaking down”—a more or less intellectual acknowledgment of the science up to a point, but without fully accepting the factual implications and emotional reactions that full acknowledgment would bring. Then comes full despair, sometimes with fear and anger on the way through.
My conclusion is that feeling despair at some point means you’ve genuinely and fully acknowledged the facts. This can perhaps be seen as a stage of grieving where, as in cases of personal loss, you recognize that your loved one is gone and isn’t coming back. The reality has finally sunk in. So as a stage, it’s actually healthy. Look at the facts we’ve been discussing and the full scale of their implications and then ask yourself, Wouldn’t it be kind of weird not to feel despair and sadness in response? Anyone who doesn’t feel this at some point is probably in denial—either denial of how bad it will be or denial that it’s too late to prevent it, hoping some combination of political and technological sleight of hand will prevent it.
So ironically, if you’re feeling despair, then feel good, you’re almost there!
But while despair is a stage I think we all need to arrive at, individually and collectively, it’s also one that we can and must move through. We face the same challenge when we deal with serious personal loss. We go from denial to despair. Then at some point we need to move on from despair—it’s not a place in which people want to stay, even though it can be a difficult place to leave. This doesn’t require us to forget the loss, or deny the sadness, but it does mean we have to re-find hope and empower ourselves through it. Otherwise we spiral into decay.
The easiest way to do that is to go forward. We act. We start doing things. This shouldn’t be surprising—in other processes of dealing with grief and despair, we act as a way of reasserting control and direction over our lives. Of course, individual grieving isn’t characterized by clear, distinct stages and progression. You might jump back as well as forward and feel conflicting emotions at various times. But generally, we accept the loss more fully as time goes on.
While all of the above can be considered at the personal level, it also needs to be considered at the collective, global society level. Without question, society is still in denial. Generally we are in the stage of “denial breaking down,” in that we sort of accept the science but are in denial about its implications—the speed and scale of the threat. I’m not talking about climate deniers or antiscience skeptics. They can be ignored for two reasons. First, we can’t help them, because as with an alcoholic in denial, no amount of data will change their minds—they simply don’t want to face reality. Second, they don’t matter. The physical science will overwhelm them in the end.
But collectively, we are in the “denial breaking down” stage, and this really matters a great deal because this is what’s holding back change. This is an understandable stage, where people recognize the problem to some extent but hold back from full acknowledgment to prevent the emotional and practical impact true recognition would entail. So the views are things like “it’s bad but not that bad”; “it’s serious, but it’s about the future so we have time”; “it’s a global problem and we can’t do anything about it locally.” Another one is that yes, it’s a serious problem, but it’s caused by someone/something else (large companies, China, America, rich countries, population growth in poor countries—anyone but us). Denial is an amazing thing to watch and experience!
This collective stage will pass at some point relatively soon. Then we’ll move through collective despair and fear and into full acceptance. Acceptance in our context becomes a source of empowerment. Big call? Not really. Let me explain why.
Let’s look at climate change again as an example. The same principles apply to the whole of the Great Disruption, but climate brings the idea into sharp focus. I like to think of climate denial as a massive dam. Right now, there’s some pretty big cracks in that dam. And before long they are going to rip right open. When a dam collapses, it happens suddenly and the water comes through thick and fast. This is how it will be with climate attitudes and, as a result, climate action. There’s so much pressure built up that once the dam of denial breaks, the flood of acceptance will sweep away any remaining denial.
To understand this, it’s important to recognize the social psychology of our response to climate. At the moment, the majority of people are in “denial breaking down”—they don’t yet fully acknowledge the problem. This means that those who do get it are isolated and tend to talk to each other differently from the way they talk to those who aren’t there yet. This is why as I sat in the café crying with my wife, I couldn’t imagine explaining to those around me what I was thinking. This process reinforces the collective avoidance of full acceptance, because people feel strange talking about it for fear of ridicule. But once the change starts to kick in, this social phenomenon changes from being the biggest hindrance to the biggest accelerator. This reality, of group and social dynamics, is one reason change happens slowly at first and then incredibly fast.
So, yes, perhaps you’re thinking, “I can see how it could happen in theory, but what would possibly trigger such a shift?”
When I discuss these issues with people who are in full despair, the response is usually along the lines of, “But you’re telling me it’s going to be really, really bad; how will we possibly cope?” I’ve been there myself frequently, so I know that feeling well!
Ironically, it’s just this point—that the situation is going to be really, really bad—that gives me such confidence that it will turn, and the social dynamic referred to above, combined with the enormous back pressure behind the dam, means there’s going to be a flood when it does.
I call what is coming the Great Awakening, a term I first heard used in this context by Professor Jorgen Randers.
Let me start explaining this from the point of the counterargument, generally referred to as “the boiling frog problem.” This refers to the idea that a frog put into boiling water will jump out, whereas a frog put into cold water that is then slowly heated will stay there and boil to death.2
Some people argue that as humanity slowly slides toward disaster, we’ll stay in ever more fanciful denial until it is too late and we are overwhelmed—that we will slowly boil to death.
There are three reasons this is wrong and why instead the Great Awakening will occur and we’ll suddenly find ourselves in a completely new world, albeit a challenging world and one requiring a lot of work.
First, it will come upon us hard and fast when it does. The risk of collapse will soon be in our faces. This is incredibly clear from the science, and anyone who looks at it once out of denial draws that conclusion. While it’s a much broader issue than climate change, the climate science gives it all a sharp focus. When it hits, it will hit economically, and then people at large will pay attention because it will affect them directly. Denial will then evaporate virtually overnight.
Second, we can respond quickly when we choose to, and this is fortunate because we consistently respond late. There are many indications in history and human behavior that this is actually standard operating procedure—late and fast. We wake up, then take whatever action is necessary to fix it. If an epitaph were to be written to characterize our generation, it might be: “They did it. They were slow, but not stupid.”
Third, we will be capable physically and technically of turning the situation around at that point, because that point will be soon, and we are capable, when the alternative is collapse, of making an absolutely remarkable turnaround. This last point is key, because people won’t end denial until they believe there is a solution.
Let me go through each of these in a little more detail.
First, we are not boiling frogs and will not stand by observing our decline. The reason I am so sure about this is that the momentum for change we have built into the earth’s climate system is like a fast-moving heavy train hurtling toward us. We are standing on the train line, in heavy fog. The fog will lift, or the train will be so close we can see it and feel it, even in the fog. Then we will jump. We will most certainly not just stand there and watch it hit us.
The scientific evidence for the accelerating speed of the train is now all around us. Those with good senses can already feel its rumble. The critical recent shift in this evidence is that we can see the beginning of what John Collee argues with his medical analogy: The system will resist change and appear to be doing okay and then break down rapidly. The difference here, of course, is that we are not a “body” and as such cannot die. But we are now seeing rapid acceleration in the rate of change as the various uncertainties in climate and ecosystem science, like changes to the marine ecosystem, are all starting to tip the wrong way. There will be more examples in the coming years.
Clive Hamilton considers the question of denial deeply and concludes that the fog won’t lift in time. He notes that accepting the personal loss of the death of an individual is harder when there is room for doubt about the death or where it can be blamed on someone else—both being present in the climate question. The question of blame is a vexed one, and I’ll talk about how that might play out later. On the question of doubt, I agree that we won’t wake up until we really feel it. Solid theory and science just aren’t enough. But crucially, we’re about to feel it like never before.
It is important to recognize that this will hit not just environmentally but economically. For all the reasons we discussed earlier, this will translate not just into local economic impacts, but into global ones as well, including the end of economic growth as we know it. People will then “feel” the issue in a new and directly personal way. Even those not personally affected will be able to relate to it. Terrorism was a powerful example of this. Even though few were directly affected by the 9/11 attacks, people around the world felt an emotional engagement with those who did. As a result, enormous political and economic changes were accepted from new airport security measures to changes to legal rights to two wars—because people could relate to the issues in a new way.
So the train hurtling toward us will become clear as the fog lifts, forcing us to jump rather than be hit. We will explore how this will unfold in the next few chapters.
Second, we need to remember that this type of response is normal for our species. We wait until the last minute and then we jump. We respond dramatically. You can argue this is stupid, but that doesn’t change it. We wait until a crisis is imminent and then respond. This applies to our personal health, our business management, our economies, and our societies. It usually takes a heart attack, a financial crisis, or an invasion of Poland to get our serious attention. But then we respond dramatically. Slow, but not stupid.
This leads to the question I am most often asked on this matter: What will be climate change’s “9/11”? What will trigger the shift? A hurricane hitting Wall Street? A typhoon in Tokyo? What is the climate equivalent of Hitler’s invasion of Poland?
The answer is unsatisfying. While I am certain we will respond, it probably won’t actually be triggered by a single event, although historians will probably agree on one after we’ve turned, to explain it. I’m sure of this because in reality we already have sufficient evidence, including unprecedented physical events, that if we wanted to believe, we would. The urge to deny unwelcome reality allows people to ignore any amount of data that challenges them—until they are ready to change. Then the evidence is obvious and accepted. So while facts are necessary, they are not sufficient. We will respond not when we accumulate an overwhelming amount of evidence—we already have that—but when we stop denying the significance of the evidence we already have.
Then there will be a tipping point when denial ends, and the reality that we face a global, civilization-threatening risk will become accepted wisdom, virtually overnight. At that point, we will respond dramatically and with extraordinary speed and focus. This moment, when it finally arrives, will be the Great Awakening. It won’t be consistent or smooth, but this will be the overall direction.
But why is Lovelock wrong? Why will the crisis at that point not overwhelm our response? Why won’t the risk of tipping points in the earth system drive us into the ground?
This is the third reason the Great Awakening will occur. When under great pressure, humanity is capable of extraordinary, imaginative transformation and political shifts that will in this case be capable of bringing us back from the brink and delivering a safe climate at the end of the crisis. This is very important to the end of denial. Unless we believe we can fix the problem, we will deny its existence.
Because little work has been done on dramatic CO2 reduction strategies that actually fix the problem, this is a key area I have focused on for this book, with my colleague Professor Jorgen Randers. I detail our results in chapter 10. What it shows is that we are clearly capable of reducing atmospheric concentrations of damaging greenhouse gases at a scale and speed incomprehensible in the context of the debate today. Based on this, I am also confident that the same principle applies to other sustainability issues. This means whether the critical issues prove to be forests, peak oil, water, food supply, or pollution, we will still be capable, at a late stage, of physically and technically turning the situation around. We won’t be able to prevent great damage or avert the crisis, but we will be able to prevent the collapse that Lovelock predicts.
The conclusion Jorgen Randers and I came to after doing this work was this: The change required to deliver a safe climate and sustainable economy is clearly not limited by our economic, physical, or technical capacity. In fact, taken in their relative contexts, the economic and technical difficulties of the actions we need to take to address our challenge pale in comparison with those faced and achieved in World War II.
So the only question is the willingness to act and the resulting decision to do so.
Making such a decision simply requires society to believe we face a crisis. Not just a normal crisis, but a serious crisis. This will be defined not by the arrival of the physical crisis, which has already happened, but by the moment when denial ends and we accept that the risk we face is not a less pleasant environment or dirty cities or the loss of some charismatic megafauna, but the loss of everything we have come to accept as “normal.” It will be when we face head-on the risk of collapse.
Collapse is used a bit loosely in much of the discussion in this area, so we should consider what it means in some detail before we go on. I don’t think we will actually see collapse but we need to understand the risk of doing so if we are to avoid it. The term has been popularized by the excellent work of Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, which looked at how environmental challenges have led to the collapse of past societies and civilizations. Collapse in the context we now face would not mean the end of humanity as a species. It would, however, mean the end of society as we know it. It would mean the breakdown of our political structures and the complete lack of coherent global governance, even by today’s poor standards. It would mean the end of our current way of life and all the assumptions we make in the West, and in many parts of the developing world, about security and personal safety, food and energy supply, material quality of life, and advanced medical care. It would also mean a rapid decline in personal security, perhaps even a return to Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature.
Diamond’s work and that of others is enough to show that great civilizations can be brought to their knees by nature and that we must “choose” to survive. One of the societies analyzed by Diamond, the Maya of Central America, is also studied by Brian Fagan in his book The Great Warming. Fagan looked at the global effect on human societies of the medieval warm period between AD 800 and 1300. This period, when global temperatures were in some areas up to one degree warmer, brought down not only the mighty Mayan civilization and saw them abandon their temples on the Yucatán, but also the Cambodian civilization with its center at Angkor Wat and the largest preindustrial city in the world, and forced the relocation of the entire Puebloan or Anasazi cultures of the American Southwest.
One might suspect we are better resourced to deal with such challenges today. This is true, but it is worth remembering that the climate changes that brought down these people often resulted from just one degree of warming. Our challenge will be much greater and, more important, much faster than the natural processes that drove those shifts.
It is not hard to imagine what a serious collapse inducing global crisis would look like if you put together the trends we’ve been discussing. A global famine that sees a billion people or more starving to death; a series of wars raging in the Middle East and elsewhere over water; armed conflict between China, India, and Pakistan over millions of refugees from political breakdown and food shortages; the drowning of people and nations in low-lying islands in storm surges; the global insurance industry going into insolvency in the face of a series of climate disasters and the run-on effects in the banking industry with uninsured assets being used as debt collateral; the collapse of global share markets when the risks of all these things are priced into share portfolios.
Military planners, whose job is to rationally assess current and future threats to national security, are acutely aware of such risks, including the risk of collapse. In recent years, they have been closely examining how this might all unfold and what it means for the future of conflict and global security.
According to the former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, who participated in a high-level Military Advisory Board review on the subject, we either address climate change today or “we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.” The 2007 report concluded that climate change would act as a threat multiplier by exacerbating conflict over resources, especially because of declining food production, border and mass migration tensions, and so on—increasing political instability and creating failed states—if no action was taken to reduce impacts.
The findings of this report agree with those of the confidential assessment of the security implications of climate change by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the coordinating body of America’s sixteen intelligence agencies. Former NIC chairman Thomas Fingar told Congress that unchecked, climate change has “wide-ranging implications for national security because it will aggravate existing problems,” especially in already vulnerable areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. According to an NIC briefing document, by placing added stress on resources, climate change will “exacerbate internal state pressures, and generate interstate friction through competition for resources or disagreement over responses and responsibility for migration.”
In 2010, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review acknowledged that climate change will act as “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” Frustrated with the lack of political response, thirty-three retired generals and admirals wrote to the Senate majority and minority leaders in April 2010, stating that “climate change is threatening America’s security … it exacerbates existing problems by decreasing stability, increasing conflict, and incubating the socioeconomic conditions that foster terrorist recruitment. The State Department, the National Intelligence Council, and the CIA all agree, and all are planning for future climate-based threats.”
Outside of the public eye, defense experts are blunt. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life … once again, warfare would define human life,” concluded a secret Pentagon report in 2004 on the impacts of climate change.3
The lesson of all these and other similar studies is clear. While there are many uncertainties in location, scale, and timing, there is now enough evidence that any rational review concludes we face the risk of worldwide collapse and the descent into chaos. The acceptance of this risk will be the tipping point for the Great Awakening.
Remember again, though, this is not about the data. The data clearly show we already face just that risk. The level of the risk can be debated, but even at the lower end it is at a level considerably greater than other risks we already respond to with massive military and security efforts and/or massive injections of public capital. That’s why military planners around the world are now so focused on these issues. The evidence is in.
So the thing to look for is the end of denial.
Looking into future scenarios is helpful, but we can also look back to what we’ve actually done to find relevant comparisons. These comparisons provide lessons about likely tipping points, but also about how dramatically we can mobilize when we choose to act.
I often use the example of World War II as evidence of what we are capable of, both economically and physically and in terms of sudden political shifts. People tend to point out all the ways World War II was quite a different situation. The Allies faced a clear and personified threat in the form of Adolf Hitler. They faced a country they had fought only twenty years before and so were used to seeing it as the enemy. They were fighting something external, something foreign. This is significant—the best enemies have a face and are from somewhere else. In contrast, climate change is hard to personify and is something for which we ultimately have only ourselves to blame. There’s no enemy to rally against, even though we try. And then they point to the invasion of Poland—that we haven’t had an equivalent event on climate change or sustainability.
But on closer inspection, while there are some real differences, there are not as many as you might think, and there are many lessons and great encouragement in that experience. In fact, our response to Hitler is the classic example of slow, but not stupid; of late, but dramatic.
While everyone talks about the invasion of Poland as the trigger, the reality is that Hitler represented a severe and clear threat to other European powers much earlier. Hitler had launched a massive rearmament effort soon after installing himself as chancellor in 1933. He had violated the hated Versailles Treaty and remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, a clear provocation to the French. He had annexed Austria in 1938 and launched a full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. All this time, there was great debate and denial about the scale of the threat. It wasn’t until the takeover of a third country, with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, that war was declared. While the year before had seen increasingly serious mobilization efforts by Great Britain, appeasement continued for much longer than a rational response would have allowed.
In short, on the objective facts, Hitler represented a clear and undeniable threat long before action was taken to defeat him. Famously, Churchill and others had long warned of this threat and been largely ignored or even ridiculed. Society remained in denial, preferring not to recognize the threat. This was because denial avoided full acceptance and what that meant—war and a strong change to the status quo. Yet once they did, once denial ended, the response was swift and dramatic. Things changed almost overnight.
Without the benefit of a retrospective view, it would be much harder to predict when exactly the denial of Hitler’s threat would end. So it’s also hard to predict when the moment will come on climate, even though in hindsight, it will be “obvious.”
It’s the right comparison. We’ve had a rational and clear threat for a long time. We’ve had the Churchills arguing that case for twenty or more years and ignored them. We’ve had the false progress comparable to Neville Chamberlain’s agreements for peace, such as the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. We have preferred to stay in denial. While this has been distressing for people in full acceptance, if we looked at history, it was predictable it would be this way. Looking at history, we can also conclude this, though: It will change. The dam will break, and then look out for the flood.
But a word of caution. Just as denial and pessimism can prevent action, ironically so can unstrategic optimism. If we sit back and passively wait for the dam to break, it will at the very least delay that day. Instead we have to choose active, engaged, and strategic hope.
I suspect that right about now you are looking forward to getting past this point in the book. You’d like to leave behind the endlessly detailed descriptions of the mess we are in and how much worse it’s going to get. You don’t want to read any more about the risk of collapse and the descent into chaos, and you’d like to take your mind off what all this means for you and your family.
Well, I have some very good news for you. You have just reached, right here in this sentence, the emotional low point of our story! From here on we shift into hope. Hope that is logical, uplifting, and a far superior place in which to live than that town called despair.
Hope is not a question of personal philosophy. In the face of uncertainty, operating from a stance of hope is a strategic and practical response. It is a way of approaching the world. As environmental writer Professor David Orr said of it, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”
This could actually be one of the most important and strategic shifts the millions of advocates for action on sustainability now need to make. It could itself be the tipping point that brings on the Great Awakening.
This is a serious political strategy issue. Leaders and movements that painted a picture of hope, even in the face of deeply challenging circumstances, have driven all the great positive changes in history. Gandhi, Mandela, King, and Churchill all told a story of hope for the future despite the desperate conditions around them. Each held different levels of personal spiritual alignment with this position of hope, but they were all united in their strategic pragmatism. Hope works.
Martin Luther King’s famous speech was not “I have a nightmare based on the evidence of racism all around me every day and the inability of people to change,” it was “I have a dream.” Nelson Mandela faced a country that was on the verge of collapse and chaos, with devastating violence between blacks and a ruthless white government that had been fighting change with military force for decades with the support of the white population. Despite having been imprisoned for decades, he drew on the best of humanity in himself and called on all the people of South Africa to aspire to a united country. By doing so, he achieved one of the most extraordinary transformations in history. With the slogan “Freedom in our lifetime,” the African National Congress also projected this hope as practical, relevant, and worth fighting for.
I visit South Africa frequently, closing the circle on some of my earliest activism, and am always surprised how that country has changed since the end of apartheid. Whereas many argued change was impossible, the reality is that for all its challenges, a multiracial society is now the new normal—no one can imagine the world that was.
Perhaps an even more powerful example is Winston Churchill. A so-called realistic assessment of Great Britain’s position at various stages during the war was that their position was hopeless and occupation by Germany inevitable. Churchill is of course famous for having suffered dreadful personal depression—indeed, some even argue that the practical situation he faced was so obviously hopeless that only a slightly unhinged man would hold out hope! In one analysis, psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued about Churchill:
Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.4
Despite the situation he faced and his personal challenges, Churchill led his country with a rallying cry of hope and certain victory while bombs fell around him. Of course, he is now seen as one of the great leaders of history.
On a practical, strategic level, navigating the crisis ahead while driving the economic and social transformation we need is going to require a great deal of such leadership. No one is likely to follow leaders or movements whose message is “the situation is hopeless and all is lost, but we may as well make a bit of effort on the way down”! Of course, not many campaigners are actually saying that, but if they feel it, even subconsciously, they risk projecting this into their work.
And let us remember that this is not like the situation Churchill faced, which was “realistically” hopeless. As we have outlined earlier and will return to in some detail, there is a rational argument that the future we wish for can be achieved—if we decide to pursue it. We know what we need to do, and we know how to do it. So we are completely capable of success.
So before we conclude this issue, I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. It is tragic that this will all occur without good reason and that we could have easily prevented it all.
I have even at various times felt a huge sense of personal failure as an environmental campaigner. Failure that my movement and my life’s work has been unable to prevent this from occurring, despite the fact that millions of us could see it coming. I have felt anger in response and wanted to go back to campaigning so I could beat up on the companies like ExxonMobil that I think have done the most to derail efforts to address these issues. But in the end, I realize this is all just a projection of my sadness.
It is all very sad, and that was why I cried when presenting to that audience in New York. It was why Michelle and I cried when I recounted the story. However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.
One thing I have learned since understanding all this is that hope is self-reinforcing. If I focus on the Crash, I feel sad; if I focus on the opportunity, I feel good. If I live my days in hope, I am a happier person, and my wife tells me I’m a whole lot easier to live with! So it’s a quality-of-life question as well as a good political strategy. And as I’ve argued, it’s also a rational conclusion—the dam is about to break.
Given the challenges ahead, the choice to be optimistic is perhaps the most important and most political choice an individual can make. Once each of us has made that choice individually, it’s up to all of us to go out and help others make that choice as well. The timing remains crucial on this issue. The sooner the shift comes, the more options we will have on the table and the less pain we will ultimately have to endure. So get out there, roll up your sleeves, and live in hope.
Be realistic, be a Churchill, and demand the impossible.