Climate Doom? Apocalyptic Optimism? Climate Change Catastrophe? Hope!

A couple of articles recently caught my eye, probably because I keep an eye out for Doomer-talk, which I think is at best an unhelpful surrender of hope for addressing the climate crisis. At worst, doomers reflect our fractured culture, wittingly or not succumbing to the preferences of those in power, which is that most of us do nothing more than carry on as consumers. At worst, the doomer mentality supports the “buy until you die” mentality of the short-term profit business perspectives that have gotten us in trouble in the first place.

On April 21, 2024, in The New York Times, Alexis Soloski published “Climate Doom Is Out. ‘Apocalyptic Optimism’ Is In.” The tagline pretty much sums up the piece: “Focusing on disaster hasn’t changed the planet’s trajectory. Will a more upbeat approach show a way forward?”

The article introduces philanthropist Kathryn Murdoch, a person who understands the life-threatening challenges of the world too far gone because of climate change, which is why, presumably, she, as Soloski mentions, “has prioritized donations to environmental causes for more than a decade.” Murdoch also says, “We have been screaming, but screaming only gets you so far.” Murdoch and Ari Wallach, an author, producer and futurist, had just released their new PBS docuseries, “A Brief History of the Future,” a series that Soloski describes as “mellow, hopeful, even dreamy.”

Soloski goes on to list other books and shows that also present portraits of “a world in the throes—or just past the throes—of [what] global catastrophe might look like,” but from the perspective of climate optimism, not climate fatalism. These works include Hannah Ritchie’s Not the End of the World: How We Can be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, Life as We Know It (Can Be), the book by CNN’s chief climate correspondent Bill Weir, and Dana R. Fisher’s Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action.

These works are hardly monolithic but do share the message that either things aren’t as bad as some say, mainly because there are those already at work to counter the climate crisis, and/or that solving the bad things will have positive outcomes for a new human culture. Rejecting doom is another common characteristic. Soloski quotes Ritchie: “There’s been a really rapid shift in the narrative, from almost complete denial to, Oh, it’s too late now, there’s nothing we can do, we should just stop trying.” Ritchie posits “that optimism, however qualified or hard-won, may be what finally moves us to action,” although Soloski cites Jeff Goodell’s The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, which ends up suggesting that fixes are less likely than is our learning to live in the climate changed world. Optimism, like people, come in many forms. Soloski reports that the goal for “A Brief History of the Future” is to focus less on the problems and more on those helping address the problems “in classic Mr. Rogers style.”

Anytime someone references Mr. Rogers, consider me all in.

Still, I worry about Ritchie’s book, which she “deliberately wanted to make… a very nonpartisan book,” which is all well and good and a bit like one of the guiding principles of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, one of my associations for climate activism. To be honest, I’m not sure political party of cultural affiliation or lack thereof makes much sense, especially if the partisan addressing the climate crisis is very much someone I’m happy to embrace. Murdoch’s series, like Ritchie’s book, is also inclusive across the political spectrum, and Murdoch is quoted in the article as saying, “If we’re going to get there, we need everybody, [so] part of this is to try to not have it be about politics, but really to be about the future.”

Um, what?

Not to get all partisan and shit, but I’m with Al Gore when he calls Big Oil an enemy of the people and declares that these entities should not be seated at the solutions table.

I’m more in line with Fisher’s book, which, as she describes it, is a “data driven manifesto” that suggests mass protests and political movements push for the laws that support the transition to clean energy. This is a classic “people power” perspective, and that possibility is cause enough for some optimism, even in the face of the growing exposure to  apocalypse-like experiences for more and more people. Fischer is quoted saying, “The whole point of apocalyptic optimism is being optimistic in a way that actually helps get us somewhere, It’s not shiny and rosy and like cotton candy. It’s a bitter pill. But here we are and we can still do something” to avoid the worst ravages of climate change.

So, yeah, I try to practice apocalyptic optimism.

Naomi Chava, on April 1, 2024, published on Medium, “Climate Change Catastrophe: The Harsh Reality Behind the Apocalyptic Rhetoric.” She starts by recapping a recent climate action by Extinction Rebellion NYC, when they disrupted a Broadway play (Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” and no, this was not an April Fools bit), with a climate change teach-in.

Chava’s main point is that language counts and what we say and how we say things matters. What matters, when apocalyptic language is used, is that such language may prove less effective. Her starting point is drawing the distinction between doomsday predictions of a “dead planet” and the more accurate phrase “suffering planet.” “It’s a bleak picture,” she says. “[B]ut it’s the reality we’re facing. And while wealthy people in affluent countries may remain insulated from these effects for a while, the truth is, no one is immune to the consequences of a suffering planet.”

The danger she sees in the use of apocalyptic language is when “dramatized claims that fail to manifest only undermine the movement’s credibility.” This is, in effect, the “crying wolf” problem. I’m not sure how real a problem this is, considering the scientific consensus on climate change consequences, but she has a point on the power of language, whether in terms of fostering hopelessness or in other ways that may inadvertently forestall progress. “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” is probably not the most efficacious rhetoric to engender political action.

What Chava is suggesting is simple enough, but bears repeating, which is that the climate crisis should be addressed with empathy, relatability, humor, and hope:

For starters, we need to tap into empathy and relatability. Instead of talking about a “dead planet,” let’s talk about the real-life impacts that climate change is already having on communities around the world. Let’s tell stories about the families who have lost their homes due to rising sea levels, the farmers whose crops have been decimated by drought, and the children whose health has been compromised by air pollution.

She knows that the truth of climate change is more frightening when a personal sense of the threat is real, and that stories “connect us on a human level, to make us feel and empathize” is what better inspires action toward a world where future generations not just survive, but thrive.

That’s certainly more likely to get me out of bed in the morning to think and act to make the future world better for my granddaughter and all the others.

The whole point of apocalyptic optimism is to understand that the future is not yet written and that despite the sobering prognostications of real science, we all have the potential of our actions to affect that future.

Just this morning in my inbox, the Medium Digest listed Dr. Pine’s article from The New Climate, with the title: “What if Climate Change Predictions Don’t Come True?”  The tagline says it all: “Scientists do not publish their predictions to prove them right but to encourage us to take action to prove them wrong.”

Here’s another key quote: “In essence, ringing the alarm is not about hoping to be proven right; it’s about spurring action to turn these predictions wrong.”

Best of all, perhaps, is the reprinting of Joel Pett’s famous cartoon (look it up on Wikipedia)  that shows a speaker at a climate summit, with a slide up on screen listing the benefits of curbing climate change, with bullet points such as “energy independence, preserving rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water/air, healthy children, etc., etc.,” only to have this question from the audience: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Well, I say, not for nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *