My personal psychology of despair, part 1: Intro and background
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. . . .
However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.
- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113
Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.
The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:
- Sheer inertia/habit.
- Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
- Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
- Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
- Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)
The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.
Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.
But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.
In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.