Climate Existentialism



Today the IPCC came out with “A Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming a 1.5C”  Essentially, it outlines how bad things will get as the Earth’s climate increases to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels but also how much worse things will get if the Earth warms to 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Many commentators have pointed our how herculean the task before us is.  We have approximately 12 years to fundamentally reshape our energy consumption practices and economic system to avert possible civilizational collapse.  To add insult to injury, reactionary political movements are gaining ground around the world (including, obviously, the U.S) at precisely the time we need to engage in a complete overhaul of our political and economic systems.  Needless to say, one cannot help but feel despair in moments like this

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This is climate existentialism.  A type of despair driven by seeing the enormous task ahead of us which is compounded by a not insignificant minority of powerful people around the world either deny its happening, don’t care that its happening, or are working to accelerate it.  But just like Sisyphus we have no choice but to keep rolling the boulder up the hill.

So how do we engage in a possibly — but not probably — winnable struggle within a rigged system against great odds, the ultimate results of which we’ll never see? Forget success, how do we even get out of bed in the morning?

We could order in Chinese and lock ourselves in the closet, but we shouldn’t. Because there’s good news: We’re perfect for the job. If the human species specializes in one thing, it’s taking on the impossible.

We are constitutionally equipped to understand this situation. We are, after all, mortal, and so our very existence is a fight against inevitable demise. We also have experience: The wicked challenges we’ve faced through the ages have often been seemingly insurmountable. The Black Death killed off at least a third of Europe in its time. World War II claimed 50 million lives. We won those battles — sort of. We’ve spent our time as Homo sapiens fighting what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.”


Such an approach will require dropping the American focus on destination over journey, and releasing the concepts of “winning” and “winners,” at least in the short term. As the journalist I.F. Stone was said to have explained: “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.” He added: “You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.” Or as Camus put it: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The only thing we can do is try.  Even if we know that won’t be enough

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