Opinionista Peter Willis 29 October 2019

Playing the climate crisis movie over and over in our heads — and never knowing the ending

We are right to feel anxious about the trend in our planet’s climate. If it continues unabated, civilisation will become very hard to sustain. Rolling the video on a little further, humanity as we know it might even die out entirely.

A member of my family in her mid-20s recently asked me via email:

As an expert on sustainability, can you give me any tips on how to deal with climate change anxiety?” What I sent her was the following. She has given her permission for me to share it here.

Your question about how to deal with climate anxiety is an interesting and profound one. Some of the ways I think about it are as follows:

We are right to feel anxious about the trend in our planet’s climate. If it continues unabated, civilisation will become very hard to sustain. Rolling the video on a little further, humanity as we know it might even die out entirely. Over exactly what time period we don’t know, but we suspect it could be within a lifespan or three or five.

Given that our civilisation has been built, especially over the last few centuries, on the assumption that progress was not only possible and very desirable, but also inevitable, the climate crash feels like a massive jamming on of our species’ brakes. Yet nobody consciously jammed on the brakes. The entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers who started the Industrial Revolution didn’t do it to poison the atmosphere or the Earth. I don’t believe there is really anyone to blame. (That said, I believe fossil fuel companies and their enablers have some responsibility for trying to accelerate the car just as we hit the ice.)

Indeed, I find blame too often over-valued. Casting a more compassionate eye back over human history, our collective will to progress seems to have been undermined less by individual acts of sabotage or evil than by our collective ignorance of the way the world actually works. We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know and so have been very slow to develop the necessary degree of humility in the face of the vast, complex natural systems upon which we depend for our increasingly sophisticated existence.

So we are where we are. One would wish it were otherwise, and there’s perhaps some good to be gained from hoping it will turn out otherwise in the future. But I also think there is real value in squaring up to — even embracing — these two parallel truths:

1. We may well fail: We may be participating in the downward journey of our race towards extinction, where progress has long gone into reverse and hope is finally laid to rest.

2. We just don’t know: There is so much we don’t know. Probably what we don’t know includes some of the most important things we could know, things that could make all the difference. So there is literally no telling how this story will end… if it ever does.

I find the first deeply sobering yet also calming, and not as scary as one might at first think. Facing up to our mortality is actually refreshing, because it re-connects us with the largest available truth, which is that all of life begins and ends in its absence, and that provides us our definition as well as our fate. Once we absorb this, it becomes truly astonishing to observe how much our civilisation and its cultures depend on the denial of death.

The second also comes as some form of relief, as it absolves me from having to run those dire doomsday scenarios in the “home cinema” of my imagination. How can I possibly know which movie to select? Am I somehow clairvoyant that I can see how the disasters will unfold? You will know, as I do from long experience, how disabling those inner movies are, and how they depend on a very slender batch of assumptions which, if held up to the light, look speculative and feel flimsy. Instead, I say to myself “Who knows?” I don’t deny what the scientists are finding and telling us — I try to keep abreast — but I’ve become so in awe of the unknowableness of the whole of our reality that I find humility and a reluctance to fantasise specific movie stories for our future come quite easily nowadays.

You might know that for the past 18 months I’ve been developing a project to capture the learnings out of the near-catastrophic drought that hit Cape Town 2015-18. We and most other cities worldwide will meet such crises more and more frequently in the future, so I thought we might as well wise up and become good at this kind of thing. I mention this because, in the process of interviewing on camera dozens of people about the way they responded to the drought and what they learnt, it’s become clear that we all just had an intimate encounter with climate change.

We had to confront exactly one of those movie scripts, where people suddenly have to scramble for too little fresh water and who knows what becomes of us as social beings under mortal threat. I believe at some stage in the crisis every single Capetonian (about four million of us) felt real anxiety or fear about what could happen if the movie rolled on and the script took its darkest turn.

And what did we do? We didn’t strap ourselves into our cinema seats and sit there, waiting to see how the tragedy unfolded. Overwhelmingly, we got busy. We found ways to radically reduce our household consumption, hundreds of ingenious ways, small and large scale. It was a fascinating challenge and in some middle-class areas consumption fell to just 20% of pre-drought levels. No expert could have predicted people could and would do that.

At the same time, we started to check how our neighbours were faring and who might need help if water had to be collected from standpipes in long queues. This was empowering and reminded us of both our humanity and our ingenuity when backs are to the wall.

I’m not the only Capetonian who feels privileged to have undergone this experience. We came close enough to a disaster that we were literally counting the days, but we came through and nobody died. What I learnt is that, when danger threatens, we humans are much less likely to crumble than our worst movie scripts would have us believe, and in fact, we may well discover aspects of our nature that astonish and delight.

For some reason, our species does well when its back is to the wall. Lights go on that were not on the wiring diagram, the impossible becomes possible. Our climate anxiety may be our individual experience of humanity collectively wedging itself up against the wall. What happens next is guaranteed to be fascinating and I’m deeply glad that you and I are going to be part of finding out what it is. DM


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