Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

Any lingering sense, however slight, that humanity could shake itself from its collective somnambulation in time to arrest the coming twin ecological and resource catastrophes was finally snuffed out this month in Durban.

Here, the nations of the world in essence agreed to defer commencing discussions to frame a roadmap leading to some more discussions that would begin as a matter of the greatest urgency…sometime in the next seven or eight years. Unless of course there is a Republican back in the White House in the coming years, or the Chinese, Indians or Indonesians decide that Kyoto, or son-of-Kyoto is definitely not for ‘developing’ nations.

And on and on the farce goes. Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent explained earlier today that “Kyoto is not the path forward for a global solution for climate change’”. The alternate path proposed by the right-wing government led by Stephen Harper is to ape the Bush-era US position of making vague promises about future commitments, then walking away when these mean actually confronting the issue of limiting carbon emissions.

Canada has had an extraordinary backwards voyage over the last decade or so, from being vocal proponents of strong actions to limit climate-wrecking carbon emissions to joining the ranks of the energy industry’s most vociferous glove puppets.

What changed Canada so utterly was its decision to intensively exploit the massive Athabasca tar sands for oil production. This at a stroke made Canada global player in the energy market, with proven reserves of ‘unconventional’ (i.e. incredibly filthy) oil greater than Saudi Arabia. The IEA estimates Canada to have 178 billion barrels of recoverable oil buried beneath over 140,000 sq km of once-pristine boreal forests and peat bogs. All the wishful thinking and earnest diplomacy in the world will not alter the simple fact that this oil will be extracted and it will be burned, and let the devil take the hindmost.

The reason I labour the obvious is this: the time for optimism has passed. In truth, that light did not go out in Durban; it has in fact been in a death spiral for decades. It’s almost 20 years since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The 27 Principles enunciated in the ‘Rio Declaration’ and signed up to by the nations of the world read, in hindsight, like an elaborate prank. Sustainable development, ecosystem protection, poverty eradication, compensation for victims of pollution… the list goes on and on.

The section dealing with the precautionary principle is worth repeating (Principle 15): “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

I nearly skipped past Principle 8: “To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies”.

If you harbour any remaining doubt as to the capacity of the world’s political leadership to talk pious claptrap, even in the face of imminent disaster, the Rio Declaration is as good a place as any to revisit.

“When faced with a predicament, seeking a solution isn’t just a useless thing to do; it is the wrong thing to do”. So argues Chris Martenson, author of ‘The Crash Course’. “Critical time and resources should be devoted to managing the outcome, not trying to do the impossible…by failing to appreciate the nature of our collective predicament, we place ourselves at greater risk, because the longer we dither, less time and fewer options remain”.

Lest this sounds defeatist, let me put it in an oh-so-familiar analogy: you’re on a luxury liner in mid-ocean. It hits a large object, and is badly damaged, but remains afloat, though there are reports of some flooding in the distant lower decks. The ashen-faced chief engineer reports that the ship will in fact sink, even though it may take several hours.

He is rounded on by the drunken financiers and economists at the bar. “Look around you, man, everything’s fine. This ship is too big to fail. Besides, what if you’re wrong, and you frighten all these good people for nothing. Besides, it’s bloody freezing outside, and I’ll be dammed if you think I’m getting into one of those rickety lifeboats…”

To save lives, they must abandon ship. To save lives, we must first abandon hope, for it is hope that is the enemy of resolve, holding out the chimera of ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ fixes to a fathomless predicament we have, clinging to the guard rails of hope, mistaken for a series of manageable problems.

If only. If only most economists weren’t ideologically blinkered morons (“anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” – Kenneth Boulding, 1933).

If only governments didn’t consist of spineless politicians badly advised by careerist civil servants and beholden to special interest groups and corporate cash. If only gross income inequality wasn’t so especially toxic to society (“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics” – Plutarch (46-120 CE).

“It could be said that we (in the developed world) all live like kings, but truthfully, even the wealthiest king of times past couldn’t click on a link, order an item made halfway around the world and have it in his hands the next day”, writes Martenson. “That ability is something the ancient Greeks would have recognised as the power of a god, and so it is”.

The folks at Feasta, the Dublin-based foundation for the economics of sustainability draw their analogy not from Greek but rather ancient Roman tragedy. The fruits of much of their recent labour have been drawn together in a powerful volume entitled ‘Fleeing Vesuvius – overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse’.

The Vesuvius analogy is apt. The volume would have sounded rather odd if instead it were titled: ‘Stopping Vesuvius Erupting In the First Place’, since any rational analysis would quickly realise the folly of such an undertaking. And so it is with industrial civilisation. We cannot alter its trajectory in any meaningful way. We can however, make some pretty accurate estimates about that trajectory, if we choose to be guided by the abundant available scientific knowledge.

I wrote about a Feasta paper, ‘Tipping Points’ in the Irish Times in April 2010 and found myself quite convinced by author David Korowicz (his chapter on energy in ‘Vesuvius’ is equally compelling). As I read and re-read ‘Crash Course’, Korowicz’s words about industrial civilisation being propelled along by an ever-expanding consumption of readily available, easily affordable high grade (i.e. fossil) energy were ringing in my ears.

What both sources have in common is the belief that the unravelling of our wholly unsustainable exponential debt-based global economic system is likely to be the trigger factor that sets of the shock waves of cascading failures that ripple, then tear apart, the fabric of a system that is both unknowably complex and self-organising.

“What we now require is rapid emergency planning coupled with a plan for longer term adaptation,” counsels Korowicz. It has been one hell of a ride, but the fact remains that this pleasure cruise is over. It’s time to let go of the comfort blanket of false hope and instead make our way, with great reluctance and resolve, towards the lifeboats, while there is still some time, and while relative calm still prevails.

Adjusting to this predicament is counterintuitive; the temptation to continue trying to wish and will this away is overwhelming but, as I’ve argued here, both unhelpful and futile. Once you accept that the coming storm cannot be headed off, then you start planning to seek shelter and learn to survive the storm and its aftermath, in the best way you can, ideally in the company of other ‘early accepters’.

The fact that I desperately want to be wrong about all this only reinforces my conviction that no, this is indeed how it is. Psychologist John Sharry, also writing in Vesuvius, put it thus: “when we consider the scale of the problems we face, it is easy to retreat into denial or wishful thinking or feel despair, helplessness or hopelessness about change”.

Sharry offers us ‘the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’ in confronting what lies ahead. It’s not a bad way of squaring up otherwise crippling contradictions. “When we take collective, concrete and constructive action, in the process we generate hope and a sense of movement and possibility.” This can also, Sharry concludes, “counterbalance the cynicism, despair and inaction that could hobble the next generation”.

The hour is late, the road ahead unmapped and uncertain. Let us begin.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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11 Responses to Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

  1. Eric Conroy says:

    Passionate words indeed John. Like you, I despair of whether we are ever going to sort climate change. Durban was dreadful in planning to agreeing to emissions cuts from 2020 – this is NINE years away! Many experts, including the conservative IEA have said that we have a short window of c. 5 years to do something seriously about reducing emissions.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Eric, after 4+ years banging the drum to the same (“we must fix this – urgently”) tune, guess I’m finally getting my head around the fact that we can’t, or more precisely, we absolutely won’t even attempt to arrest this crisis. Once you truly accept that, a change in tactics is demanded. Lobbying for change, demanding renewables, nuclear, etc., anything to arrest CO2 production still makes sense, but suddenly, it’s less central.

    People have, if they care to look, more than enough evidence to understand the issue, and what needs to be done. Giving them more information, more arguments runs you into the law of diminishing returns. Also, we each have free will, and perhaps our fate is ultimately one of the limits of free choice.

    But back in the here and now, Plan A (persuade, lobby, cajole, agitate for change) is stuffed, so time for Plan B: realising and accepting that all the scenarios we’ve been warned and warning about are in fact coming right down the line, and preparing ourselves, mentally as well as practically, to brace for impact.

  3. Gerard Siero says:

    Agree 100%.
    Emissions are accelerating, as are overfishing, forest clearing, habitat losses, desertification, and the divide between the wealthy and the corporations and governments they own and ordinary folk, who have, by and large, been disenfranchised and enslaved in everything but name.
    Move to somewhere 60 metres above sea level, so when run away climate change causes Antarctica’s 4 kilometres of ice to melt, you still have somewhere to be… If, that is, you and/or your children/family/community have survived the coming climate and resource wars. (In the East Congo this scenario is already playing out.)
    As to the deniers, I am reminded of Bill Cosby’s Noah: hint: “How long can you tread water?”

  4. Thatcher says:

    About time too, if I may say so John. All this flailing around for ‘solutions’ is a sorry joke. Reading what you wrote about the Earth Summit in Rio in ’92 is actually nearly funny. When we’re up to our waists in water, the politicians will be still telling us that just a iddly biddly bit more growth, and shazoom! the waters will magically recede and all will be well in the world. I often wondered about the choice of title of this blog, but now I see where you’re off to with it. Time to abandon foolish optimism and get ready for the long slog ahead. Damn, but I really, really like some of the stuff our otherwise fecked globalized civilisation has come up with – iPads, TV with live pause, clean running water, hot showers, child vaccination, damn, we’re gonna miss a lot of this something awful

  5. seafóid says:

    Permagrowth and Götterdämmerung

    Speer lectures on the ‘armaments miracle’, June 1944

  6. seafóid says:

    “What both sources have in common is the belief that the unravelling of our wholly unsustainable exponential debt-based global economic system is likely to be the trigger factor that sets of the shock waves of cascading failures that ripple, then tear apart, the fabric of a system that is both unknowably complex and self-organising.”

    One of the things about the West is that it has been on a roll for the last 600 years. Even defeated countries like Germany could get back on the wagon reasonably quickly. There was never really any lapse back into a dark age during this time.

    Anyone who thinks it will always be thus should go to Isfahan

    “The Safavids, who ruled Persia and the adjoining lands between 1501 and the 1730s, made Shiism the state religion. According to Dabashi they succeeded in integrating the mystical and practical dimensions of Islam on Shiite foundations while maintaining a philosophical approach consonant with the idea of God as the cosmic intellect or ultimate consciousness. Dabashi sees the architectural splendor of Isfahan, the Safavid capital, as the material expression of an intellectual spirit comparable to that achieved by Western Christendom on the eve of the Enlightenment. For him the magnificent piazza known as the Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World Square) corresponds to Immanuel Kant’s vision of a vast and vital public space. It opened the way for “reason to become public, for intellect to leave the royal courts and the sanctity of mosques alike and to enter and face the urban polity of a whole new conception of a people.”

    Tragically, in Dabashi’s view, the Safavid vision of the public space as a forum for reasoned discourse succumbed to the “hungry wolves” of Afghan invaders, imperial rivalries between Russians and Ottomans, and the colonial machinations of the French and British. Internal forces of dissolution also played their part, with raw tribalism replacing the vigorous cosmopolitan public culture the Safavids had striven to create. By the end of the eighteenth century Shiite Iran had returned to forms of tribal governance, along with a restored religious scholasticism.”

  7. Theresa Carter says:

    “The hour is late, the road ahead unmapped and uncertain. Let us begin.”

    I agree completely 🙂

    I have lost a massive weight off my shoulder since I resigned myself to the fact that it’s time to prepare – all the toil of prevention is done away with. My head hurts from all those brick walls!

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Welcome aboard the Good Ship of No Hope – it’s a bumpy ride, alright, the rations aren’t great and the accommodation is far from plush but still, it’s a lot more watertight than the Ship of Fools we’ve just abandoned.

    You’re absolutely right, it is an enormous relief to abandon that feeling of personal responsibility for sorting out this almighty mess – if only we got the messaging right, if only the media would listen, if only economists weren’t so foolish, if only people gave a damn about the natural world and the right of other life forms to co-exist, etc etc. This ‘if-only’ turns out to be an exquisite form of self-flagellation, exclusively engaged in by the <1%, while the >99% don’t know and don’t want to know and will curse anyone who tries to tell them.

    What’s left, for me anyhow, is to cherish and enjoy today, take nothing for granted, live in the present and expect little of the future. As to how us Cassandras can manage not to be entirely haunted and paralyzed by the spectre of looming systemic collapse, well, I’m still working on that one! Meanwhile, what can we do but enjoy Xmas like it’s our last…

  9. seafóid says:

    It goes against our nature; but the left has to start asserting its own values
    The progressive attempt to appeal to self-interest has been a catastrophe. Empathy, not expediency, must drive our campaigns
    o George Monbiot
    o, Monday 11 October 2010 20.59 BST
    o Article history
    So here we are, forming an orderly queue at the slaughterhouse gate. The punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides: apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.
    The acceptance of policies that counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st century. In the US blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?
    The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. Common Cause, written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology. It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight that now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.
    Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.
    A host of psychological experiments demonstrate that it doesn’t work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information that confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.
    Our social identity is shaped by values that psychologists classify as extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs that transcend their self-interest.
    Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic. Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster in remarkably consistent patterns. Those who strongly value financial success, for example, have less VS empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment. Those with a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment. These values suppress each other: the stronger someone’s extrinsic aspirations, the weaker his or her intrinsic goals.
    We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the social environment. By changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable, politics alters our minds as much as our circumstances. Free, universal healthcare, for example, tends to reinforce intrinsic values. Shutting the poor out of it normalises inequality, reinforcing extrinsic values. The rightward shift that began with Thatcher and persisted under Blair and Brown, whose governments emphasised the virtues of competition, the market and financial success, has changed our values. The British Social Attitudes survey shows a sharp fall over this period in public support for policies that redistribute wealth and opportunity.
    This shift has been reinforced by advertising and the media. Their fascination with power politics, their rich lists, their catalogues of the 100 most powerful, influential, intelligent or beautiful people, their obsessive promotion of celebrity, fashion, fast cars, expensive holidays: all inculcate extrinsic values. By generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy –which means reducing self-acceptance –they also suppress intrinsic goals.
    Advertisers, who employ plenty of psychologists, are well aware of this. Crompton quotes Guy Murphy, global planning director for JWT: marketers “should see themselves as trying to manipulate culture; being social engineers, not brand managers; manipulating cultural forces, not brand impressions”. The more they foster extrinsic values, the easier it is to sell products. Rightwing politicians have also, instinctively, understood the importance of values in changing the political map. Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul”.
    Conservatives in the US generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response has been disastrous.
    Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once progressive parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to middle England, often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values. Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.
    Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces –particularly the advertising industry –that make us insecure and selfish.
    Ed Miliband appears to understand this need. He told the Labour conference that he “wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work” and “wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances …We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line”. But there’s a paradox here, which means that we cannot rely on politicians to drive these changes. Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship –even brotherly love.
    So we must lead this shift ourselves. People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.

  10. ahimsa says:


    You might find William Kötke’s book an interesting read:
    The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilisation and the Seed of the Future

    Broad scope, working from circa 5000b.c.e, traces the unsustainability(topsoil, water, fuel, etc) of civilisations and their empires.

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