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So the realism of transformation is ambitious. If hope informed by it can envisage a rapid and dramatic shift in the perception by individuals of their agency and motivations, in relation to their whole Earth-systemic context, that shift could also by extension transform the pressures shaping action by groups and collectives all the way up to the nation state and the international order. This means we are to hope for nothing less than a new kind of movement for change, establishing itself with astonishing speed through all the new forms of connectivity now available – a movement of deliberate and emphatic individual acceptance of responsibility for the wider biospheric life which is now threatened. How such a movement might be brought sufficiently swiftly into being, through what activities of consciousness-raising and mobilization coupled with the impacts of which unignorably climate-driven disasters, is an open-ended matter. So are the expressive forms which it might take, and the drastic political changes which it will demand. Empirically, none of that is remotely credible. Practically, we have no option left but to hope against hope that it could yet happen. That means believing what the previous chapters have tried to set out the warrant for believing: that the hope which we must invest counter-empirically in bringing transformation about can genuinely create the possibility of our becoming the life-responsible agents of its happening.
Counter-empirical hope, however, remains hope: desire for a valued outcome under the sign of contingency.
The account given in Chapter 5 of the underlying human condition as tragic arms us against the temptations of an irresponsible utopianism, but it also leads us towards a better grasp of the climate crisis. Certainly, if we are now urgently compelled to bring hope against hope to bear on that crisis, and such hope must be provided with a standing defence against those temptations if it is to do the proper work of hope instead of lapsing into wilful escapism, then a recognition of the tragic as central to human experience must be vital to that hope’s defeasibility. Such recognition can also, however, give us important insights into the actual structure of our climate plight, which itself exhibits the characteristic tragic feature of life-energy coming into inevitable self-conflict.
A pattern of key strengths bringing with them exposure to destructive forces, which represented our initial scoping of the tragic, is indeed readily identifiable in the aetiology of climate emergency. The secular and instrumentally rational Enlightenment spirit which has produced so much worthwhile life-improvement across the world has also generated an apparent inability to rein in the relevant activities before they do irreversible harm. Distinctive human capacities which Western civilization in particular has realized – to make rational deliberated choices, to base belief on evidence and empirical testing, to free ourselves from ignorance, superstition and dogma – have been accompanied in their development by the striving for mastery and control which has betrayed us into doing decisive eco-systemic damage.
I have been exploring a particular kind of hope, specifically called forth by our current climate and ecological plight. That hope is addressed to ways in which the life-threatening scenario now looming for humanity and the biosphere might nevertheless still be prevented from unfolding at its most drastic. In the course of the discussion so far I have characterized it in two different ways – as life-hope in the Introduction and first chapter, and as counter-empirical hope in the second. Each of these terms represents a distinct perspective on the nature of this literally vital force.
Life-hope characterizes the hope which we need from the perspective of its natural relation to the instinctual drive of life-energy in human beings. Thought of in this way, such hope is an expression of that drive as it comes to consciousness in a reflective creature endowed with language and reason and aware both of its individual future, and of its involvement in species-continuity through the lives of its descendants. It arises unprompted in the ordinarily robust, healthy individual. As such, it can manifest itself – as frequently in art – in the form simply of an eager openness to the vibrancy of ongoing life, taking no intentional object. But, as brought to bear on the actualities of our present plight, it spontaneously invests itself in the indefinite sustainability of a sufficiently flourishing human life.
When such hope is characterized as counter-empirical, however, that is to attend to it from an epistemic perspective. We thereby foreground its ultimate independence of whatever we might have learnt from experience about the scope and tenacity of the obstacles which it confronts and the possibilities of adequate action to remove or circumvent them.
The condition of realism, as I stated it in the Introduction, was that hope must address itself to a real chance of the hoped-for event’s coming to pass. But what counts as a real chance? Here, already, we need to embark on some conceptual clarification.
The odds are apparently about a million to one, for instance, against your being struck by lightning in any given year. Is there, nevertheless, a real chance that this will happen to you? There is a sense in which that assertion of the odds itself constitutes an affirmative answer: yes, indeed, there really is such a chance, although it is a very, very slim one because misfortunes of this nature occur extremely rarely – only about one time in a million when you are out and about, to be more precise. But then, in that sense, the condition of realism would be met by any case where what one was hoping for wasn’t something literally impossible, such as travelling back in time, however overwhelming one judged the odds against its happening to be – and that is plainly not what we intend when we recognize that hope has to be realistic to do its proper work.
Instead, we mean ‘realistic’ here in the sense in which it would be unrealistic to frame one’s New Year resolutions, holiday arrangements and so forth on the basis that one might on any day in the coming twelve months be taken out by lightning – just as it would be still less realistic to erect such life-plans on the firm assumption that one will this year win millions on the Lottery.
The possibility of hope is now the central question of our time. That is because it is crucial to the climate crisis, which is our time’s overwhelmingly urgent challenge.
Much else is pressing: poverty, hunger, war and threats of war, unravelling international institutions, clashing religious fundamentalisms, cyber-security, the dark web, deep uncertainties around sexuality and identity … the list goes on. This is altogether the most existentially exacting juncture in human history. But the climate crisis is now absolutely primary. On how we respond to that crisis depends, it is increasingly apparent, the future of our existence itself. There can no longer be any serious doubt that the present trajectory of human-induced global heating, unaddressed or even just inadequately addressed, could within the present century take the Earth’s atmosphere to temperatures at which civilization certainly, and maybe human life, could not survive. That claim is so far from being irresponsibly alarmist that it expresses the current sober consensus among informed scientists. It would be excessive to say that in such a context, nothing else matters. But the basic preconditions for anything else to go on mattering all that much for all that long are now at risk. When your house is on fire, first things first is a maxim of mere common sense.
With a house on fire, however, acting hopefully on that maxim is likely to be a fairly simple matter. You will hope for some swiftly available means of putting the fire out, and often this hope will be a perfectly realistic one to entertain in your circumstances, and will be duly answered.
For all that I have been saying in Chapter 7, XR is evidently the nearest thing to a climate-driven revolution yet to have emerged in the advanced West, where the emergency must be decisively confronted if there is to be any future for humanity. It draws, as we have seen, on genuine energies of recoil, rejection and revolt. The importance of those energies cannot be overemphasized, but nor must their nature and dynamic be misconstrued.
This opposition, which does not have the traditional class basis … is at the same time a political, instinctual and moral rebellion. … A strong revulsion against traditional politics prevails: against that whole network of parties, committees and pressure groups on all levels; against working within this network and with its methods. This entire sphere and atmosphere, with all its power, is invalidated; nothing that any of these politicians, representatives or candidates declares is of any relevance to the rebels; they cannot take it seriously, although they know very well that it may mean to them … going to jail, losing a job. They are not professional martyrs. … But for them this is not a question of choice; the protest and refusal are parts of their metabolism.
This emphasis on the ‘metabolic’ combination of ‘political, instinctual and moral’ motivational elements – the gut and the conscience working together – tells us something very important about XR’s genesis.
Faithfulness to the life within us insists on our going on hoping. And responsible hope, conscious of anything much more than the immediate daily horizon of getting by, must now reach out towards the transformative changes in economy, society, politics and life-arrangements generally, which might even yet retrieve some kind of habitable world from the unprecedented perils now confronting humanity. But the burden of this book so far has been to argue that, just because the perils are so utterly unprecedented, transformative hope has to arise from depths of counter-empirical resolve at which it comes conceptually bound up with a tragic view of life as the condition of its necessary realism. I will not defend this claim any further, but will take it as having been made sufficiently compelling for the purposes of argument – although of course, what we think about the implications of accepting it will itself feed back into final assessment of the case as a whole.
We must now consider what those implications actually are, for the clamorous practicalities which beset us on every side. What can we take forward, into political and social action over the next two make-or-break decades, from the vital connections which I have been seeking to establish between hope, realism and tragedy? What difference would framing life-hope explicitly within a tragic vision make to our understanding of how we must grapple with our dangerous prospects, and seize upon our remaining opportunities? How would being properly realistic about the climate emergency feel, and where might it take us?
In the teeth of climate emergency, hope has to remain possible, because life insists on it. But hope also has to be realistic. And doesn’t realism about our plight point towards despair? Don’t the timid politicians, the failed summits and the locked-in consumerism all just mean that we have left things far too late to avoid catastrophe?
There is a deeper realism of transformation which can keep life powerful within us. It comes at the price of accepting that our condition is tragic. That, in turn, calls for a harsher, more revolutionary approach to the demands of the emergency than most activists have yet been prepared to adopt.
This is a book to think with, to argue and disagree with – and to hope with.
We ended the previous chapter by concluding that the difference which no one is too small to make must be a matter of helping to dislodge the assumption of self-interested action which underpins the collective-action dilemma. Unfortunately, appealing from self-interest to moral responsibility fails to escape the essence of this dilemma. The trouble is that the disparity between action and climate effect remains in force to prevent morality from getting any real grip here.
At first blush that seems counter-intuitive – surely the moral issues in this area are starkly clear? Whatever sense it makes in general to attach moral predicates to a collective entity (unsurprisingly, a contested point in social philosophy), it must be taken for the purposes of this book as perfectly intelligible to say that Western-style civilization, in persisting with its high-carbon ways of living while knowing what it ought by now to know about their consequences for climate and biosphere, is acting with gross irresponsibility. Indeed, attributions of climate irresponsibility to anything other than a large enough collective entity would be unintelligible, since only of such a collective does the claim that its actions are jeopardizing the climate even make sense. Again, however contested might be the issue of irresponsibility towards what – the question of whether an extensionist environmental ethics which talks about duties to threatened species or to the biosphere itself makes sense – it surely cannot be denied that future people, at least, are being thereby treated irresponsibly, nor moreover (as emphasized in the Introduction) that some of those who will suffer serious future adversity from such dealings are already alive.
The realism of empirical plausibility represents, as I said in the Introduction, our taking the parameters for what is count as thinking realistically from a certain underlying conception of, or set of unquestioned assumptions about, what is fundamentally real. Central to this at least tacitly operative metaphysic is the belief that in the nature of reality, true general laws instantiated by what has happened are determinative of what can happen, and attention to them is always strongly predictive of what will happen. This is so because the basically real is thought of as a world of objects and forces located in space-time, a world which holds together wholly impersonally and not just as seen or grasped from some unifying perspective, and which therefore must be organized exclusively and exhaustively by causal connections. For impersonally and objectively – that is, removed from any notion of an informing intention or shaping will – the only possible reason for anything’s happening is that something else caused it to happen. These assumptions, coupled culturally with growing technical capacity and declining religious belief, provided the underpinning for the scientific world view as it has been articulated and developed over the past three centuries. They are also (and of course, relatedly) the grounding for our deeply held common-sense conviction that you can’t ultimately buck the odds – that it is unrealistic (it ignores how things really work) to expect more from the future than you are licensed to expect by the pattern of probabilities derived from scrupulously careful observation of the past.