The future is broken, the past is lost
A few weeks ago, the UN panel on climate change released its latest climate report. It paints a dire picture of the future, basically saying that the catastrophic planetary changes that await us beyond the 1.5° threshold are now inescapable. This is not really news. We have been hearing the same message over and over again. We have a very clear idea about what is going to happen. Around the world, there are thousands and thousands of dedicated researchers, highly-skilled individuals with access to the most modern-day technology, who have warned us about the looming catastrophe for years. Decades. But we would not listen.
In 2030, when the temperatures may already have crossed the 1.5-degree threshold, I will turn 44. What will my life look like twelve years from now? I have not the faintest idea. I am incapable of seeing myself in the future. I simply can’t. If I think ahead, five years, ten years, thirty years, there is a blank spot, a dead end. It feels like nothing in life turns out the way I plan it anniways (I was going to write “we”, but then realised that for some people, it does more so than for others). Five years ago, I had just started my Master’s at Lund University. Never in my life had I imagined that in October 2018, I would sit in a small wooden house on a tiny Swedish island, being with the person I am with, living the life that I am living. But that, of course, is just the normal unpredictability of life. No one really knows what the future is going to bring. The bigger question is: How can I envision a future on a planet that is being destroyed day by day? How can I plan a happy and fulfilled life when humans everywhere rampage the earth, rip her open, tear out her organs, leaving nothing but destruction and death? We drown the oceans in plastic waste, produce sky-high piles of electronic scrap, and pour millions of gallons of toxic sewage into rivers and oceans. Forests are disappearing, plants and animals dying, coral reefs choking, lakes drying out, and the brave people who dare to resist live in constant fear of being murdered – unless they are white. Nearly 90% of world's children breathe toxic air (CNN). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe (The Guardian). A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking (VOX). Final call to save the world from 'climate catastrophe' (BBC). How do you look into your own future if this is the somber backdrop of it? How can I resolve the inextricable connection between my own future and the future of the world?
I once read that conservative folks tend to be happier than progressive-thinking people. Although this is reversed when it comes to the topic of immigration, I think it must be true for the matter of climate change. Sometimes, I feel a sudden rush of envy walling up in me, envy of those who simply decided* that climate change is a lie, a conspiracy, an attempt from the left to topple the existing world order. Or those who believe in its existence but simply choose to ignore it. Whereas my newsfeed is full of gloomy messages about the looming destruction of our planet, many people choose to get told that climate change is not real, that there is no solid evidence for human activity impacting the world’s climate. Or they simply don’t hear anything about it because they or their preferred news outlets do not deem environmental problems important.
I wonder, how do they look at their future? What do they see? Do they look forward to it? Or are they just as worried, anxious about their pensions, mass immigration, and the decay of the occident? Probably. Their dystopia simply looks differently. Their monsters lurk in different shapes and places.
Cakes of truth: Pension strategies of the young generation. (blue: purchase properties. yellow: Riestern
(Riesterrente is a private pension in Germany) black: assuming that the world will have perished by then anyways)
A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- "bad" and τόπος "place"; alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as "not-good place" and is an antonym of utopia, […] an ideal society with minimal crime, violence and poverty. […] Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, tyrannical governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.
Is this what you expect from the future? This is what I expect from the future. Dehumanization? Check. Tyrannical governments? Check. Environmental disaster? Check. We are already living in the dusk of a dystopia, even though, same as her good sister, the utopia, the dystopian society actually is, should be, a society of the future. How can I envision a life against the backdrop of a world slowly disintegrating?
There have been studies who revealed psychological responses to climate change. Amongst them: shock, stress, anxiety, depression, grief, strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation, loss of autonomy and sense of control, loss of personal and occupational identity. In an article from 2015, Per Espen Stoknes calls this the Great Grief. The deep sadness we feel about the destruction of the earth. These feelings, he says, accurately reflect the state of ecology in our world. They are not only experienced by individuals directly affected by environmental catastrophes like droughts, floods, or typhoons, but also by him, by us, by everyone who recognizes their connection to the earth and sees her as a living being that is slowly being tortured to death.
(Nearly all of the psychological responses listed above are also frequently experienced by adopted children. They are emotional consequences of trauma. Where do I come from? Where will we go? Silence.)
I guess it is a lot about different responses to climate change and other threatening, stressful situations. There are the ones who take flight in order to save their lives. There are the ones who react by attacking the attacker. The fighters. And then there are the ones who simply freeze. Like the deer in the headlights of a car. This is how I feel. I am unable to run and hide. I can't ignore the news, I am not a person who ignores what is going on in the world for the sake of their personal peace of mind. Neither am I the fighter, the one who grows bigger than life and throws themselves roaring against the attacker, the enemy, the perpetrator. I am the deer. I stand in the headlights, eyes wide open, and am unable to move. There's no going back. And I can't move forward because I can see only darkness ahead.
Last week, I sat in a living room in Germany, surrounded by a family who was mourning the death of their grandfather. As so often at family gatherings after a funeral, the air was a thick, warm mix of sadness, reminiscence, sorrow, love, compassion, and closeness; full of spoken words, filled with shared memories, heavy from unspoken thoughts, disrupted by sudden bursts of laughter or tears. “So what do you think”, asked one of the present ones, “is the world going to go down?” We looked at one another silently. “No”, said the grandmother firmly, “No”. And she spoke of history and humankind and hope, with all the wisdom and melancholy and crisp humor of her 80-something years. I want to hold on to this because there is so much more depth and width to the experiences of older people. Shouldn’t we trust them when they say that the world is going to be alright? My mother says that they had the same fears when they were younger, that they saw the world moving towards the abyss, and discussed not having children because what miserable future would they be facing? But just because the world hasn’t ended yet, within a couple of decades, it doesn’t mean that we’re safe. Threats from the past may have vanished but was there ever one comparable to climate change? A looming disaster that wasn’t only about war and hunger and poverty and violence but also, and most of all, a threat for our very existence on this planet?
I am about to turn 32. Where what who how will I be when I turn 44? What will the world look like? Perhaps we'll both be just fine? I try to find solace in the words of my adored Rebecca Solnit who writes about hope and despair in times of turmoil, words so urgently need, for me and so many others.
"The future hasn’t already been decided. [...] I don’t know exactly if or how we’ll get to where we need to go, but I know that we must set out better options with all the passion, power and intelligence we have. [...] Rather than waiting to see what happens, we can be what happens." And she recites the words of a survivor of the gulag who said: "[W]hether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right." I know the answer, of course I do. I don't have to resolve the connection between my own future and the future of the planet. I simply have to believe in both of them, to fight for both of them; and by fighting for climate justice, I will also start to believe in my own future. And vice versa. By investing in my own future, by envisioning, and creating, and daring to dream and hope, I will also gain more faith that the world is not going to descend into total chaos. We all know the theory, right? But how to put it into practice is a different question.
* We can choose to believe in God. We can choose to believe that the constellation of stars tells us something about our lives. We can choose to believe that there is life after death. We can choose to believe that tax cuts for the wealthy create a better society for all of us. The last one is already a bit of a stretch, right? But nowadays, you can choose to believe in climate change or not, it’s simply a matter of your political opinion. This thought still leaves me incredulous.