Welcome to the long emergency.
Whether it’s the Mediterranean or Hawaii on fire, China and Slovenia flooding or the Arctic melting at unprecedented rates, climate change is not something anyone can hide from anymore; not physically, and certainly not intellectually.
This is Lahania, Maui, before and after the fire that tore through it this week. If you’re like me, you’d be a little surprised at the location: Hawaii doesn’t strike to me as a likely location for devastating fires. But here we are.
For many years now, we’ve seen increasingly urgent exhortations that the world needs to act now.
The result has been a lot of hot air in the form of talk and plans, push-back from the usual suspects, and yes, even some action.
Unfortunately, the only things that matters to the climate – like the Keeling Curve, of atmospheric CO2 concentration – are getting worse faster.
The average annual rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration was +1.5ppm between 1990-2000.
In the past 10 years it has been +2.4ppm. We’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere 50% faster than we were just a couple of decades ago – that’s how well the de-carbonizing effort is going.
It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves – we will fail the +1.5C target.
We will fail the +2C target, too.
Things are going to get worse – on a planetary scale, not necessarily for a particular individual – for the entire remaining lifetime of the majority of humanity.
It’s time humanity grew up and admitted that.
We failed a very clear lesson, and we, and generations to come, and countless other species, are going to be paying for that failure for a long time to come.
However, we can also learn from that and do better from now on.
This is where the A, or Anxiety, of BANI comes in.
I know plenty of people who are low-grade or high-grade anxious about the climate crisis, mostly because we’ve been warned of existential consequences if we don’t meet our targets and as it’s becoming clear we won’t, of course that makes you anxious and dreading the future.
We’re now stuck in a communications dilemma of our own doing: because we’ve painted a picture of an apocalypse if we fail, we now cannot accept that we have failed.
But we’re not facing an extinction – unless we really want to.
This doesn’t mean it’s all going to be fine; of course it’s not. It’s not a binary state of affairs.
Humanity is 100% facing the biggest collective crisis of the short history of our species. Many other species will go extinct due to our mismanagement.
There will be deaths and suffering beyond what an individual being can comprehend; but there also absolutely will be a future for us as a species if we want to, and so choose. It can even be a bright future if we so choose.
I have optimism that we will choose so, but doing so does require us changing the current polarized narrative.
Instead of scaring us to action – which very clearly hasn’t worked – let’s act on climate change with a sense of agency and hope. Not because we don’t want to die, but because we want a better life.
Principally not a better life for us, but for those who come after us. The next generations.
I want to believe humanity can still achieve intergenerational goals; that we can act to make the world a better place for future generations. That humans in the 25th century will look back at the 21st century as the period when humanity got its act together, if woefully belatedly.
How do we change the narrative and systems?
This question brings me to revisiting The Dark Mountain Project. I wrote about it a seven years ago; I believe its principles of uncivilisation still provide a useful starting point for a more honest view of our situation.
It’s a grown-up version of thinking about the future; not one of unrealistic hope and utopian techno-optimism, but also not of despair and giving up. There is grief work to be done; some acceptance; a lot of action to steer us to a better path; but there is no need for paralysis.
So let’s revisit the principles:
Many things will continue to change for the worse during the coming years and decades; much of it is inevitable. But not all things. Some things can continue to change for the better – and will, if we make it so.
In fact, most things that make for a fulfilling life can continue to get better even as the climate crisis gets worse.
There is no reason climate change or other crisis needs to have a catastrophic impact on our sense of meaning and purpose; our positive relationships; our physical health; our self-esteem; our personal growth; our creativity; our curiosity; our resilience; our gratitude; or our altruism. It has the potential to do the opposite.
In order to get on with building a more resilient future, a more equitable future, a future that humanity can be proud of, we first need to let go of our current ways of polarized thinking.
There are many ways of going about it; the one offered by the Dark Mountain Project is just one example. But if you’re stuck in anxiety about the present and looming crisis, it’s one useful place to start from.