13. Global Hopes
Many of our hopes are small scale, personal hopes. We hope for a new job, for rescue when stranded, and for better relationships. At a slightly larger scale we might hope that our school or business prospers, or that our city government solves its budget challenges.
Recently I’ve been reading essays edited by Andrew T. Brei, in Ecology, Ethics, and Hope (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). The thinking in this book emerges from the intersection of environmentalism and moral philosophy. The authors are convinced that human destruction of nature, primarily through anthropogenic climate change but also exhibited in less extreme environmental ravages (air and water pollution, desertification, extinctions due to habitat loss, etc.), is either an accomplished fact or inevitable result of industrial society. They all agree that climate change, caused by human release of carbon monoxide, will be an existential threat to civilization in the current century.
What can we hope for in the face of global climate catastrophe? But wait! Before answering, let us consider other catastrophic possibilities:
1. Since the mid-1950s human beings have had enough thermonuclear weapons to eradicate our species—and probably most other species as well—by means of heat, radiation, and nuclear winter.
2. We’ve also invented non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical agents. Such weapons, if used on a large scale, could depopulate vast areas.
3. No one outside of government can know how far research has “progressed,” but many of us worry that bioengineering will enable the production of super-germs. If released, either by accident or act of war, bio-weapons could kill almost everybody.
This list could be extended. We are familiar with science fiction movies and novels that frighten us with economic collapse, race wars, totalitarian states, or meteors smashing into Earth. Our apocalyptic imaginations range from pure fancy (invading aliens) to the very real threat of nuclear holocaust.
Catastrophic climate change is different, say the contributors to Ecology, Ethics, and Hope, because climate change is not a mere possibility. Anthropogenic climate change is already happening. Given the extent of carbon monoxide we have already pumped into the atmosphere, even more drastic climate change will occur in the decades ahead—even if we could somehow stop producing greenhouse gases immediately. But much of the general public, encouraged by certain business and political leaders, does not believe the scientific consensus. And there are other people who, knowing that climate change is real and accelerating, have despaired that anything can be done to stop it. So a great many people respond to the global climate change crisis with disinterest or lethargy.
As the title of his book suggests, Brei and his fellow authors recognize the situation as a moral crisis, not just a matter of scientific or technological expertise. Our planet’s environmental crisis demands immediate and extraordinary action, they think, and such action is much less possible when people despair. When preaching to the general public, environmentalists must offer people hope; without hope, people are very unlikely to take the dramatic actions needed to stave off disaster.
So we return to the question: How should we hope in the face of global catastrophe? A number of other questions lie under the surface of this first one.
First: what is it we should hope for? What is the “object-state” we desire? Environmentalists differ in their answers. At a minimal level, we should desire and work for a global environment that supports human life and civilized societies. In some scenarios, climate change so devastates the natural world that industrial society collapses, decimating human population and leaving the survivors in a new stone age.
More likely (though how can we estimate probabilities for a world fifty years hence?), industrial and technological civilization will survive. Rather than depending on the natural world for resources (food, clothing, building materials), humanity will fabricate most of what it needs by means of genetic engineering, 3-D printing, and new inventions. We would survive, and in some ways thrive, by using our technology to adapt to shifting climates.
Environmentalists have a word for this homo sapiens dominated world: the anthropocene period. It is a new age of the earth, with a climate driven by the activities of one species. Authors in Brei’s book say that we have already entered this new phase of our planet’s history.
And that’s bad, they say. These authors agree that nature—the wild, untamed world—is a good thing. In the anthropocene era, nature ceases to exist; the whole world is controlled, used, polluted, fenced, or (possibly) protected by humanity. The object-state we should desire and hope for, these environmentalists want to say, is one where nature is still nature, where our species lives symbiotically with other creatures and the natural systems of earth.
They want to say that, but many of them believe that it is already too late. A pure “nature” is lost. The best we can hope for is to minimize negative effects of the anthropocene. So there is division among environmentalists. They may agree that we need hope, but they disagree about the object-state we should desire.
Second: as a global crisis, climate change affects everybody, but no one person’s actions can bring about the desired object-state. When an individual thinks of a pathway to a goal (e.g. taking a college class to get a better job) and acts on it, she often feels more hopeful, and her feelings help sustain her along the path. But the only pathways toward solutions to the climate crisis involve hundreds of millions of people. The contribution of any other person is so small compared with the need that it approaches zero. How should we hope when our hopeful actions are infinitesimal compared to the task?
Third: the authors in Brei’s book identify despair as a vice. Some of them admit to struggling with despair in their own lives as they think about the magnitude of climate change. They do not use the word “presumption,” traditionally used to describe another vice related to hope. (In Aquinas, despair is the vice of abandoning hope because the object of the hope is too hard, while presumption is the vice of assuming that hope’s object is already or easily attained.) The environmentalists do recognize that some people have convinced themselves, without good reason, that “everything will turn out okay,” and thus fail to take necessary actions. Though they don’t use the word, the vice they describe is presumption.
I think these features of environmental hope can be found in other cases of global hope. In particular, the questions of object-state and individual action will attend to hopes in regard to eliminating poverty, preventing war, ending starvation, extending education to all, and other worthy “global” hopes. What is it that we hope for in such cases? What role, if any, does action play in such hopes?