It is tempting to despair of all action. And sometimes those who despair are right. But sometimes they aren’t. And this, I think is an important and central point for everyone who hits those moments when they simply don’t believe society will self-correct in any measure from its impending ecological disaster. I should be clear – I don’t believe it will self-correct in every measure, or even as much as I wish desperately it would. But I also do not believe that what one does to mitigate suffering, soften impacts, make life livable or plan for a better outcome is wasted.
I’d tell you why I believe this, but I think the best ever articulation of this reason, the reason why I talk about rationing and rational possible responses to depletion and limitation even when they may not happen, was made by Thomas Princen, author of the wonderful and intellectually illuminating book _The Logic of Sufficiency_. Princen writes:
I take heart not in the occasional enviornmental law passed, the tightening of one country’s automobile efficiency standards, the international agreement on ozone or timber or toxic substances, but in the hard cases, those little-noticed but nontrivial instances of restrained timber cutting or shortened lobster fishing or community rejection of full automobility. And I take heart in, of call places, sites like the Middle East or Sri Lana and the Koreas. I discovered in my earlier research on international conflict resolution that however intractable an intersocietal conflict may be, there are always people working on the solution. Pick the direst time in the Middle East conflict, for example, and you can find someone hidden away in a basement drawing up maps for the water and sewer lines, the lines that wil connect the two societies and that must be built when peace is reached, as inconceivable as that is at the time. Someone else is sketching the constitution for the new country, the one that is also inconceivable at the time. And someone else is outlining the terms of trade for the as yet unproduced goods that will traverse the two societies’ border. We do not hear about these people because it is the nature of their work, including the dangers of their activities that make it so. Surrounded by intense conflict, hatred and violence, these people appear the fool, idealists who do not know or can not accept the reality of their societies’ situation. If they really knew that situation, others would say, they would be ‘realists'; they would concentrate their efforts on hard bargaining, economic incentives and military force. But in practice, when the threshold is passed, when leaders shake hands or a jailed dissident is freed or families from the two sides join together, everyone casts about for new ways to organize.
My prognosis, foolish and idealistic as it may seem to some, is that that threshold, that day of biophysical reckoning, is near. And with it, serious questioning about humans’ patterns of material provisioning, their production, their conumption, their work and tehir play. Then the premises of modern industrial societies – capitalist, socialist, communist – will crumble. Efficiency will provide little guidance because it so readily translates to continuing material throughput. A little intensification here, some specialization there just will not make things better. A feedlot is still a feedlot, a conveyor belt still a conveyor belt. When it becomes obvious that efficiency-driven societies can no longer continue their excesses, displace their costs, postpone their investments in natural capital, when it is obvious they can no longer grow their way out of climate change and species extinction and aquifer depletion and the bioaccumulation of persistant toxic substances, people everywhere will indeed be casting about. Some will gravitate to the extremes – religious fundamentalism, survivalist homesteading, totalitarian government. Many, though, will seek paths that are familiar, if not prevalent. Notions of moderation and prudence and stewardship will stand up, as if they were just waiting to be noticed, waiting for their time, even though, in many realms, they were already there. (Princen, _The Logic of Sufficiency_ 359-360)
Thomas Princen is not, if you meet him, a wide eyed optimist in the sense that we think of it – he’s a professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy at U Michigan. His book isn’t a feel-good crunchy narrative, but a close examination of the economic and ecological impact of the ideas of efficiency in energy and economics and examples of restraint. And yet, I think his kind of optimism is available to us, and should be – it is not that it is inevitable that the leaders that have been making war will make peace – we know it isn’t. It is that it is possible.
We have closed off a great number of options – and that’s a deep and profound disappointment. In my lifetime it would have been possible to do a great deal to make the realities of depletion and climate change a great deal less severe, and we didn’t do it. Now our options are frankly less palatable, less appealing and more painful – the choices are harder, the results are going to be a lot less good. It would be easy to conclude from the fact that my parents’ generation and those who came before them who tried to address these issues failed, that failure is inevitable. And if you set up success as outside the realm of real possibility – constraint of climate change back to old ways, not having to radically change of life, failure will be, as John Michael Greer has observed, inevitable.
But we also know that in our human history are many examples of the unthinkable becoming thinkable, quite rapidly even. There are any number of examples – who would have believed that slavery in the US, the basis of a huge portion of our economy, could be done away with? Who would have believed that truth and reconciliation and change could have brought about an end to apartheid? Who would have believed, growing up as I did in an America where my mother and step-mother had to keep an empty room for my step-mother to pretend to sleep in, so that the landlord and the courts that could take my mother’s children away from her would not know that she was a lesbian, that by the time all their children were grown, my mother and step-mother would be married in both their church and in their state?
Change happens – it happens slowly, painfully, incrementally, and rapidly, agonizingly, ripping things apart as it goes. It never goes fast enough, it never comes exactly as we predict, but when it comes the strategies that enable us to go forward are desperately needed. It is quite possible that the two warring leaders will never shake hands, and will continue to lay waste to their countries. It is certain that without strategies for negotiating peace, they will continue to do so until everything is destroyed. And it is possible that given those interventions, they may yet make an inconceivable piece and a place to begin going forward from.
So call me a lunatic optimist – I’m good with it. But damn it, take time to consider before you abandon lunatic optimism, before you assume that we will never change, or only for the worst. Consider once, consider twice, consider a third time and consider anyway doing the work that would enable us not to march to our doom, or not a quickly, or not as many. If it is not one strategy, find another, one that suits you, a map you can make in your basement, if needed, a garden you can grow behind your house, as you also make the plans for the day when the maps come into the light and the gardens stretch out in front yards as far as your eyes can see.