Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?


Over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog Joern Fischer posted a really interesting piece on 1st January called “A new kind of hope” about the current state of the world and whether, from an environmental perspective, there’s really anything to be optimistic about.  If environmental collapse via climate change and over-exploitation is inevitable, the collapse of civilization is not far behind.  Joern’s piece is well worth reading, lots to think about in there, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

I posted a comment there which I’m going to copy here and add to because I think it bears repeating.

Going back to at least my student days I always thought that there was only a slim chance of our civilization making it to the end of the 20th century without some kind of catastrophe wiping us out.   So it was a surprise to celebrate the millennium as December 1999 segued into January 2000. Since then, whilst I think there’s lots to be optimistic about such as the increase in renewable energy, large-scale habitat restoration in some regions, and a growing recognition of the environmental damage of biocides and plastics, there’s also the nagging fear that it’s too little, too late.

These days I alternate between wild optimism and deep depression over the fate of humanity and of the planet. It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of negative environmental narratives and ignore the positive ones. Especially so if you actively use social media.  So I try hard to be optimistic and resist the urge to just give up, but the political situation across much of the world makes that difficult. As I learn more about the natural world through my own research and that of others’, and as world events such as Brexit and the rise of the Far Right unfold, I realise how little any of us really know about anything at all. Thus I have a deep suspicion of anyone who spouts certainties, whether they be moral, philosophical, religious, scientific, political, or artistic. All we can do is feel our way into the future, cautiously.

With respect to the question that Joern poses of “If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be?”, this is the rationale behind the Dark Mountain Project, a loose collaboration of writers, artists, thinkers, etc., who are trying to look for new narratives for humanity and the planet we depend upon. I’ve written a couple of pieces for their journal, most recently for issue 10 where I discussed the role of poetry in science.  And although I don’t buy into their certainty that there will be a collapse, I think it’s an important project for understanding where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we might be going to.  Here’s a link to the project’s website.

The discussion over whether we should be optimistic about the future of the planet that supports us, and how that optimism will play out, is important for scientists, and society at large, to be having.  By coincidence as I was writing this post the map above started circulating on Twitter.  It’s a Russian teaching aid from 1928 showing the different biomes of the USSR and can be downloaded from this site.

What really struck me about this graphic was the certainty with which it represents the natural world, as if all of this could never change. There are polar bears on ice flows and a frozen tundra in the far north; water still fills the Aral Sea, hyenas feast in the steppe, snow leopards haunt the mountains, Siberian tigers prowl the pine forests.  And an optimistic looking whale heads towards Japan.  Some of this is gone, some will almost certainly change, but a lot of it we could save, if we want to, saving ourselves in the process.

13 thoughts on “Should environmentalists be optimistic in a time of uncertainty?

  1. naturalistoncall

    Your poetry is beautiful.

    I find it telling that the issue of the continually increasing human population is so rarely acknowledged in any save-the-planet discussions. A population of any kind of living organism changes its environment and when that environment is changed beyond the capacity to support the organisms’ existing numbers, those numbers will decrease, often catastrophically, even to the point of population extinction. While it may well be that we are the only species which can actually conceive “too many”, we are not exempt from its effects. Eventually, there WILL be a curtailment of human population growth. Whether the cause is a direct result of the human-caused environmental changes or by some other factor is only interesting pub chatter unless we are willing to actually address human population growth. Place your wagers now…

    We talk about the end of times – really meaning the end of OUR human species’ time. But the Earth – Gaia, to be poetic – will survive nicely. The world is just as beautiful and fascinating in its current mammalian paradise era as it was during dinosaur eras. As I recall, thousands more species which have gone extinct than exist today, and different species continue to go extinct due to environmental changes: some – possibly most – now caused by us, but some not. However much the reality may discomfort us, we humans are just another species, subject to Gaia’s laws of speciation and extinction.

    Although we would miss us, I doubt Gaia would, or will even notice. That thought comforts me.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thank you! Yes, we may well be just another species passing through that will leave its mark, albeit larger than most others, and then fade into obscurity. In another 10 million years it may be the descendants of birds that are digging up our fossils and wondering whether we walked on two legs or four….

      1. Helen

        😄 My guess is that somewhere in their annals our bipedality has already been noted for future reference, although I doubt they think they’re going to get rid of us just yet.

        Our arrogance at being at the top of the food chain will get us in the end. If other creatures won’t exterminate us we’ll just kill each other for land and water. Not that that’s a new concept!

  2. Murtagh's Meadow

    I think we need more discussion about these issues. It is all too easy for us to stick our heads in the sand and ignore what is going on as our politicians are so good at. I agree with much of what naturalistoncall has said but still worry about our huge impact on the globe, will anything be left intact after we are gone?

  3. Manu Saunders

    To answer your question, yes! But I guess only an optimist would say that.. 😉
    Seriously though, great post. I’ve been thinking about this too. I am an optimist by nature, and do manage to keep optimistic about the future for the most part. But I have been finding it harder and harder to keep a grip on the optimism, with every new political decision that threatens our future. I think optimism, however naive, helps maintain progress, and this is a really important point for scicomm. Pessimism, doom & gloom narratives are just crippling – you’re more likely to give up if you think it’s too late to do anything.

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  6. sagitaninta

    I like how you said that “…how little any of us really know about anything at all.”

    After reading books on human civilizations (Jared Diamong, Yuval Noah Harari, Tom Friedman, etc), I also came up to that conclusion and that is how I came to the positive vibe: we don’t really know how far things would actually go. I have not lived that long, but I believe there are some progress we fail to observe due to our attachment to negativity.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for your comment; I agree, uncertainty about the future can be a cause for optimism. As I’ve said elsewhere “knowledge is not predictable”.


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