Sunday, October 8, 2017

Finding hope amid the doom of climate change

After another frigid and dry Canberra winter, I've welcomed the warmer weather with joy. Yet it's increasingly too warm to leave a lasting smile. We are told to brace for punishing summers.

In a new book, Plutocene: Blueprints for a Post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth, the Australian National University's Dr Andrew Glikson says there's no turning back the greenhouse clock. He foresees mass extinctions and a breakdown of civilisation. In his book, Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton of the Canberra-based Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics foresees something even worse: the possibility of our own extinction by an untameable Earth.

Hamilton writes it will probably be hundreds of thousands of years before most of the large reserves of carbon released during the human age can be rendered immobile again. People have rivalled the great forces of nature so much that we have changed the functions of the planet for an era. The Arctic is vanishing as is the Greenland ice sheet. This won't be reversed for tens of thousand of years.

While drifting into unparalleled catastrophe, I want to cling to hope, be slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried and all is defeated. But how?

When I talk to people about climate change, there are common and deflating responses: "It's all too hard", "I can't do anything about it" or worse, "I've just tuned out". Some see hope in outer space. Glikson, like many scientists looking this climate monster in the eye, says that's ridiculous.

Hamilton does not lack faith in human inventiveness, but, like Pope Francis, he reminds us that inventiveness also harbours danger.

The existential question is how to reconcile doom about the future with living a spirited and optimistic life today. While not every human is responsible for changing the climate, every human is destined to live with it. I oscillate between deep despair and small rays of hope (the take-up of renewables, etc) but I am still disorientated. Bogged down by Australia's painful, non-urgent and superficial political response to climate change, hope requires a real leap.

One person who has considered our conundrum is Canberra-based Neil Millar, a facilitator with the global Centre for Courage and Renewal (who knew there was such a centre?). Millar spoke at a Creation Sunday service at my church recently (a new and important addition to the liturgical calendar offered across denominations). He says that while we increasingly know of our connectedness to the planet, it remains abstract for too many of us. To make it specific, he suggests we adopt something of the Aboriginal practice known as a "dadirri". Dadirri involves deep listening with an inner and quiet still awareness, based on respect for country and everything that's in it. Without wanting to sound too much like a hippy, he suggests we slow down, consume less, walk our neighbourhoods, appreciating that "we are in this together", that trees breathe in what we breathe out.

Hamilton says our greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy. It's a theme taken up by disillusioned British journalist Paul Kingsnorth, the co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project set up eight years ago. Artists and writers at the project find a sanctuary in creating ethereal and temporal work, but above all attend to the tragedy rather than run from it. Musing on his blog last month, Kingsnorth notes a shift in the global discussion as topics that were once mainly talked about with the project are now found in the glossy pages of The New Yorker.

"Eight more years of failed treaties, of rising emissions, of expanding human numbers, of plastic in the oceans, of species slipping away, have made the reality clearer to us all. In another eight years, it will be clearer again. None of the vaunted 'solutions' to this predicament, from nuclear fission to colonising Mars to top-down 'new stories' developed by worthy intellectuals, shows any sign of shifting the machine from its designated course," he writes.

Kingsnorth, like Millar, wants to take us to the top of mountains to see beauty and then back down into our neighbourhood to hug and hear trees. He doesn't offer solutions beyond that, but is almost evangelical about our capacity to rise above the impacts of our own stupidity. We have lived through an ice age and many ages of barbarism. He thinks we can probably live through this.

Perhaps I live with a paradoxical hope; a hopeless hope, a tepid gloom. Like a pop singer, I wobble between song titles, 'I know it's over', 'From little things big things grow' and 'There is a light that never goes out'. I waltz to Friedrich Nietzsche's "arrows of longing for the other shore" and a reframed John Lennon's "Imagine there is a heaven".

First published in The Canberra Times, 6 October, 2017. Picture courtesy of morganfoundation.org.nz