Lots of people worry about climate change, but as David Wallace-Wells shows in his recent New York magazine piece, the future is almost certainly worse than you imagine. Drawing on a wide range of experts, he tracks how climate change could alter every aspect of planetary existence. Ocean acidification gives rise to oxygen-eating bacteria. Melting ice results in the absorption of more sunlight and greater warming. Rising temperatures hasten the destruction of plants that replenish our oxygen. As things get worse, they will get worse faster.
Given the thoroughness of Wallace-Wells’ evidence, the ending comes as a bit of a surprise.
We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.
The same “strange kind of faith” is behind condemnations of the piece as alarmist. Some climate scientists have questioned Wallace-Wells’ treatment of the evidence. Radical warming can be slowed, they say, but if journalists or scientists scare people they risk disrupting the important work that needs to be done. The climate scientist Michael Mann, in a widely circulated Facebook post, worries about the “danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.” The fear is that people won’t devote the necessary political and economic resources to these problems if there isn’t some hope that it will work out in the end.
When we look at more mainstream predictions, however, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for hope. Although we are unlikely to experience the “doomsday” scenario described by Wallace-Wells, we will likely see increases that will exacerbate existing inequalities as we experience changes in weather patterns that affect life in coastal cities, the production of food, and global conflicts (as Mann himself explains). Even if things aren’t going to be as bad as the worst-case scenario, the future still isn’t looking good.
As concerns about climate change have intensified, philosophers have increasingly devoted attention to how we might balance hopefulness with confronting the ways that the climate is already changing. Like the scientists who spoke to Wallace-Wells, many philosophers worry that pessimism is a threat to this work. For example, ethicist Kathryn Norlock has written on the importance of maintaining hope even when pessimism is a rational response. The burden of hope falls particularly on those who live in affluent societies. Indulging despair would risk sabotaging any adequate collective response to the situation. We should also resist the temptation to single out groups of people as responsible for climate change. Instead, we should forgive those we think are guilty of environmental harm in order to maximize our ability to work together for a better world. Now is not the time for blame, Norlock says, but for new forms of ecocitizenship.
Norlock’s argument makes sense on one level. Relatively affluent people are free to throw up their hands in defeat at the prospect of climate change, safe in the knowledge that they (and their children) have the resources to mitigate its consequences, at least for a little while. If there’s nothing to be done, you might as well enjoy things while you can. It is important to combat this resignation, but resignation and hope aren’t our only options. Though there are risks to embracing pessimism and fear, they are a necessary aspect of confronting our situation. And more positive outlooks entail their own problems. Hoping that science will provide a solution is its own kind of surrender, relieving the pressure of confronting the ways of life that have given rise to climate change in the first place. This hope also downplays the fact that such solutions likely will entail living in a world marked by pain and suffering directly and indirectly caused by what we have done to nature.
These demands that we hope against all evidence are examples of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” Berlant describes the way people hope for something that is impossible or fantastical. What makes this cruel, rather than just tragic, is that the hope is itself part of the problem. Think of the way that dreams of success and wealth function in American society. Low-paid employees in precarious positions are told that determination and hard work will result in greater opportunities and economic security. In actuality, class mobility is very limited. The optimism at the heart of the American dream is cruel: Workers invest in a dream that actually leaves them more open to exploitation rather than challenging the wider economic system.
Berlant’s “cruel optimism” is a useful way of thinking about the demand to stay hopeful in the face of climate change. The hope that we will invent technological means of preserving our way of life is itself part of the problem. It is not that we live in a world where our economics, politics and culture happen to contribute to climate change, but that life in “the West” is essentially destructive of the rest of nature. As sociologist Jason Moore explains, we depend on “cheap nature”—the stores of energy and raw materials that we extract from the earth. Climate change results from activities that are rapidly depleting those stores and the consequences of climate change mean the stores won’t be replenished anytime soon. The problem isn’t an accidental byproduct of our way of life—it’s our very way of life.
The term Anthropocene, once confined to academic journals and conferences, is now casually dropped in podcasts and splashed across magazines like Slate. It refers to the geological epoch in which humanity became a force that changed the environment. Moore suggests using Capitalocene as an alternative to Anthropocene. As the Guardian reports, a recent study shows that 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions since 1998. While almost all people play some role in the degradation of the environment, climate change is also something done to people by other people. It isn’t humanity as such that is responsible, but the specific forms of production and consumption that are the basis of the capitalist Western world.
That world is ending: a world of eating food shipped from country to country, a world of discount airlines, widespread meat consumption, and constant air conditioning. The problem with hoping for a technological solution to climate change is that it is often insufficiently critical of the ways of life that wreaked havoc on the rest of nature. It is easier to hope for a wild geoengineering solution than face the reality that billions of people need to change their daily habits in order to lessen the immense suffering appearing on the horizon. This hope cruelly prevents us from confronting the deep structural challenge of rethinking the way that some humans relate to nature. Obviously not all people experience this world in the same way, and it is a further tragedy that those who have contributed the least to climate change will be among those who experience its consequences earliest.
Some responses to Wallace-Wells’ piece have decried its alarmism and despair. But Slate’s Susan Matthews has already argued that it is not alarmist enough. I agree—and I would add that its hopeful conclusion also avoids the pessimism necessary for confronting the reality of the changes ahead.
Pessimism isn’t popular at the moment. As Jill Lepore wrote in New Yorker earlier this summer, “Radical pessimism is a dismal trend.” Considering recent novels that offer pessimistic pictures of political and ecological futures, she concludes that dystopia is no longer “a fiction of resistance.” It despairs instead of calling for action.
The accusation that pessimism results in political paralysis is frequently made in the process of advocating hope. In the most recent edition of her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit argues that pessimists focus on disappointment as a way of avoiding taking action, decrying every possibility as imperfect and inadequate. She differentiates hope from both optimism and pessimism by its acceptance of uncertainty. Optimists think everything will be fine, pessimists think everything will be terrible, but those who are hopeful act in the belief that actions will, in some way and at some point, matter.
Solnit’s uncertain hope, while not naive optimism, still does not help us answer the fundamental questions posed by climate change: What should we hope for? What shouldn’t we hope for? What should we hope against? Solnit, like many, poses pessimism and hope as two mutually exclusive options. Yet the first can be a condition for the second. We cannot answer the question “What should we hope for?” without confronting that for which we should despair.
If Moore is right, then the patterns of production and consumption at the heart of the global economy are integral to global warming. Maybe that way of life isn’t worth saving. Kafka reportedly once said that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Rather than investing in technological salvations that will allow us to prolong a way of life that is destroying the rest of nature, we can embrace pessimism. In abandoning hope that one way of life will continue, we open up a space for alternative hopes.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.