Timely Notes on Climate Fatalism

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Over the last 8 years working in the environmental space, I’ve seen (and felt) climate and environmental despair up close. It hung in the air in my grad program. It showed up in the gaps between words; in the heavy silences that came when we discussed “the future” – the world’s or our own. It threaded through the activist communities I studied, animating action with a kind of desperation, and generating a heavy sort of burnout.

How do people deal with climate and environmental despair? Some deny it – try to outrun it through the busy-ness of research and work, or overcome it through marriage to a particular “climate solution.” Some try to drown it in the dopamine of outdoor sports, or in the sedative of alcohol and weed. Some succumb to it, turning in on themselves and others in bitterness and fatalism.

Fatalism is dangerous. Fatalism says that terrible loss, destruction, harm is unavoidable. Fatalism says that environmental protections and climate mitigations and social aid are insufficient (too little, too late) to prevent terrible tragedies, and that there is almost no point in trying. Fatalism is laced with complicity, with guilt, with rage. It produces a self-destructive kind of despair. It can be deadly.

And, as with all extremes, it is attractive. It is alluring. One’s fatalism can grow until it becomes a kind of black hole and sucks others in. This is what happens in the movie First Reformed (2017) and in Don’t Look Up (2021), each in their own way, and to too many real-life environmentalists.

Our current time is particularly susceptible to fatalism. America and the world continue to suffer under multiple pandemics – COVID-19 and the human-made pandemics of racial discrimination, police and military violence, economic absurdity, and on and on. It’s a tough time. Public policy in all these areas continues to be a site of struggle. It can feel like one step forward, two steps back. And real people, places, and creatures are suffering all the while.

I’ve struggled with fatalism and climate despair myself. Especially as a younger adult, it is hard to envision any kind of security or predictability in the future.

Yet I know that fatalism is not the truth. Fatalism peddles the lie that the future is fixed. That nothing can be done to improve (or worsen) it. Well, there is a reason we call the future “the future.” Real threats exist in the present, but the future is never certain.

Fatalism’s great risk is that it produces inaction. As much as we need to be awake to the threats that face the people and places we hold dear, we also need to be on guard against fatalism. Fatalism is actively being peddled by agents of violence, from Steve Bannon and the late Andrew Breitbart to Russian disinformation campaigns (yes, they are real). All those prone to some distrust of organized authority – from yogis and health nuts to right-wingers and, yes, environmentalists – are susceptible.

Even when the present is full of suffering and the future is dark – actually, especially at such times – cooperation, organization, and action are needed.

Would nuclear disarmament treaties have been brought into existence had those concerned about nuclear threat simply sat at home in despair?

Would voting rights have been won had its advocates listened to those who told them “it won’t work”?

The fact that both examples have been recently attacked and weakened shows not the futility of action, but its necessity.

Most recently, would the Pebble Mine permit have been revoked without fierce and desperate activism, over the course of years?

Engaging in transformative work without falling into despair calls for a brave look at reality as-it-is – while working together. The lone advocate is a dangerous image, and a role to avoid, not seek. Support from a group helps us look at what is scary (and what is hopeful). Sometimes that support group can be our colleagues but often it is helpful to have a different group. Programs like Good Grief Network, with local affiliates like the New Jersey-based Waterspirit, can be very helpful. Actually, an abundance of resources exist, from the newly published We Were Made For These Times by Kaira Jewel Lingo to the ever-helpful Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit.

This is not the first time people have faced into scary problems and figured out how to do something about them. While some impacts are likely (sea level rise; extreme weather; in some parts of the world, drought and desertification), terrible losses are not inevitable.

I want to close for now by sharing a quote from the late Barry Lopez that has been making the rounds in my feed lately:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts the responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.” — Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams