This is the title of today's I-SEE seminar at Bath. It marks John Foster's welcome return to the university after too long an absence.
Why don’t we admit that dangerous climate change is coming? It has been clear since Copenhagen that the political will to make adequate cuts in global CO2 emissions isn’t there, and isn’t likely to be generated in any foreseeable future. The international attempt to shift the world by agreement onto a sustainable trajectory has failed – indeed, it never really got started. Shouldn’t environmentalists stop pretending otherwise?
But denial is not confined to those who refuse to see the serious environmental damage we are doing; it extends equally to those who refuse to see that we have missed our chance to stop it. The ‘sustainable development’ paradigm facilitates both forms of denial, since neither the grip of putative claims on us from the future, nor the predictability of specific long-term harms, is robust enough to act as a genuine constraint on what we want to do or believe now.
The roots of such embedded denial lie in progressivism, which underlies the whole environmental problematic. Material consumerism is the form in which this mindset has caused environmental damage in the first place; latterly, it has manifested itself as wilfully self-blinded technological optimism. Many environmentally-concerned people, however, do already suspect the inadmissible: that it is now too late for ‘sustainability’ as conventionally projected. In this talk I explore where coming out of denial could take us.
Environmentalism needs to be recognised as addressed to what is wrong in our present orientation to the natural, both externally and within ourselves, and not only to what might as a consequence go wrong for the future. If what is wrong is progressivism, and this has provided the impetus for genuine advances in material welfare, our environmental situation is tragic in the full sense – major damage ensuing from and expressing destructive weaknesses structurally inherent in important strengths. Tragedy thus conceived entails losses which can’t be mitigated or compensated, but it can also reveal us to ourselves in ways from which we may be able to learn.
We can’t really predict what will happen on the ground as global economic and ecological systems unravel, having at best a reasonable idea of where the survival of something recognisable as civilisation is most probable. We must therefore arm ourselves with insight and flexibility rather than with plans, and I offer no “blueprint for retrieval”, but rather some relevant illustrations of what may be possible politically, educationally and economically, if we approach what is coming with a realism grounded in genuinely non-optimistic life-hope.
For me, this promises to be the absolute highlight of a busy week. Expect reports ...