In Defense of “Climate Defeatism”

Here’s author and activist Jim Shultz’s response to Paul Kingsnorth (“To My Friend the Climate Defeatist”), who wrote a week or so ago about the realization that we can’t really do anything about climate change. Kingsnorth’s article, from which I quoted last week, is here, and my most recent thoughts on why I agree with Kingsnorth—and fellow “climate defeatist” Carolyn Baker—are here.

In this most recent piece, Shultz does make some valid points, including the fact that nobody but world-destroying corporations wins from people who give a shit about ecosystems giving up and doing nothing. He writes: “Finally, we must not let despair and resignation become the greatest gift we could ever hand to those who would love nothing more than for the climate movement to lose heart.”

But that’s not what Kingsnorth—nor Baker, nor I—is saying. We think everyone needs to take action, as often as possible, and for as long as it takes. But what we want is realistic action: action that will not be a waste of time at best, and counterproductive at worst. From the aforementioned Kingsnorth piece:

Instead of trying to “save the earth,” Kingsnorth says, people should start talking about what is actually possible. Kingsnorth has admitted to an ex-activist’s cynicism about politics as well as to a worrying ambivalence about whether he even wants civilization, as it now operates, to prevail. But he insists that he isn’t opposed to political action, mass or otherwise, and that his indignations about environmental decline and industrial capitalism are, if anything, stronger than ever. Still, much of his recent writing has been devoted to fulminating against how environmentalism, in its crisis phase, draws adherents. Movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, for instance, might engage people, Kingsnorth told me, but they have no chance of stopping climate change. “I just wish there was a way to be more honest about that,” he went on, “because actually what McKibben’s doing, and what all these movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people. And those people . . . they’re going to feel despair.”

If thinking that recycling a few more (or a million) more plastic bottles, or signing a petition to ask someone in congress to mention climate change at a press conference, or (the silliest thing ever) putting a bumper sticker on your car are all merely attempts to make people feel better about the coming ecological disaster—while allowing everyone to keep their lifestyle (as Hakim Bey once wrote, we don’t have lives in America, only lifestyles)—makes me a “collapsitarian” (or a nihilist or a doomer, etc.), then guilty as charged!

But that doesn’t mean I think people should just resign themselves to surfing the tube, just because the climate change battle is lost. The climate change battle, let’s not forget, is not the only battle. We still have the collapse of bee populations, monarch butterfly populations, bat populations, and many others to try to contain. We still have the poisoning of our ground water to deal with. We still have the have the human overshoot problem to try to figure out. Instead of signing petitions and writing letters to people who don’t read them, and holding meetings and joining campaigns that go nowhere, wouldn’t we be better, more active activists if we planted flowers and milkweed, sued fracking companies, and disseminated information (and contraceptives) to empower women and curb an unsustainable birth rate?

It’s not simply that the world is fucked and all we can do is enjoy the ride. The world is fucked because of our actions—and inactions. Therefore we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to ameliorate the crash. But in order to do that, the first step is admitting, by looking at the overwhelming evidence, that the crash is both inevitable and imminent. Is reducing my personal carbon footprint going to do an ounce of good, when taking into account that industry is responsible for the majority of carbon emissions, water use, and pollution anyway, or that gas mileage won’t mean anything when all the bees are gone?

Mind you, I’m not even saying that the measures I’ve listed will do all that well towards saving humanity. But they may give the bees a chance. At current clip, we’re taking them all down with us—while patting ourselves on the back for founding non-profit organizations or getting one more “like” on the Facebook page. Silliness.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of “Climate Defeatism”

  1. Don’t know whether to thank you or not for this essay. Of a like mind — climate change is a-coming, but activism is still important. What is useful though, and what is spitting into the wind? I’ve been reading Kingsnorth, too, and while his un-ceremony, described in the article you link to, sounded goofy, his outlook is not.

    I’d go even further. What if all this destruction is what we’re ‘supposed’ to do, laying the groundwork for some future, different species? Not in a sic-fi sense, just an evolutionary fact? Activism then is an act of faith, relying on the belief that our assumptions about our importance, and our ability to control ourselves, are correct?

    Anyway, I’ll continue to cast about for ways to think about this. Best wishes —

  2. No, Shultz had it right. To accept disaster as inevitable is to give up on everybody who will be caught in it. And if refusing to do that is silly, I don’t bloody care.

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