I watched Stephen Sackur interview James Lovelock on the BBCâ€™s Hard Talk programme on Tuesday evening. It was a depressing experience.Â Lovelock largely reiterated the things he said in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, reported in my review here.Â Â I listened to it all again. His familiar and seemingly detached expectation that most of the human race will be extinguished Â this century. His strong distaste for green solutions, especially wind power. HisÂ conviction that all our efforts should now be directed to preparing for life in a diminished world, and that the more time we waste on silly ideas like renewable energy the worse things will be in the end. At present countries like the UK can and should provide a haven for refugees from hotter climates, but there will come a time when the lifeboat is full. Iâ€™m not sure how he envisages events unfolding at that point.
I confess that I sometimes despair of our being willing or able to take the steps recognised as necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.Â Watching a scientist like Lovelock saying that itâ€™s pointless even toÂ try does nothing for my morale.Â It was therefore a welcome coincidence that straight after viewing the programme I checked on the Guardian and discovered an exchange of letters between George MonbiotÂ (pictured) and Paul Kingsnorth, a writer, journalist and environmental campaigner who seems to have thrown in the towel. Â
Kingsnorth does not take up exactly the same position as Lovelock, but he expresses a deep pessimism. A rapacious human economy is bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos. The cold reality is that there is a serious crash on the way.Â We are not facing up to this. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives if we can only embrace â€œsustainable developmentâ€ rapidly enoough.Â Get real, he says. Climate change is teetering on the point of no return while our leaders bang the drum for more growth.Â The economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon that growth to function. And who wants it tamed anyway? Most people in the rich world won’t be giving up their cars or holidays without a fight.
Some people believe that these things should not be said, even if true, because saying them will deprive people of “hope”, and without hope there will be no chance of “saving the planet”. But false hope is worse than no hope at all. The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.
Nothing here to cheer me up after Lovelock, but it was Monbiotâ€™s response which engaged me.Â He concedes having become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash Kingsnorth predicts, and acknowledges having been almost professionally optimistic in recent years, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. But he focuses particularly on the very thing that Lovelock and Kingsnorth pass over quickly. The immediate consequences of collapse would be hideous: the breakdown of the systems that keep most of us alive; mass starvation; war. These alone, he writes, surely give us sufficient reason to fight on, however faint our chances appear.Â
And on the other side of collapse will be something worse than the society we currently inhabit. Survivors will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are slim indeed.Â The human and ecological consequences of the first global collapse will persist for many generations.
This is why, explains Monbiot, he fights on.Â Not to sustain economic growth but to prevent collapse and repeated catastrophe to follow.Â An ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy may be a faint hope, but itâ€™s a possibility that must be kept alive.Â For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means â€“ if only the political will were present â€“ of preventing them. Better to keep trying than to sit back and watch billions die.Â The chances of success may be small, but they are non-existent if we give up before we have started.
Iâ€™m with Monbiot, of course. I donâ€™t know how one can take on board the message science delivers on climate change without feeling deep fear for the human future. When I listen to some of our political and business leaders talk about the need to balance climate change measures with the demands of economic growth I can only presume they havenâ€™t fully exposed themselves to what the science is saying. We need to keep hammering home the terrible seriousness of what lies ahead.Â None of us can be sure that itâ€™s too late to remedy things. Lovelock may think it, but he doesnâ€™t know it. Â Nor can we be sure that the politicians and economists will never budge. Changes can happen very quickly â€“ think of the end of apartheid, or the dismantling of the European communist regimes.Â It would be dereliction to give up because the going is hard.