Often when I talk to people about climate change, I get asked if I think it’s even possible to stop it. If you’re involved in climate change action in any way, I imagine you’ve had the same question. It’s an understandable concern, but not a helpful one. I don’t think ‘is is possible?’ is the right question to ask, and I’ll say why. (I’m going to give a long answer. If you’re in a hurry, scroll to the bottom for a short one.)
First of all, it’s worth stopping to ask if we would raise that question in other contexts. Let’s say you’re halfway home and you realise you left your wallet in the pub toilets. Do you stop to ponder the odds of it being there when you go back to look for it, or just hurry back and find out? I’d certainly be doing the latter. If by acting one can avert a crisis, one acts, even if the chances of success are small.
Or to pick something altogether different, let’s say we’re worried that literacy among British schoolchildren is falling. Should we discuss whether or not it’s possible to raise standards, or just skip to discussing the best ways to raise them? I would think that acting to remedy the problem would be a given.
Feasibility is important for planning. If you’re building something, trying something new, then by all means ask if its possible and plan accordingly. But it’s not a question for when things go wrong. If I get sick, or if my car develops a strange rattle, or my shed catches fire, then the natural course of action is to act. ‘Can anything be done?’ would be an odd response in such a situation.
The climate gets treated differently because, as a slow motion disaster, it doesn’t impress itself on us with any kind of urgency. It doesn’t feel like a crisis, and so we don’t treat it as one. It gets pigeon-holed as an environmental ‘issue’ for other people to solve. We allow ourselves the luxury of debating it, apparently endlessly, when we’d have taken action long ago if it was problem of similar magnitude in a different field.
The question of possibility can very easily become a distraction and an excuse. It’s a distraction when we waste our energy debating when we could have been doing something productive. If we’d acted more decisively on climate change after the Rio summit in 1992, the outlook would look very different today. Or even in 2009 for that matter. The possible may have become impossible because we took too long talking about it.
If we dwell too much on possibility, it also becomes an excuse – we conclude that nothing can be done, and therefore nothing will be done. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also a way of letting us off the hook – we didn’t bother, because it wasn’t possible. Future generations won’t forgive us for that. They will call it cowardice and complacency.
They might also say that we had a failure of the imagination. Was the problem really that we couldn’t break our fossil fuel addiction, or that we couldn’t conceive of life without them? If we can’t imagine it, we might say something’s impossible when it’s not. And then the failing is all ours.
After all, possibility is not a fixed category, and that’s another good reason not to get hung up on it. Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. When I started this blog, it wasn’t possible to power the world entirely on renewable energy. It was too expensive and too inefficient. But the technology has moved, and today it is possible – or at least a growing number of better informed people than myself seem to think so.
There are rules of physics of course, but on political and cultural questions possibility is a fluid thing. It is constantly emerging and revealing itself. To dip into the philosophical, we might say that there are a landscape of possibilities, and as we travel forwards it unrolls ahead of us.
Finally, putting aside the question of possibility isn’t a naive thing to do. It’s a matter of resolve, not denial. It doesn’t mean burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring the magnitude of the challenge. That’s not going to lead to sensible action either.
At a recent symposium I attended, former Archbishop Rowan Williams talked about the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism, he says, is a naive assumption that everything is going to be alright. Hope is being prepared to face the facts, acknowledge the full reality of our predicament, and still believe that things can be different. You can see how necessary hope is if you consider its opposite. Hopelessness, by contrast, is to see only the obstacle and not be able to see beyond it. It leaves us powerless and crushed.
Though I am an optimist by nature, I want my work to be characterised by hope, not a vague positivity. I want to be awake and alert to the facts, but God forbid I should ever start thinking that the world can’t be different, that we’re stuck with inequality, destruction and violence forever. With that in mind, let’s get on with it, and ‘let the dead bury the dead’.
That’s a long answer to a straightforward question. For the short answer I promised at the beginning, I don’t think we can do much better than E F Schumacher’s advice in his book Good Work:
“we must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we’re going to be successful.”