Does climate breakdown mean we’re doomed? No: if we’re brave, big change can happen fast | Gaia Vince
Is there any hope? Are we all doomed? I write books about the climate crisis, so I am often asked fearful questions like these. But I’m being asked them more and more often and by younger people, an alarming trend not unconnected to the number of scientific reports detailing how humans are pushing the Earth’s systems to dangerous extremes.
I write about planetary-scale ecosystem destruction but, importantly, I also focus on our species’ extraordinary capacity to adapt; this has been key to our success in the past – and it is key to surviving our future. There are radical, yet pragmatic, solutions to our crises. But fear of what will happen if we don’t act is imprisoning people in a mindset that makes alternatives seem unthinkable. I am frequently told my solutions are unrealistic and will never happen; that people would rather fight each other in wars than adapt to share food and land, for instance. We make our own future, even if it’s hard to see the process. So let me try to make the case for hope.
We are living inside the imagination of our ancestors. Everything we see around us exists only because it first took shape in somebody’s mind. Ideas such as democracy, public libraries, the abolition of slavery, municipal sewage, aeroplanes, seatbelt regulations, eating with cutlery, the very building you’re sitting inside right now … they were all birthed in a person’s imagination, then actively formed into a shareable vision that others could collectively mould, modify, reimagine and nurture in their minds. Eventually, a concept that once existed solely inside a person’s mind – an idea that may have seemed impossible, wildly unachievable, even crazy to that person’s society – became our unremarkable reality, part of what is normal. This is the magic that made our wonderful, imperfect world.
Today, looking at the state of, well, everything, it can seem as if we are stuck in a socioeconomic status quo, condemned to a scary future. We are experiencing worsening global crises, ranging from climate chaos to biodiversity loss and food shortages. Looking ahead to more extreme weather conditions, and an ever larger human population that will need to be fed even as agriculture becomes more precarious, can feel desperately bleak. The scale and urgency of our crises are overwhelming and the mismatch in the ambition of our leaders to address these challenges feels frightening. It’s a burden that weighs particularly heavily on young people, who naturally have the greatest stake in the decades to come. People are anxious and afraid.
Eco-anxiety stems from a sense of hopelessness and the realisation that there are limits to how much agency we have as individuals to affect global change. But we are not hopeless, far from it. The future is still unwritten; we cannot know what it holds, but we will make it first in our minds, in our imaginations.
In this time of multiple global crises, we need true leadership with vision to help us forge a path towards a sustainable future – yet we have the lowest calibre of leaders right now. Instead of aligning policy to clearly stated goals on climate targets or poverty reduction or biodiversity, governments are blundering around with mixed messages and policies that undermine their goals or deliver little progress.
We need honesty from our leaders about what our choices are and what the trade-offs will be for each of us. There are no easy options now, but there are still plenty of choices for us to discuss, debate and democratically decide on. But we need first to decide what kind of future we want, what is important to us, and what kind of society we want to live in. Only then can we take pragmatic steps towards a future we envision.
First, we have to notice. We have to raise our heads from the all-consuming business of daily life and pay attention to what is wrong with today’s “normal”: notice who in our society is being failed and which of our human activities are damaging our communities and natural spaces. See the opportunities in what needs to be fixed. Understand not just intellectually, but emotionally what we face as our world heats. And then actively choose to imagine an alternative, a future that is livable. Be pragmatic: how do we get to this future from our current reality?
We may lack leadership, but we have our own imaginations. Choose to conjure that vision of a livable future. What does your ideal neighbourhood look like? For me, it is vibrant with people and plants, safe to walk and cycle in, comfortably sheltered from extreme weathers and rich in community spaces. It will mean rethinking our cities, planning the architecture, materials and energy systems for sustainability, so our buildings generate rather than simply use energy, for instance. We’re in a transition right now to a greener economy – we can seize this opportunity to reset all aspects of our society, to make things fairer and more sustainable.
Do you want a world where the verges are lined with flowers? Then plant them. Be a guerrilla gardener everywhere, sowing ideas like seeds. Find a tribe of like-minded people or make your own, and focus on achievable tasks: litter-picking to improve your local environment immediately; campaign for safer cycle routes; increase the plant-based meal options in your workplace or school; welcome migrants into your group. One person can generate an idea, but it takes a community to create a reality, to come together and shift policy. Take heart, as I do, from the many groups already striving around the world. Think more broadly, think longer-term. Refuse to limit your mind to the narrow realm of today’s political circus.
Don’t get stuck thinking that things have to be the same as before – stasis is death. Don’t think they will inevitably get worse. Be brave as you explore your futures. Imagine 9 billion people having enough nutritious food, clean rivers bubbling with fish, restored wildlands, cheap, abundant energy, a livable future. If anyone tells you it’s impossible, ask why. Is it impossible because of the laws of physics, or is it impossible because of the rules of society? Because society changes. We change it; often extremely fast.
The scale and nature of the challenges we face demand a step-change in response – a vision that is more than an iteration. We need bold, imaginative ideas and true leadership. And nothing can be done without collaboration, a shared vision for a better world. Let’s do this!
Gaia Vince is an author, journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book is Nomad Century: How To Survive The Climate Upheaval