Living in an Age of Despair

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States in 2016 was appalling. I remember thinking, as the days passed, and as the shocking reality wore on, that this was it: there really was no hope. And as President Trump followed through on each of his campaign pledges, hell-bent, even, on building that wall, one particular issue clouded my consciousness: climate change. The feeling, that, actually, things weren’t going to be okay, lasted — and it persists.

In Trump’s first days in office, the page on climate change was removed from the White House website. Since then, he has elevated deniers to positions of power, overturned policies aimed at combating global warming, and given notice that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. It had been difficult enough to imagine, before President Trump, that we might somehow muster the collective force to mitigate the harmful impact we were having on the natural environment. Now, with the world’s largest political power against us, it was practically impossible.

This isn’t the world I grew up in. This isn’t the world I inherited. Sure, there was loss, degradation — the occasional tragedy, even, felt with the extinction of a species, or when pausing to reflect on how many people there actually were in the world, and so many of them are driving cars, and just think about all of that plastic, and if most of us are producing the amount of waste every day that I am, then… Just a couple of generations before, civilisation had, we were told, faced an existential threat — but enough good people, with enough political will and a bit of luck, had faced down that threat. In the end, things would be okay, because in the end they always are.

And then, Donald Trump was elected. Suddenly, catastrophe — the complete desecration of everything of value — seemed not only likely, but impossible to avert.

The truth is that, to thinking people, the problem of climate change really does appear insurmountable. In a recent interview, senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute Mayer Hillman, said, ‘We’re doomed. The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.’

With this realisation, comes a feeling: of despair. And it seems to be the logical response. Why be optimistic, when nothing we can do will make a difference? If all is hopeless, what hope is there? Even before President Trump, it had been obvious that the small actions of well-meaning individuals, added together, wouldn’t be enough to reverse climate change. Now, with the dominant political power refusing to acknowledge that there is a problem, it is lunacy to suggest that our species will survive this — without, at least, the complete loss of our civilisations.

We are, in fact, doomed.

So why worry about recycling, about carbon footprints, about our planet’s population? Really? If there’s nothing we can do, why do anything at all? Why should you stop eating meat, if reducing the effects of animal agriculture on the environment won’t actually solve the problem? (Heck, why give a damn about animals at all? They’re just going to die anyway…)

You can feel catastrophe approaching, like death. Really, there’s a lot to be said for the comparison to this, Philip Larkin’s ‘anaesthetic from which none come round’. It shares the same sense of inevitability: you can ignore it, at first; but realisation of it strengthens in time.

And, as with death, one wants to despair.

But is despair really the appropriate response? Is it the appropriate response, even, to death? This is an important question, and one that Albert Camus addresses in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which begins with the words,

‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.’

Camus took the question seriously, and he concluded — using, it’s fair to say, a little more than reason — that no, despair is not the appropriate response to death. In fact, he felt that the opposite was the case: our awareness of death’s inevitability should encourage us to appreciate life’s beauty; and rather than giving us licence to throw our morals out the window, our responsibilities to each other must grow in relation to our mutual vulnerability.

Perhaps this, then, is the appropriate response to our current situation. Just as we resist despair in the face of death, we must resist it now, in the face of catastrophe. It may well be that we’re doomed — but the doom that confronts us collectively is, really, no more final than the doom that each of us, individually, confronts, and laughs with, and carries on in spite of…

But wait, not so fast: there is one crucial difference! Our extinction is not yet assured. It is true that we may no longer be able to reverse global warming, but we still have time to mitigate its worst effects, and adapt our civilisations to ensure their survival, and that of our planet.

We must avoid despair, because it is pointless, and instead use our current situation to focus us on what is important. We might, at least, hope that as things become more dire, we will muster the collective will to preserve that which is truly valuable. As we do, we should use our enhanced sense of our mutual vulnerability to inform the responsibilities we have to each other.

If this is an Age of Despair, then we must resist.