Facing & Surviving Climate Change with Honest Hope

Many times during the last five years, after my lectures about abrupt, large-scale climate change – as described in my essay about that topic – in my classes and seminars, in personal conversations, and most recently in multiple threads on the social media forum Facebook, people have said to me, paraphrasing, “You must offer people hope! Without hope, they will simply shut down and not deal with this issue.”

Upon hearing that argument, again and again, I would counsel something like this.  Yes, I agree, but the hope that we offer now must be a grounded in reality.   We can no longer promise that things are going to be ‘OK’, that we can stop large-scale climate change.  To do so is to offer false hope, which is unethical, because that may prevent people from fully understanding what we face in order to prepare themselves and – more importantly – their children to deal with what is coming.  Instead, we must redefine hope in a way that is grounded in reality.

My argument is often met with silence, and sometimes obstinate refusal to accept it.
“But, but …!” they would sometimes respond, flustered.

Then, a few years ago, I found two books with arguments that supported my view, and articulated it more completely.

The first is Lawrence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, a book about about the mindset of people who survive life threatening situations, including mountaineering accidents, plane crashes, war and concentration camp survivors, serious illnesses and other personal traumas.  From his research, he assembled a set of 12 rules of survival, mental characteristics and strategies of survivors that got them through the challenges.  As a backpacker, mountaineer and rock climber who has faced life threatening situations, I read the rules with great interest.  But I also recognized – as does he – that his rules are applicable to our predicament as a species, including how to face the daunting aspects of climate change.

(In Gonzales’s second book, which is the text for a second-level reading seminar in the adaptability component of Ermah Ge’s Earth Studies Program) Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things, he explicitly addresses the predicament that our species faces with global heating and climate change, helps explain why we got ourselves into this mess, and what we need to do to survive it.  Even though Deep Survival – his first book – plays a more prominent role in this essay, of the two, I recommend Everyday Survival more strongly.)

The second book is Dianne Dumanoski’s The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth, which I have for years consistently called the most important book on climate change written to date.  In it, she counsels that, “Fear, despair, and denial are indulgences we cannot afford.  It is time to turn and face the future head on”.  She argues that we need to abandon “blind hope” based in faith alone, and culture “honest hope”.

The ideas of the two books dovetail very well.  Since finding them, I have integrated ideas from both into my lectures, classes and seminars about climate change.

In this document, I have assembled excerpts from both books.  First is a modified set of Gonzales’ 12 rules of survival, shortened from his more complete version provided in the appendix of Deep Survival that includes examples from case studies.

Second are excerpts from Dumanoski’s The End of the Long Summer.

I end with a relevant quote from James Lovelock.
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Lawrence Gonzales’ 12 Rules of Survival

1. Perceive and believe. Don’t fall into the deadly trap of denial or of immobilizing fear. Admit it: You’re really in trouble and you’re going to have to get yourself out. Survivors don’t candy-coat the truth, but they also don’t give in to hopelessness in the face of it.  Survivors see opportunity, even good, in their situation, however grim.

The phases of the survival journey roughly parallel the five stages of death once described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  In dire circumstances, a survivor moves through those stages rapidly to acceptance of his situation, then resolves to do something to save himself.  Survival depends on telling yourself, “Okay, I’m here.  This is really happening.  Now I’m going to do the next right thing to get myself out.” Whether you succeed or not ultimately becomes irrelevant.  It is in acting well – even suffering well – that you give meaning to whatever life you have to live.

2. Stay calm – use your anger. In the initial crisis, survivors are not ruled by fear; instead, they make use of it. Their fear often feels like (and turns into) anger, which motivates them and makes them feel sharper. Survivors also manage pain well.

3. Think, analyze and plan.  Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline.

4. Take correct, decisive action. Survivors are willing to take risks to save themselves and others.  But they are simultaneously bold and cautious in what they will do.

5. Celebrate your success. Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes.  This helps keep motivation high and prevents a lethal plunge into hopelessness.  It also provides relief from the unspeakable strain of a life-threatening situation.

6. Be a rescuer, not a victim. Survivors are always doing what they do for someone else, even if that someone is thousands of miles away.

7. Enjoy the survival journey. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even in the worst circumstances, survivors find something to enjoy, some way to play and laugh. Survival can be tedious, and waiting itself is an art.   Survivors use the intellect to stimulate, calm, and entertain the mind.   Singing, playing mind games, reciting poetry, counting anything, and doing mathematical problems in your head can make waiting possible and even pleasant, even while heightening perception and quieting fear.  Survivors engage their crisis almost as an athlete engages a sport.  They cling to talismans.  They discover the sense of flow of the expert performer, the “zone” in which emotion and thought balance each other in producing fluid action.  A playful approach to a critical situation also leads to invention, and invention may lead to a new technique, strategy, or design that could save you.

8. See the beauty. Survivors are attuned to the wonder of their world, especially in the face of mortal danger.  The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses to the environment.  [This relates to my essay, What is life?]

9. Believe that you will succeed. It is at this point, following what I call “the vision,” that the survivor’s will to live becomes firmly fixed.  Fear of dying falls away, and a new strength fills them with the power to go on.

10. Surrender. Yes you might die.  In fact, you will die – we all do.  But perhaps it doesn’t have to be today.  Don’t let it worry you.  Forget about rescue.  Everything you need is inside you already.

11. Do whatever is necessary. Survivors have a reason to live and are willing to bet everything on themselves.  They have what psychologists call meta-knowledge:  They know their abilities and do not over– or underestimate them.  They believe that anything is possible and act accordingly.

12. Never give up. Survivors are not easily discouraged by setbacks.  They accept that the environment is constantly changing and know that they must adapt.  When they fall, they pick themselves up and start the entire process over again, breaking it down into manageable bits.  Survivors always have a clear reason for going on.  They keep their spirits up by developing an alternate world, created from rich memories, into which they can escape.  They see opportunity in adversity.  In the aftermath, survivors learn from and are grateful for the experiences that they’ve had.

Those who would survive the hazards of our world, whether at play or in business or at war, through illness or financial calamity, will do so through a journey of transformation.  But that transcendent state doesn’t miraculously appear when it is needed.  It wells up from a lifetime of experiences, attitudes, and practices form one’s personality, a core from which the necessary strength is drawn.  A survival experience is an incomparable gift: It will tell you who you really are.
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From Dianne Dumanoski’s The End of the Long Summer:
Why We Must Remake Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth

Note: Non-contiguous paragraphs are separated by lines. I have also tried to cross reference some of Dumanoski’s advice with Gonzales’ by noting which of his rules apply to a particular quote.
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Chapter 1 : “The Future Head-On”.
Rule 1: Perceive and believe;  Rule 2: Stay calm – use your anger;
Rule 3: Think, analyze & plan;  Rule 4: Take correct, decisive action

“The future in the modern imagination has always stretched out ahead like a broad highway drawing us onward with the promise of tomorrow.  Now rather suddenly, as it becomes impossible to ignore dramatic changes taking place across the Earth, the future looms like an urgent question.  Whatever the coming century brings, it will not unfold smoothly as some improved but largely unfamiliar version of life as we know it. This is the only thing that seems certain.”
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“The hard truth is that there are no ‘solutions’ that can simply halt this planetary emergency, stop the dramatic changes that are already underway, and save the world we have known.”
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“The aim in all this is survivability, a challenge that goes beyond ‘adapting’ to a drier climate or flood dangers or making current practices ‘sustainable’.  First and foremost, we need to insulate and redesign our social and economic systems so they can better withstand disruption and shock and can change in the face of altered circumstance. Survivability should not be mistaken with survivalism – an impulse focused on retreat from society and individual survival.  The aim rather is to safeguard the human knowledge and institutions that give us capacity to respond with imagination and flexibility to a changing world.”
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“The most formidable obstacle ahead may be an imaginative one.  The first step is to recognize that we have entered a period of deep change.  Of course, simply suggesting that our civilization may be hitting a dead end is considered a message of ‘doom and gloom’.  But this judgment is a matter of perspective.  Acknowledging that we’re at the end of something means we’re at the start of something else.  We need to imagine futures that don’t much resemble the present – all kinds of futures, creative alternatives as well as frightening scenarios.  The question is not how to preserve the status quo, but rather how to make our way in a new historical landscape.  Today’s children will likely confront challenges we can hardly imagine in a radically altered, unrecognizable world.  Can we responsibly continue preparing them for business as usual?  And if not, what can we do to make them ready for a survival game in which wild cards rule?.”
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“The door to the comfortable and familiar world we depend on has already slammed shut behind us.  It is already too late to ‘prevent’ global warming or to ‘solve’ the climate crisis, too late to prevent powerful forces from altering the trajectory of human history.  That we have already crossed some ominous thresholds, however, does not mean that it is too late to do anything at all.  We humans are at a critical juncture – an historical moment that requires courage & sober realism.  We cannot bank on the end of the world or deliverance from the trials of existence, whether through blind faith or technological salvation.  Fear, despair, and denial are indulgences we cannot afford.  It is time to turn and face the future head on.”
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Chapter 5 : “A Stormworthy Lineage” (pp. 128-129)

“There is reason to despair at our failure of imagination, at our inability to conceive that this modern culture is not the only or best way of being human … Hope is a precious resource.  ur evolutionary legacy argues that we have the inherent capacity – flexibility, imagination, and creativity – to meet the challenges ahead and avoid a cultural dead end.  In a world prone to abrupt changes and extremes, simply staying alive has been no small achievement [Rule 5: Celebrate your success]…. We should not forget, through the worst that lies ahead, that a long line of resilient survivors stands behind us.  Humans have done this before.  [Rule 9: Believe that you will succeed]  This is a true and honest hope with deep roots in the story of our endurance within a volatile and capricious nature.”
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Chapter 7 : “On Vulnerability and Survivability”

“Amid the danger and uncertainty of the planetary era, how does one choose life? Choosing life begins with courage, the courage to confront the complexity and contingency of this world and let go of the modern illusion that we can bring it under human control.  The absence of control is itself a terrifying thought, especially for anyone who has been nurtured on the dreams and promises of our current civilization.  A sober look at the radical uncertainty of the human future … gives reason for real fear, the kind of primal fear that drives to the bone.  But fear can be, must be, faced down rather than repressed or denied.  The times are too dangerous to do otherwise.” [Rule 1: Perceive and believe; Rule 2: Stay calm – use your anger]
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Chapter 9 : “Honest Hope”

“In times of danger, bitter truths serve us better than sweet lies. [Rule 1: Perceive and believe]  The modern era has not taken us where our guiding myths promised.  The belief in deliverance through progress has been shattered by developments such as the ozone hole and global warming.  Our most rapid progress now may be toward making the planet uninhabitable for many kinds of life, including ourselves.

“The decades ahead promise unimaginable loss.  Much of the world as we know it – the maple forests of the New England autumn, the coral reefs in tropical waters, the polar bears and countless other animals and plants, low-lying islands and sandy beaches, and perhaps even some of the world’s coastal cities – will likely vanish in the lifetime of a child born today.  These are not the dark prophesies of environmental apocalypse invoked to scare us into changing our ways, but simply inescapable consequences of the change already set in motion.  Shutting off all the greenhouse gases today will not stop the warming any more than shutting off the engine can stop a runaway train hurtling down a mountain (though it might switch us onto a less precipitous and calamitous track).  The century ahead promises to be a wild trip.

“Of all the hurdles that lie ahead, the most formidable may simply be to recognize that the world has changed fundamentally and that we must prepare to meet a future that may bear little resemblance to what we have come to expect.” [Rule 3: Think, analyze & plan; Rule 4: Take correct, decisive action]
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“If the Earth reverts to wilder music in the decades hence, I want humans, with or without complex civilization, to remain part of the dance.  [Rule 12: Never give up.]  I wish this not because I think we’re exceptional within the Earth’s commonwealth of life – though we are, in our way, just as the camouflage genius, the cuttlefish, is in its way – or that Gaia or the cosmos needs us for any reason, but because there is a joy in being alive, and part of this ancient drama.  [Rule 8: See the beauty.]  I want others to experience this and have their moment on the green, exuberant Earth… In the course of this exploration, it has become clear to me that modern civilization is not the measure of humanity.  It is not the only or best way of being human.  It is not a reason to conclude that the Earth would be better off without our species or that we are doomed by our flawed nature to self-destruct.”

“The danger now confronting us is that our current global civilization, this radical cultural experiment, will not only destroy itself, but conditions that allow for any form of organized human society.  In the worst case, the global change driven by modern industrial civilization could shift the Earth into a new state that is inhospitable to our kind of life.  If past history is any guide, the Earth and its great Gaian process will survive the assault of the modern era, just as it has survived the oxygen crisis, asteroid hits, and other shattering catastrophes.  Given time, life will rebound and head off in new directions, because, ever creative, this awesome Earth process has demonstrated the ability to transform the bitterest of lemons into sweet lemonade.  In this way, poisonous oxygen became the breath of complex life.  I pray we avoid such a worst case, that humans survive the fallout from the modern era and have a chance to write a new chapter of our story.  [Rule 4: Take correct, decisive action; Rule 8: See the beauty; rule 11: Do whatever is necessary]

“The only certain thing about the coming century is its immense uncertainty.  The great temptation of our time will be the impulse to flee from this uncertainty.  Given the black-and-white propensity of Western minds, it will take conscious effort to resist taking refuge either in despair – in the conviction that ‘it’s too late’  [Rule 12: never give up.] – or in the alternative, to bask in groundless, sunny optimism that ‘we’ll figure out something, because science always does.’ [Rule 1: Perceive and believe]  I have heard a great deal said about the importance of hope as the human prospect has grown darker, but hope will sustain us only if it is clear-eyed.  In reflecting about cultural traps that have made past societies incapable of meeting the challenge of changing circumstance, the anthropologist Paul Bohannan asks, ‘Have they at least figured out some of the things they should not do?  Or are they running on blind hope? That kind of hope kills.’  I don’t think we have figured it out.  I fear blind hope as much as despair.

“The flight from uncertainty into the arms of Providence, whether it is faith in a technological fix, deliverance by the invisible hand of markets, or the apocalyptic belief that human history is approaching its end, relieves us from the responsibility for the future and the obligation to make difficult choices, to act, and to shape the future as best we can for those making their way in the midst of what could be wild and calamitous change.”
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“ ‘Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life,’ observes John Gray, the British historian.  ‘We have been reared on religions and philosophies that deny the experience of tragedy.’  I think he is right when he concludes: ‘The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies.’

“In my own experience, the reality of crisis has proved far different from what I had imagined.  More than anything, I have been surprised at what I have learned about myself.  Through two life-threatening illnesses, I discovered that one finds strength when one has to and simply endures what seemed before hand terrifying and impossible.  In an emergency, that could have been fatal, I was amazed at how readily I mustered the calm clarity necessary to extricate myself before it was too late.  [Rule 2: Stay calm – use your anger]  By forcing us to be more open to life requires in ordinary times, crisis can temper and deepen.

“Those who find themselves in the extraordinary times ahead will also discover what my friends in Poland and Bosnia, who lived through long, brutal wars, found in the midst of the struggle and loss.  Such moments of great trial are not only the worst of times, but for many they can also be the very best, because one often experiences life at its most precious, intense and meaningful.  I remember my friend Fikret trying to explain this astonishing paradox during a hike that took us into the hills above Sarajevo to see the positions from which Serbian paramilitaries had haunted civilians in the streets below during one of the longest sieges in history – almost four excruciating and deadly years.  Despite the horror of it all, he said, he knew survivors who looked back on the siege as the happiest time of their lives.  His statement stopped me in my tracks.  How could that be? I demanded.

“ ‘Because everything during that time is so clear.’ [Rule 8: See the beauty]

“Looking ahead, it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities, although these may not be the kind that one would have chosen wittingly.  In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lives enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required.  [Rule 8: See the beauty]

“Like our ancestors who managed to survive vicissitude and great hardship over the past 5 million years and who found ways to live creatively in a deeply uncertain world, we must have the fortitude to confront this immense uncertainty and find a path through its dark thickets.  As has always been the case, we will be sending our children into this challenge future without guarantees.  [Rule 6: Be a rescuer, not a victim] But if we are both wise and prudent, we will arm them for this dangerous passage with understanding about how our inherited assumptions about ourselves and the world have unleashed this instability, with resilient institutions designed for flexibility and redundancy rather than profit and efficiency, with a recast map of the world that reflects the volatile nature into which they have been born, and with the most precious endowment passed down through countless human generations – knowledge, courage, and honest hope.”
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James Lovelock in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine about
conditions later this century resulting from large-scale climate change

“It will be a dark time, “Lovelock admits.
“But for those who survive, I suspect it will be rather exciting.”

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