Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20
“Against a backdrop of dark or gloom-filled outlooks regarding climate change,
a rising movement seeks to emphasize hope without sugarcoating the crisis.”
– Christian Science Monitor
Paradoxes are just that. Unstoppable force confronting immovable object. A single hand clapping. Or the well-known conundrum, ‘this statement is false.’ They are useful to contemplate but have no practical value. But paradoxically, there is one paradox with important, even critical real-life applications that could come in handy for all of us just now. It requires that people in circumstances where success is virtually impossible, and who are aware of same, nonetheless maintain belief in eventual success.
Said paradox was tested and proven by its namesake, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was rotting in a North Vietnamese prison camp, hungry, physically damaged, and in solitary, with no knowledge of how things stood outside when he developed it. We only know about Stockdale’s paradox because it was eminently practical – for him: he lived it, and it saved him. However brutal, that prison proved the perfect laboratory. And so, as we’ve written before, is the current fluxuant state of Earth’s climate.
Photo by Ajith S. / Unsplash
“‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas
would come, and Christmas would go…then Christmas again,
and eventually they died of a broken heart”
– Vice Admiral James Stockdale
It wasn’t some form of optimism: Stockdale made clear that the optimists among his imprisoned comrades were the least equipped to make it, crumbling further each time their hopeful expectations failed. But the pessimists fared little better, and journalist David Wallace-Wells must take care for, with his 2019 tome The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (Penguin Random House), he’s clearly in the pessimist camp.
Or is he? In a New York Times Magazine piece this October called Beyond Catastrophe, he laid out an almost Stockdalian approach to future climate scenarios, navigating between “Pollyanna-like faith that normality would endure, and… millenarian intuitions of an ecological end of days.”
In this he was assisted by new data he interprets as more moderate than the numbers he’s seen before. And indeed, Wallace-Wells is not the only one studying them and sounding a more hopeful note. The Christian Science Monitor is clearly in the Stockdale camp, as an upbeat climate article’s insert last September read:
“Why we wrote this: Hope.
Against a backdrop of dark or gloom-filled outlooks
regarding climate change, a rising movement
seeks to emphasize hope without
sugarcoating the crisis.”
The Monitor headline calls this the Rise of the Climate Optimists, but in fact, ‘emphasizing hope without sugarcoating’ is the very model of a modern major Admiral – Admiral Stockdale. A middle path, a single hand clapping. The dark and gloom isn’t a chimera, but a measurable and appreciable rise in temperatures, sea levels, human migration, monetary losses, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. This thing is real. ‘Emphasizing hope’ is what you do when there isn’t much.
Yet the optimistic tide does appear to be rising, as the Institute for Policy Studies’ OtherWords.org noted in Three Hopeful Stories of Environmental Activism, back in February. And just a few days ago, Vox’s environment reporter, Benji Jones, posted, “7 Reasons Why Our Planet Might Not be Doomed After All.”
Most of these focus on good trends and small victories – the number of species in recovery; land being reclaimed; focus placed on indigenous communities as environmental stewards; and so on. All the above and more were poured over at Montreal’s COP15 this December.
‘Architect of the Capitol’ shot at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1st Inaugural. By U.S. Capitol
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Monitor’s piece was essentially an encomium to positivity, a sort of FDR meets TR theme: namely that fear itself crushes the spirit, leading to apathy; while optimism fuels action and innovation. It quotes a professor of sustainable enterprise explaining, “the thinking is that if I can show you a future you want to aspire to, I will unleash your creative energies, and you will strive towards the best.”
But the true surprise was Wallace-Wells’ back-from-the-brink assessment of the IPCC’s climate predictions. He has now seen, he writes, not the promised land, but the probable land. It is indeed the middle path between catastrophic damage to both human-and-eco systems, and the abundant, verdant planet we knew.
“The most terrifying predictions [have been] made improbable by decarbonization and the most hopeful ones practically foreclosed by tragic delay,” he wrote. “The window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption but also billions of people, well past climate normal and yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse.”
If he is right, it’s the path that we, for better or worse, are doomed to walk.