This feels like the urgent and important question we should all be asking ourselves in this moment.
The odds are not stacked in our favour, individually or collectively. The climate crisis appears so overwhelmingly impossible to solve that nihilism is the only logical response. Wherever you are in the world as you’re reading my letter, chances are there’s a madcap authoritarian in charge, or in the wings, or in the country next door. Oh, and then there’s that recession just around the corner, ready to strike as most of us are still dusting ourselves off from the last one.
Being on planet earth right now feels like being stuck on a packed, broken-down subway train. It’s hot, dark, cramped, there is no-one in charge and you have no way of knowing how or when you’ll get out.
You feel powerless and undignified.
I have spent the last few years in various phases of hopelessness about it all, but recently I have had some experiences that are beginning to change my thinking.
Earlier this year I watched a talk by a member of Extinction Rebellion, where the speaker literally held a two-minute silence to allow the audience to grieve the end of society.
I mean… 😶
But that talk also introduced me to a NASA scientist called Dr. Kate Marvel. When I spoke to her on the phone and asked her about hope and hopelessness her answer stuck with me:
“You can be hopeful or not - it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change what we need to do.”
It turns out there are a whole bunch of climate scientists, activists and writers who have given up on hope.
Instead she and others have moved beyond it.
Here’s what a marine biologist called Dr. Ayana Johnson told me a few weeks ago:
“I have abandoned hope and optimism - they are not useful words, they don’t imply action. I like to think about strategy, next steps. What can I do? What am I good at?”
Being hopeful about the climate crisis is the same as saying ‘oh, if I just sit here and do nothing, I’m sure it’ll work itself out in the end.’
Instead these activists - and there’s a whole amazing network of them, mostly women of colour as it goes - believe in “building communities around solutions”.
When people like me have been curled up on the floor feeling depressed about the end of the world, there are people asking “What needs to be done? What skills can I bring to the table to help do it?”
They are busy self-organising, starting local movements, getting people together to solve problems in their area.
They aren’t waiting for permission.
This is something every single one of us can do. We can look around us and ask “What problem needs solving right now and what could I contribute?”
In his book Poetry from the Future, Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat tells a story of Yugoslav refugees fleeing Nazi persecution during World War Two. They ended up in the hands of the British who, unsure what to do with them, sent 37,000 to camps in the Egyptian desert.
The British left the refugees to their own devices and, returning a short time later, they expected to find scenes of chaos and desperation. Instead:
“The administration of the camp was almost completely controlled by the refugees. They established their own courts, even a police force. They started kindergartens, elementary schools, secondary schools, nursing schools, trade schools and published a newspaper. The camp had its own theatre, recreation hall, store houses, repair shops, infirmary, laundry and so on.”
Faced with abandonment and subservience, the refugees had organised themselves.
I can’t help but think there is a powerful dignity in this.
Sitting around waiting for someone, some greater power - a 16-year-old for goodness sake! - to come and rescue you from your problems…you’re robbing yourself of your dignity.
What if, on that packed subway car, one person raised their voice and said “is everyone OK? Does anyone need some water?”
What needs to be done?
What are you good at?
What can you organise today?
Until next Sunday,