How can we respond to a world of cascading disasters?
Over the past past few years we’ve had to deal with all sorts of new or resurgent evils, including climate catastrophe, Covid and the global assault on democracy. That’s been made harder by the fact that our political leaders (and plenty of their supporters) have either failed to respond effectively, or have actively promoted these evils. Yet there’s nothing positive about giving in to despair, either politically or personally.
In trying to respond, I’ve started thinking about the idea of ‘mitigated disaster’. Despite our collective failures on all of these issues, there’s still a good chance that the worst of the catastrophe will be staved off. And individually, we need to find ways to act responsibly and to resist the call of despair.
I’ll start with climate, because it’s the issue I have been engaged with longest and understand best. Global heating is having disastrous effects, from bushfires to heatwaves to extremes of drought and floods. And our political leaders, making judgements about what we, as citizens want, have failed to do what is clearly necessary.
But, despite all that, we’ve done far better than seemed likely 10 or 15 years ago. Nearly all major countries have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and many have adopted policies that require the end of coal-fired electricity and petrol-driven vehicles.
Those policies aren’t adequate, but they are a long way from the ‘Business as Usual’ scenarios we were looking at not long ago. On current policies, the best estimate is that we will ultimately see 2-3 degrees of warming. That would be disastrous in all sorts of ways. But it’s not that long ago that we were thinking about 4 degrees of warming https://findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/scholarlywork/738066-australia%E2%80%99s-climate-in-a-four-degree-world, which would be catastrophic.
No matter how bad the prospects are, we still have the chance to mitigate the disaster. Every coal mine that doesn’t go ahead, every solar farm that’s installed, every waste of energy that is eliminated is a step towards a more livable future. That’s true if we are looking at 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming, and even more so if we are looking at 4 degrees.
What can we do, as individuals, to save the planet and ourselves. In a world of national targets, individual action may or not be effective in itself – it may simply allow others to do less. Even so, by modelling the kind of life we need to adopt, we may help the process along. That means things like avoiding unnecessary car and plane travel, putting free time for our family and personal goals ahead of maximising money income and making our homes as energy efficient as possible. The point is both to reduce carbon emissions and to show that we can still have a good life as most people see it – at this point, trying to persuade billions of people to forgo the benefits of modern life is a non-starter.
Things aren’t nearly so encouraging in relation to the Covid pandemic. For quite a while, it seemed as if we could manage the collective action needed to beat the pandemic. We endured lockdowns while we waited for the vaccines that would allow us to return to a normal life. But the initial vaccines were beaten by Omicron, and the effort to develop new ones seems to have flagged. Meanwhile, the combination of anti-vaxerism and general weariness have led to the abandonment of nearly all the interventions that might prevent the spread of the pandemic. With better treatment and the (now waning) benefits of vaccination, the death rate is lower than at its peak, but repeated infections are generating all sorts of adverse consequences that may be lumped under the heading of Long Covid.
The best we can say about our collective response to the pandemic is that most places avoided the worst-case consequences, such as those seen in Republican-dominated parts of the United States, where vaccination was rejected along with other interventions. And, while we’ve lost years of progress in reducing mortality rates from disease, those rates are still lower than they were, ten or twenty years ago.
Looking to the future, it is possible to see some signs of a renewed demand for political action, as the consequences of doing nothing become more and more evident, particularly in the form of collapsing health systems. But it will be a long struggle.
So, it largely comes down to individual mitigation, protecting ourselves as best we reasonably can and making it clear to others we are doing so. In my own case, I’ve got myself vaccinated as much as possible (I’m hoping to get a 5th shot through an experimental program), minimised indoor contact with others (for example, refusing in-person speaking invitations) and stuck to masks, even though I know they mostly protect the non-wearers I engage with. That’s manageable for me, but of course things are much worse for immuno-compromised and other vulnerable people
The other aspect of surviving the pandemic is mental health. The challenges are different for all of us, but I hope some of what I’ve written will be helfpul in resisting general despair about the situation. At an individual level, the most important thing for me is putting in the work to maintain contact with people, now that I can’t rely as much on meeting them in person. Skype and Zoom chats are more difficult than in-person, but we need to keep going.
Then there’s social media. What matters here is to avoid the kind of negative-obsessive behavior advertisers want, and commercial networks promote in order to keep our attention. I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid any kind of negative engagement with others. A recent step has been dumping Twitter for the friendlier climes Mastodon (though I still cross-post and occasionally succumb to the temptation of a sharp response on Twitter).
I’ve gone on for too long, so I won’t say anything more about the attack on democracy than needed to point out that we are winning more rounds than we are losing. Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson are all gone, at least for now, and most of the dictators who seemed irresistible a few years ago (Xi, Putin and Erdogan for example) look much weaker today.
I’ll end with a couplet I cited a few years ago one of my favourite poets, Arthur Hugh Clough, in his poem “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” which ends with these lines:
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,But westward, look, the land is bright.