Does what we do matter? This question, for most of human intellectual history has often been a philosophical one. How one fills the days, what makes up a good life, and what effect you can have on yourself and others, have been subjects of fascination for as long as we’ve thought about, well, anything. In today’s world, the question can take on a profoundly existential flavour, even if it retains some of its philosophical underpinnings. As scientists deliver dire finding after dire finding, the dangers that humanity and the planet face seem to get closer with each passing study. Such research is often meant to act as an alarm bell, a warning that ‘serious’ action must be taken, that we are running out of time. Just as often, these reports only increase the weight of our collective failing, while demonstrating how far away we are from anything like solving the issues that plague our environment and its future. Even more depressing, is when the research is tossed around our media landscape, always alongside calls for a ‘conversation’ or a ‘dialogue’. Words, words, words in a time when action is the last fading hope.
It should come as no surprise that in a society that has come to substitute the imperative to act with the imperative to Discourse, that so many of the changes that are prescribed, or find their way into social reality, are aesthetic markers more than actual solutions. We’re literally clutching at straws. It works like this; a tiny innovation like a paper straw works its way into the consumer–ecosystem. It gains support from people, who soon see it as evidence of ‘support for climate action’ — any coffee shop that cares will surely now only offer these more friendly straws. Deniers of climate science follow suit by predictably mocking the straws (most often for the most banal reasons, harder to suck on, falls apart, what’s wrong with good ol’ American plastic straws? And so, on), rather than getting to more obvious arguments against the straws. Ones like, how much does this actually help? What does this actually do? When I go to my coffee shop and order my refrigerated cold–brew made with beans flown in from Indonesia, tell them my order is to go, and they pour the cold liquid into a plastic cup, secure it with a plastic lid, and hand it my way, shouldn’t I feel a little ridiculous patting myself and the store on our backs for piercing that plastic with something slightly less damaging to the environment? This is then followed typically by retorts that it’s better than nothing, you have to start somewhere, etc. But, it’s this approach that only underscores our ignorance to the scale of our crisis. We are always taking refuge in something only slightly better than nothing, we are only ever starting somewhere. It may well be the crisis itself that finally provides an ending.
Beyond these tiny alterations, we get calls to cut back on air conditioning, for us plebs to drive less, fly less, bring our own bags, and in general go about figuring out ways to feel like what we do matters, without understanding if it does or not. This is not to say we shouldn’t do these things, sure, we should go ahead and use less where we can. But, it’s also to say, that these are drops in the bucket — that keeping the AC off while streaming Netflix is not an act that will sustain life on this planet as we know it. Walking with our own bags to buy imported prosciutto is likely not the answer to the climate change crisis. Rather, we are faced with a profoundly complicated structural issue, the likes of which humans have never faced (well, it turns out we have long been facing it, but only over these last few decades have we even glanced in its direction) and in that sense it is easy to understand why our first attempts to deal with the situation have been ridiculous. The scale of what we are told we are facing feels itself absurd. The world could be uninhabitable? How can the prosperous people of this planet possibly wrestle with what that truly means, or could look like? Of course denial would be first, and as obvious as that, these delirious feel–good environmental aids, the effect of which we as individuals are mostly clueless about. Most likely, the structures of capital that are the real contributors to our environmental peril, will themselves have to be placed in danger for nations like ours, who most benefit from said structures, to even somewhat grasp what is actually happening here. By then, it will likely be too late, and we’ll have neither helped alleviate the suffering of the poor in the here and now, nor protected the planet for those yet to come. For the time being, we’ll content ourselves with starting a conversation, and starting one again after that. V