(This is part 8 in the No Time for Utopia series.)
I never liked Tolkien’s books – I always found them badly written, reactionary garbage1 – but when I was trying to write this final chapter in the No Time for Utopia series I kept returning to this quote from The Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”2
Gandalf/Tolkien makes it sound so easy – “all we have to decide is what to do” – but that really is very, very hard. I don’t even know how to decide what to. It might have been easy to decide what to do if I’d had the power to (help) make right (or even slightly better) what is wrong – to avert the equivalent of the “it” in Frodo’s sigh – but I’m utterly powerless. In all likelihood, I don’t even have the power to significantly alleviate the future suffering of the people that are close to me.
A guiding principle of this series is a rejection of “ideal theory” and that includes a rejection of unrealistic expectations about what one – or we – can establish. Such unrealistic expectations – let’s call them instrumental Utopianism – come in gradations, of course. Peak Utopianism is dreaming of a sustainable future without environmental disaster and without massive suffering. That’s not going to happen. If there is one thing that should be clear by now it is that the rich and powerful have absolutely no intention to avert disaster as long as they profit from maintaining the status quo (and thus, until it is too late to avert it). The recent utter failure of COP25 only underlined this. The rich and powerful are not going to save our children, but will send them to hell to fatten their bank accounts. And consequently, pretty much all discussions of policies that could avert or even slightly alleviate climate disaster are nothing but Utopian dreams.
Even approaches that seem much more realistic tend to suffer from instrumental Utopianism, however. Take Deep Adaptation, which accepts that collapse is more or less inevitable and aims to prepare for that, as an example. The Deep Adaptation agenda consists of four questions: “Resilience: what should we keep? Relinquishment: what should we let go of? Restoration: what should we bring back? Reconciliation: who and what should we make peace with?”3 Answering these questions, and acting on those answers requires power, however. Talking about what we should keep or bring back and what we should let go of is just dreaming without the power to actually realize that (or even to reach consensus about that). We don’t have that power and we won’t get it. We won’t convince the rich and powerful to enact policies that make such choices. Well, … actually, they already have made their choices – they keep their money and let go of the disposables masses, which means most of us.
The Deep Adaptation approach wants us to – collectively – prepare for disaster, but it is doubtful whether it is possible to really prepare for disaster, even if we’d have the power to do so. Individually, we most certainly cannot usefully prepare for disaster. Preppers, of course, believe they can, but prepping is probably one of the most deluded responses to the climate crisis. Climate disaster will lead to societal collapse and there is no way to prepare for that. Stockpiling of food and weapons won’t help in such circumstances, and even as a community you cannot really prepare for the chaos of civil war. Perhaps, you could manage to keep your community going for a while, but sooner or later the chaos outside will no longer stay outside and destroy everything you worked to protect and maintain.
There is no preparation for the kind of disaster that is waiting for us, for the disaster that the rich and powerful have brought upon us (and upon themselves). But then what? What are we supposed “to do with the time that is given us”? How are we supposed to decide?
Deciding what to do is hard; it might be easier – to some extent, at least – to contemplate what we should not do. Of course, considering what not to do will restrict the options that are available in deciding what to do, but perhaps, thinking about what not to do will also in other ways help in deciding “what to do with the time that is given us”.
Don’t have children.
While this may be controversial, it really should be obvious: having children is the number one thing that you should not do. One must be either terribly ignorant or a psychopath to bring children into this world. If you decide to have children now, they won’t reach middle age – quite possibly, they won’t even reach adulthood. It’s hard to predict what will kill your children – famine, drought, war, disease, or natural disaster – but unless they are very lucky (or unlucky?) they won’t live out anything near a “normal” lifespan. They’ll die young. They’ll die horribly. And they will suffer tremendously before they die. If you have a heart, then you don’t want that, so don’t have children.4
So what if you already have children? I don’t know. I wish I knew, because I have a child myself. I was ignorant about the state of the world and made the mistake of having a child, and there isn’t a day that I don’t regret that mistake. But not because I don’t love my daughter! In the contrary, I regret her existence exactly because I love her. I regret this mistake because I know her life is going to be miserable. All I can do is try to protect her from misery for as long as possible (without turning into some overprotective helicopter parent, of course), but I’m not sure at what point the costs of doing that are still morally justifiable. Surely, causing significant suffering to others to keep my daughter safe from much smaller suffering would go too far, even if it would be the natural thing to do for a parent.
Given what is at stake, as long as there is the tiniest chance of averting or alleviating catastrophe we cannot give up the struggle. Even if there is just a 1% chance, or even a 0.1% chance, giving up is not an option. However, there are limits to how we can fight – ways of “fighting” that increase rather than decrease suffering are rarely (if ever) justified.5 So, while it is fairly clear what we should not do – giving up – it is far less clear what we should do – that is, how to fight, or how to not give up. About that, I really have no clue.
Furthermore, we cannot afford distraction. We need to bring down CO₂ emissions to a level close to zero very soon. There is very little else that matters.6 Getting rid of plastic straws and shopping bags is nice, but if atmospheric CO₂ continues increasing the oceans will turn into an acidic soup in which little survives. Fighting plastics is a waste of time if we are going to let the oceans die due to acidification anyway. The same applies to very many other environmentalist campaigns, and especially those sponsored by governments and/or corporations: they are just a waste of time. Rather than helping to avert disaster, they merely distract us and make sure we don’t address the real issue. (And that is exactly their real purpose, of course.)
Distractions like these also illustrate something else we cannot do: we cannot trust authority. We cannot trust that the authorities will do anything to save our children, but we cannot trust that they will speak the truth either. Governments lie. Businesses lie. Most of the press lies. Rather than telling the truth about the climate emergency and what must be done to avert or alleviate it, they just try to distract us and downplay or even ignore the issue. The press may be the worst offender in this respect – not because they lie more, but because the press is supposed to inform rather than dis-inform the public. Unfortunately, most of the press is corporate-owned and -controlled, and thus has no interest in telling the truth. Their job is just to keep us distracted to make sure we don’t threaten the profits of the corporate overlords.
What makes this even worse is that most journalism seem to have adopted a mindless and lazy two-sides-to-every-story attitude. Rather than trying to figure out what really is the case, journalists just report some contradictory opinions without distinguishing truths from lies. It’s often suggested that Trump and Facebook are to blame for the rise of “alternative facts” and the undermining of truth, but this is a half-truth at best. It is primarily the mainstream press itself that is to blame for this – it is the laziness of journalists, who rather give a podium to demagogues and liars than to investigate what is true and what is false, thereby creating the impression that there are no facts but just opinions, which is to blame for the “post-truth” world.
Hence, the press is not an ally but an enemy. The mainstream press is the main propaganda tool of the rich and powerful, and thus the first obstacle that must be removed to change course away from disaster. The mainstream press must be destroyed, but that is unlikely to happen. Pretty much all we can do is try to remember not to fall for their propaganda and lies – we cannot trust the press.
Frodo had it easy.
So, this gives us a short lists of “don’t”s – that is, of things not to do. Probably the list can be extended, but I think these are the most important points:
- Don’t have children.
- Don’t give up the fight (to avert or alleviate disaster).
- Don’t be distracted (by side issues and/or relatively minor problems).
- Don’t trust the authorities and don’t trust the press.
I don’t think these points are of much help to decide “what to do with the time that is given us”, but perhaps, the red thread running through much of these “don’t”s and underlying considerations does. That red thread is the avoidance and mitigation of suffering. If there is one thing we must do, then perhaps, that thing is to be guided by compassion – not just empathy for the people (and animals) close to us, but compassion for all living things, because our aim always must be to reduce suffering.
But there is something else. The cost of awakening to the state of the world is huge. How does one face the prospect of collapse? How does one face the prospect of massive suffering and the destruction of nearly everything that one considers to be of value? How does one cope with the realization that the planet isn’t dying of natural causes, but is being murdered for the sake of profit, and that there is nothing we can do to stop that? How does one deal with helplessness and despair? How does one avoid giving up? How does one preserver one’s sanity?7
I don’t think there is a single answer to these questions because the answer (or answers) will almost certainly differ from person to person. There may be common elements, however. Personally, I don’t think I could face the future (or lack thereof) without love, and I suspect that this is the same for many (if not most) others. (Unfortunately, capitalist consumer culture and narcissism have undermined love as well by promoting selfishness and unrealistic expectations.) But love might not be enough – many people might need something else to keep them going. What that “something” is will differ from person to person. It might be a religion for some, a hobby for others, or a cause or calling (such as activism) for others again. It might even be a form of escapism – and that is fine. As long as it doesn’t aggravate the climate crisis and/or increase suffering pretty much anything is fine. Regardless of what it is, I suspect we all need something like this – something that helps to keep us going. So, if there is a list of “do”s, then this should be added to it.
This, then, give us a list of two “do”s:
- Develop and encourage compassion (i.e. aim to decrease suffering in everything you do).
- Find something “to keep you going”.
But these are hardly a response to Gandalf/Tolkien’s suggestion that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Rather than say what to do with that time, these suggestions merely say how to do something (i.e. compassionately) and to try to stay sane enough to do anything (i.e. by finding something “to keep you going”). So, after ten-thousands of words on the topic of climate change and how to respond to and/or deal/cope with it, it seems that in the end all I have to offer is a platitude by Tolkien (supplemented by a few platitudes of my own). I wish I could say something more helpful or constructive, but I can’t.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t have expected anything else. There is a huge dis-analogy between Frodo and Gandalf’s situation and ours. Gandalf and Frodo knew perfectly well what they had to do: throw a ring into a volcano. But there is no ring in our case, and no volcano either. The odds may not have been in Frodo’s favor, but he had it easy: he had a very clear goal (i.e. something to do with a real purpose) and he had a chance. We, on the other hand, have nothing – no ring, no goal, no chance. Nothing.
So, while there is a clear and obvious response to Gandalf’s assertion that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” in his and Frodo’s case, there really is no answer to the question “What to do?” in our case. All is lost, except our humanity. All we can do is try not to lose that too.
This is the last chapter in the No Time for Utopia series. It was also the chapter that I found most difficult to write. And I expect it to be the last article about climate change on this blog for a while. I’ll probably return to the topic at some point, but right now I have nothing left to say about it. And I have other things I need to do and other things I need to write (here and elsewhere, but mostly elsewhere).
I suppose that some of you who read this whole series may have found it discouraging or even depressing. Researching and writing this series certainly made me even more pessimistic than I already was. Perhaps that is partially due to this very unsatisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, there is one way in which this series – including its conclusion – has lead to at least some clarity. The “What to do?” question is not just a question about what we should do to confront the crisis – that is, the main topic of this final article in the series – but also what we should do with the time we have left. The latter question is, of course, a much more personal question, but it may be just as urgent. If my sketchy predictions for the decade that just started are right, then the world as we know it will be gone in a decade. On the short term, the rise of neo-fascism is at least as worrying as climate change, and for some of us it may be an even greater threat. Personally, I think it’s considerably more likely that I’ll be a victim of neo-fascism than of the direct effects of climate change. But this would mean, that I might have less than a decade left. And if that’s the case, then I’d better focus on the things that matter to me, and on what I still want to do in that short time. If there is anything positive that writing this series has made clear to me, it is this.
I’m not an activist or fighter. I loathe violence and I’d rather stay away from political (and other) turmoil. Hence, if given the choice, I’ll observe the falling apart of this world from the sidelines, without taking part in it (in as far as that is possible, of course). I’m not sure whether I should be sorry for that – despite all I have written about our lack of options, I still have the feeling that I should do something more. At the same time, I realize that there isn’t much I personally can do. Especially when things get really bad there won’t be much need for people like me who cannot do much besides trying to think and teach. Perhaps, I can learn to become a farmer or find some other way to make myself useful. Perhaps, things will fall apart so quickly that it won’t even matter. For now, I need to figure out my priorities. Saving the world is not among them. (I’m not Frodo.) Even if I’d have such power, it’s already too late for that.
Links to articles in this series:
No Time for Utopia – Series introduction. Against “ideal theory” and Utopianism.
On the Fragility of Civilization – Predicting global societal collapse within decades.
The Lesser Dystopia – What is necessary to avoid that collapse?
Enemies of Our Children – Who and what are preventing the necessary change of course?
The Ethics of Climate Insurgency – On violence as a means to prevent catastrophe
The Possibility of a Revolution – Can a revolution establish the Lesser Dystopia?
The 2020s and Beyond – Some predictions for the near future.
What to do? – This episode.
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- There’s a review by Pagefire of The Lord of the Rings on their Youtube channel that sums up pretty much everything wrong with that book much better than I ever could.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, chapter 2.
- I suppose that some people might worry that the recommendation to not have children would lead to human extinction. That is unlikely, however, because not enough people will follow this recommendation, unfortunately, and because in a state of collapse birth rates are probably going to increase anyway (due to decreased availability of contraceptives and an increase in the occurrence of rape). A more fundamental question is whether human extinction would even be a bad thing. As I argued elsewhere, it may actually be preferably to the future that awaits us.
- See The Ethics of Climate Insurgency.
- We also need to get rid of fertilizers and ozone depleting substances, but CO₂ is by far the most important.
- On this topic, see also: Fictionalism – or: Vaihinger, Scheffler, and Kübler-Ross at the End of the World.