Don’t give into ecological grief. In anger and despair lie the seeds of resistance

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 23rd January 2024 as

It is hard not to detect a sense of hopelessness among younger adults about the ecological and climate crises. These challenges are no longer hypothetical or way off into the future – they are coming to meet us in real-time on what feels like a conveyor belt of bad news occasionally punctuated by pop-up advertisements for a “good life” that feels like a relic of a different future.

Generations younger than mine are especially angry – and they should be raging. But how do you rage effectively against something as ubiquitous and powerful as the economic forces driving planetary destruction?

One of the chief successes of capitalism is its message that there is no alternative. It brings to mind the phrase attributed to two philosophers, Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. For these critics, capitalism is not just a set of economic principles or an ideology, it is a cultural frame that dominates the lifeworld, “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolising and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact”.

“Capitalism”, says writer Mark Fisher, “is what is left when beliefs have collapsed… and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics”.

Fisher may have a point, but we can’t afford to just give up that easily. Every fraction of a degree of global heating matters. There is no point at which it will ever make sense to give up fighting. Besides, the psychological impact of surrender is too much to bear.

Millions of people are already suffering and unless we act, we will be no more than Fisher’s gruesome consumer-spectators, bystanders to catastrophe. Our very humanity demands that we channel anger and grief into resistance.

Social change comes from power and, as Saul Alinsky, the American community activist said, “power comes from organisation. In order to act, people must get together”. In all social movements what is most important is the transformation of citizens from being mere individual participants and followers into members of self-directing groups. So if you’re wondering what you can do as an individual, don’t be an individual.

People sometimes avoid climate campaigning because the problem seems enormous and unsolvable. The ecological crisis has a local and personal dimension, but the truth is we hardly talk about it in everyday conversation. This painful silence and denial can be upended with something as simple as organising a cuppa for climate event to just talk about climate change.

You can join a climate book club, or learn a new skill or craft. Find out where your pension is being invested, audit your consumption of fossil fuels and red meat, and reduce your footprint. Aligning your lifestyle with an ethic of care and personal responsibility is empowering and less stressful than carrying on as if your actions don’t matter.

On a larger scale, effective strategies require turning these efforts into social tipping points by connecting the bigger problem to short-term aspirations and lived experiences. That is why energy system transformation is about more than tackling greenhouse gas emissions: it’s about ending fuel poverty, ensuring equitable access to retrofitting supports, and creating a new energy system that shares the benefits of clean energy.

Cities in particular can serve as in vitro experiments for urban transformation away from car dominance and the commodification of the public realm. Leadership matters: Paris under the leadership of mayor Anne Hidalgo is in the process of revolutionising its streets in favour of cycling, walking and public transport with the planned removal of up to 70 per cent of the city’s on-street parking spaces. As Nelson Mandela said, it always seems impossible until it’s done.

In recent years, activist employees in the tech sector in particular have successfully pushed for stronger climate action from management. In 2019, 7,600 Amazon employees signed a petition demanding stronger climate action, leading to a Climate Pledge that many other companies have since adopted.

There are countless opportunities to participate in socio-ecological change through your choice of job, whether that is driving a bus, working in childcare, growing food, educating for sustainability or running a sustainable business.Never underestimate the value of offering time, money and expertise to campaign and advocacy groups. Environmental charities always need committed board members with financial, governance and relevant policy experience.

To respond to the biodiversity crisis, we need an ethic of care ]

From a social perspective, the future is not yet written. Climate changes may be inevitable, but our response to crisis is not predetermined. Polling consistently shows that there is a silent but sympathetic majority in Ireland that supports climate action and that the public is acutely sensitive to questions of fairness in policy implementation. Mobilising this latent support will be a challenge, but as Greta Thunberg says, “once we start acting, hope is everywhere”.

Sadhbh O’ Neill is the senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth Ireland

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