Dialogue on hope in the face of climate fear

Dialogue on hope in the face of climate fear, between Jan van Boeckel and Alan Boldon with closing comments from Eugene R. Turner and Aviva Rahmani

Jan van Boeckel


Alan Boldon

Deputy Head of School, Research, Economic and Social Engagement
School of Art, Design & Media, Brighton University, UK

Aviva Rahmani

PhD candidate, University of Plymouth, UK
Lecturer, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, USA,
Affiliate, INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder, CO., USA
R. Eugene Turner, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA., USA

Note: the eco-art list serve dialog is an ecological art collective that has been discussing relevant issues on line since 1999.

On April 18, 2014, Jan van Boeckel wrote to the eco-art listserve:
Dear all,
In the New York Times of April 17, 2014, a long interview appeared with Paul Kingsnorth, former deputy-editor of The Ecologist and one of the founders of the Dark Mountain Project “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.” In it, Kingsnorth describes how his longstanding faith in environmental activism slowly drained away. “I had a lot of friends who were writing about climate change and doing a lot of good work on it,” he told Daniel Smith, the author of the article. He was listening and looking at the facts and thought by himself: “Wow, we are really screwed here. We are not going to stop this from happening.”

Smith presents a daunting overview of the facts that Kingsnorth stumbled upon:

The first decade of the 21st century was shaping up to be the hottest in recorded history. In 2007, the Arctic sea ice shrank to a level not seen in centuries. That same year, the NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has been ringing the climate alarm since the 1980s, announced that in order to elude the most devastating consequences, we’d need to maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level of 350 parts per million. But we’d already surpassed 380, and the figure was rising. (It has since reached 400 p.p.m.) Animal and plant species, meanwhile, were dying out at a spectacular rate. Scientists were beginning to warn that human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — was driving the planet toward a “mass extinction” event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.

“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth told the New York Times reporter. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?’”


Jan’s contribution drew the following response from Alan Boldon on April 23, 2014

Dear Jan,

As we have discussed elsewhere, I I think it is usual to fell ambivalent – not to not care, but to hold multiple perspectives in oneself that may contradict each other. I also think it is necessary to work out – from this position – how to act, and to live well.

It seems to me that Paul Kingsnorth works along these lines but there is nevertheless a hint of giving up. I understand, I think, what he means about the problem of hope which could be that if one fights to maintain a position – of hopefulness for instance, then one may fight for a position and miss the complexity, and the rich, possibly contradictory qualities of a situation.

In Gestalt therapy there is the suggestion in the ‘paradoxical theory of change’ that one must go deeper into the depression, get to know it deeply, and that this may be the way out of it but, that this can not be done as a strategy for avoiding or getting past the depression, but simply because we need to know more deeply. This perhaps also resonates with Kingsnorth.

It also occurs to me how fundamental it is to being human to know that we are mortal. We know this, or at least try to know this and to live on, and to live well and to love, each other, and also the manifold wonders of our environment. Mary Oliver says it better:

In Blackwater WoodsLook, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillarof light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of conammon
and fulfilment,the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shouldersof the ponds
and every pond,
not matter what its
name is, isnameless now.
Every year
I have ever learnedin my lifetime
leads me back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver


To this, Jan responded as follows, on May 5, 2014:

Dear Alan,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and yes, I recall how we discussed the need – when faced with a depression – perhaps of, paradoxically, going deeper into it, to see its learning potential, rather than subduing or denying it. This also reminds me of Gregory Bateson’s thoughts on addiction (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind), and the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous that an alcoholic who still holds that he or she is master over the bottle “is a poor prospect of their help”. Notice the similarity with Dark Mountain’s reflections on “false hope”, in Bateson’s discussion of the “Twelve Steps” of AA, as formulated by Bill W. (himself an alcoholic) the co-founder of the organization:

The first step demands that the alcoholic agree that he is powerless over alcohol. This step is usually regarded as a “surrender” and many alcoholics are either unable to achieve it or achieve it only briefly during the period of remorse following a binge. AA does not regard these cases as promising: they have not yet “hit bottom”; their despair is inadequate and after a more or less brief spell of sobriety they will again attempt to use “self-control” to fight the “temptation.” They will not or cannot accept the premise that, drunk or sober, the total personality of an alcoholic is an alcoholic personality which cannot conceivably fight alcoholism. As an AA leaflet puts it, “trying to use will power is like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps.”

The first two steps of AA are as follows:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity.

Implicit in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary—and I believe correct—idea: the experience of defeat not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first “spiritual experience.” The myth of self-power is thereby broken by the demonstration of a greater power.

In sum, I shall argue that the “sobriety” of the alcoholic is characterized by an unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism, the division between Mind and Matter, or, in this case, between conscious will, or “self,” and the remainder of the personality. Bill W.’s stroke of genius was to break up with the first “step” the structuring of this dualism.
Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.
As Bateson goes on to argue, AA attaches great importance to this phenomenon of hitting bottom and they regard the alcoholic who has not done so a poor prospect for their help. Conversely, they are inclined to explain failure of their therapy by holding the idea that a person who resumes his alcoholism has not yet “hit bottom.” Bateson again: “Certainly many sorts of disaster may cause an alcoholic to hit bottom. Various sorts of accidents, an attack of delirium tremens, a patch of drunken time of which he has no memory, rejection by wife, loss of job, hopeless diagnosis, and so on – any of these may have the required effect. AA says that “bottom” is different for different men and some may be dead before they reach it.”
This last observation resonated for me with what you wrote on getting to know a depression more deeply. Though this may offer one (perhaps the only) prospect of overcoming it, it by no means is a guarantee that this will indeed happen. Living along with the depression as a “strategy” of finding one’s way out of it may also mean ending op in a situation of not being able to overcome it. This is also pointed out, I believe, by Thomas Moore (as a warning, though he embraces this approach as well) in his discussion of finding adequate ways of overcoming life’s ordeals in his “Dark Nights of the Soul”.
A pivotal question, it seems to me, is if awareness of the problem of hope also, by consequence, implies sooner or later coming to a stance of giving up.
From my readings, this is not what I see happening (yet) to the people of Dark Mountain. They are not withdrawing from the world, but they are switching, as it were, to “a more correct epistemology”, and approaching life from the viewpoint of curiosity where such radical honesty and vulnerability will lead them.


May 15, 2014

Two thoughts to add to this mix:

1. Thinking about ‘interventions,” in addiction, using my own language of environmental triage, it has occurred to me that triage doesn’t win a war anymore than an intervention solves the addiction. It simply forestalls some of the tragedy. if so, can anything forestall the great ecosystem changes we face?
2. Continuing the recovery trope, there are several cautions. one is, as I think i wrote earlier, recovery isn’t for those who need it, it’s for those who want it. What about everyone else and their impacts? Secondly, recovery, by definition, any recovery program implies the danger of relapse. In today’s environmental reality, what are the implications of such “relapses”?

- Aviva

May 15, 2014

The Problem of confronting the Anthropocene

There is a decent thread of commonality in the goal-oriented frustration and how to work with it – there are a lot of people dealing with the personal engagement in other theaters of life with the same conundrum learning and exploring how to be engaged without causing more damage. There is a scene in the 1984 film Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham) where Bill Murray’s persona saves a miner from a wall collapsing. The miner asks him “Who are you trying to save? Me or yourself?” Unsure of things, we sometimes get frozen in situ.

So, the three of you have direct experience with this – a raw and open thoughtfulness that you as a group and individually write well about. It seemed to me that this is something to share – it is more than streaming online consciousness. I think it is valuable.

- Gene


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