Is There Any Hope? Mortality and the Climate Crisis

BILL TEMPLEMAN – Writer Ken Victor has written a moving assessment of our collective response to the climate crisis. He starts from his own palliative care experiences with his grandfather, then his father in palliative care, where there can no longer be any hope. He discovers that the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, but love. Then he applies this insight to humanity’s potential extinction. His essay, The Opposite of Hope Isn’t Hopelessness: Meditations on Mortality and the Climate Crisis, could offer us an essential compass bearing as we head into uncharted territory ahead.

The most recent IPCC report released on February 27, 2022 says “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet…”

While the IPCC does not imply that there is no hope for our species on this planet, they do not back away from naming the grave danger we face.

UN Secretary General António Guterres describes this latest IPCC report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.

Half of the world’s population is threatened by water shortages; extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe; and more than 14 percent of the world’s species are at high risk of extinction as global temperatures rise.

But for Victor, humanity has already entered the palliative stage of its life cycle on Earth. For him, there can be no hope at this stage. While we can dispute his conclusion, we risk missing a vital coping strategy as the next two decades unfold by dismissing his perspective.

A few words of caution: Reading about death might not be easy. Thinking about the end of our own life journeys can become, for some, either an intense preoccupation or a subject to repress at all costs. Thinking about the end of our species might be enormously abstract. I don’t agree with Victor’s worldview on this point, but not because of my imaginary insight into the IPCC’s conclusions about the science behind the climate crisis. I cannot pretend to have any scientific evaluation of the IPCC’s findings. My resistance is solely based on my own experience of taking action in the face of threat as being more empowering than lapsing into a resigned acceptance.

Ken Victor would counter that the motives driving my actions are destined to fail because they would be based on the false assumption that humanity is still in charge of its destiny. We can fix this! Maybe we can. But how do we move forward if we can’t fix it? He would maintain that only when our actions are based on our compassion for the Earth, not our own survival, will we be promoting the healing that surviving life forms will need after we are gone.

So where are we? Has humanity entered the palliative care stage? Maybe this is the wrong question. A better question might be “how can you or I take action in the face of feeling that the climate situation is hopeless?”

On this point, Victor compares the individual experience of dying with the experience of our species’ extinction. As we lie on our deathbeds, surrounded by those who have loved us —and whom we have loved — we, the dying, so too with humanity. Who has humanity loved and received love from? Who has been our companion? The Earth under our feet and the air around us, the water that has quenched our thirst, the animals and insects that have travelled with us, and the soil that has fed us.

So, if we are leaving this realm, what must we do? What do we have to own? What debts must we repay? Yes, we have been abusive. We didn’t respect the Earth’s needs. We punished those of us who spoke out against this abuse. We didn’t listen to our better angels. Greed, laziness, and short-term thinking won.

If we see ourselves as co-equal with all that lives on this planet, if we see ourselves as sentient beings and not masters, then actions will follow from that understanding will be radically different from what went before. We will move from exploitation to nurturing.

Victor’s closing words could be a clarion call for all future environmental action: “The Earth has been our home, we were bad tenants, and now we’re doing right by it. For all those who come after. There’s beautiful work to be done, not from hope, but from love. Let us begin.”