We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.

« It’s not too late! » On the other hand, « we are fucked. » Climate commentary swings between these poles.

Victor Frankl once compared optimism to laughter: If you want people to laugh, really laugh, then you must provide them with a reason for it. You must tell a joke, or do something funny. It is impossible to evoke real laughter just by urging someone to laugh. « Doing so would be like urging people in front of a camera to say ‘cheese’, » Frankl explained, « only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles. »

The phrase « it’s not too late », for me, brings an artificial smile. I stumble onto it as I walk into a bookstore and see the flashy Carbon Almanac (2022) promoted at the entrance, one of many such books to appear in the last, late year. It shouts from the cover: « It’s not too late. » The foreword was written by Seth Godin, a marketing guru out of the dot-com avantgarde. What will save us is « the hope that comes from realizing that it’s not too late. » The refrain is a staple of the genre. Another entry, a new report from the Club of Rome entitled Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, offers a kindred burst of optimism about the future against the backdrop of a bleak present. Greater planetary health and social well-being are within reach. The authors will « show you that this is indeed fully possible ». Meanwhile the heavy-weight United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released two punchy reports of its own in 2022. They hammered the message that countries’ pledges to cut emissions fall far below climate change targets, and that the impact of climate change is already devastating for many parts of humanity, the ecosystem, and for the biodiversity that now suffers a mass extinction.

« We are fucked » is Extinction Rebellion’s much better slogan than the worn and tattered « it’s not too late ». A paradoxical solace follows from the realization that we are fucked. The future’s openness is made to rest not on stubborn optimism but, far from it, on the inevitability of our fuckedness. Such a slogan inspires, paradoxically, as an antidote to false optimism and artificial smiles. A stubborn optimism that announces itself as being tied « realistically » to possibilities of a different outcome at some point becomes an obstacle to meaningful action and even a betrayal of freedom. Stubborn optimism, that is to say, becomes cruel optimism. The stubborn optimism of Earth for All risks being cruel because its recommendations have been known and unheeded. There is no reason to believe that this time would be different.

This is as much a problem of genre as a problem of ideology — or, more precisely, it is a problem of temporality: of how we think about time…

Subscribe to the European Review of Books, from €4.16 per month.
A digital subscription gives you access to our complete Library. A print+digital subscription brings you a print magazine designed like no other.

For example, a greater world population and greater wealth leads to greater demands for non-renewable resources. That relationship is not linear: A change in one variable (wealth) does not have a steady impact on the other variable (resource use). If a society is already very wealthy, additional wealth still means greater demands on resources, but at a lower marginal rate when compared to a less wealthy society. The relationship is not one-directional either but marked by feedback loops: Wealth and population growth do not only impact the demand for non-renewable resources, but the inverse is also true, they are also influenced by the demand for and scarcity of non-renewable resources. Plus, resources are not the only relevant factor for either wealth or population growth. And around we go. There is no beginning or end.

An example: « As everyone who works methodologically and professionally in foresight knows, the future does not exist yet, so there can be no evidence-based data from the future (until we get there). »