Despair and defeatism are traps. In a riveting article, historian Rebecca Solnit explains that despair, defeatism and cynicism are traps. Eco-anxiety and despair lure us into inaction and neutralize our power by draining us of energy and making action seem futile. Allowing ourselves to marinate in anxiety and despair not only makes us miserable but also boosts the forces that work so hard to retain the status quo.
In contrast, turning toward a mindset of hope and “stubborn optimism” provides a wellspring of energy. With this outlook, we can work relentlessly toward a goal even when we know there are challenges and setbacks ahead. Progress through a disaster or a social transition always seems way too slow. But Solnit’s examination of past struggles reveals that in the long view, many causes initially perceived as hopeless have ended in victory. Persistence pays.
Change starts slow then speeds way up. The bumpy roads to disaster recovery and social change in Solnit’s article remind me of the mix of advancement and setback we now experience during the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. We’ve passed peak coal and are now in a bumpy plateau around peak oil and gas, as shown in the figure below from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). During the next few years, reductions in the demand for oil and gas sparked by last summer’s Inflation Reduction Act will be punctuated by setbacks as the incumbent fossil-fuel interests fight to retain control. Living through this plateau period is bound to be stressful because every setback seeds new doubt that the successful transition to clean renewable power will actually occur.
RMI’s work on the surprising nature of “S-curves” suggests that the fossil fuel industry is already doomed by increasingly cheap wind and solar. According to RMI, the tipping point for the rapid spread of a new energy source up the S-curve comes at about 5% market share. In 2021, the global market share of wind and solar in energy generation reached 10.7%, more than a 4-fold increase in 10 years. I discussed tipping points and the miracle of rapid change on the S-curve last summer in the webinar called “We need an epidemic of climate action”. Here’s the video if you missed it. I think the energy transition is well on its way.
Bottom line — although the plateau in any major transition (social or technological) can seem endless to those living through it, Solnit’s study of social change and RMI’s analyses of energy transitions both show that in the long view, those plateaus can look pretty brief.
So hang on, stay positive and don’t give up! Some time outside with other climate warriors won’t hurt either
Here are a few good articles about climate anxiety:
“Eco-anxiety”: How to spot it and what to do about it. BBC Three, 3/27/19
How to calm your climate anxiety, New York Times, 7/23/21, Updated 8/23/22
Your crushing anxiety about the climate crisis is normal. Smithsonian Magazine 5/18/22
If climate change keeps you up at night, here’s how to cope. Harvard Health 6/13/22