Can Smart Optimism Cure Climate Change?

Smart optimism puts innovation, joy and creativity back into the way we look at the future and sees the challenges of today as opportunities, not obstacles.

In recent years all but the most diehard deniers have been forced to acknowledge the staggering effect that climate change is having on our world. While a stubborn minority reject the evidence, many more give in to fatalistic acceptance, an apocalyptic passivity which falsely assumes that we are powerless to turn things around. There is a certain medieval, superstitious psychology underpinning such fatalism; a belief, even a strangely masochistic hope, that we are living through the end of days as punishment for our violence against the earth and against each other.

The middle way, which talks about adaptation and resilience, is just as unsatisfactory. It presents the future as something which holds little promise but must be endured stoically through making adjustments in a spirit of reactive survivalism.

As a counterpoint, Friends of the Earth have come up with a hopeful new ethos, that of smart optimism. Smart optimism puts innovation, joy and creativity back into the way we look at the future and sees the challenges of today as opportunities, not obstacles. Climate change is only one challenge, which interconnects with large-scale sociological trends like the shifting of power away from America towards India and China, the rise of corporate influences that supersede individual governments, heightened popular cynicism about those in power, the globalisation of trade, ongoing world conflicts and refugee creation, increased economic instability, social inequality and the persistence of endemic male violence against women.

So far, activists have had to watch and wait as world leaders hold a climate change meeting every few years, only to be disappointed when they ratify unsatisfactory proposals which fall short of what is required. In a series of inspiring reports called Big Ideas, Friends of the Earth (with whom I am not affiliated in any way) have broken the torpor and envisioned a radical transformation of values and lifestyle, from the way we farm and eat to the way we live alongside our neighbours and educate our children. This goes well beyond the conventions of the ecological movement. For example, Phil Byrne has come up with the idea of 'dialogue groups' where the worst polluters meet those affected by climate change. In this, he is inspired by the concept of restorative justice in the criminal justice system, rather than the environmental movement.

One thing we can't dodge is that the current situation starts and ends with our interaction with nature. Friends of the Earth's No Dominion Over Nature paper describes the way humans exploit, warp and exhaust natural ecosystems. It suggests that solutions must begin with an understanding of ecosystems not being like machines that can be modified to provide a few products, with the benefits to humans and industry traded off against other functions, but instead being interconnected, delicate, self-repairing and holistic systems which help regulate water and climate, provide a natural habitat for biodiversity and control disease.

Friends of the Earth look ahead to an urbanised, highly populated world which has been improved by the changes we make now. They warn that these changes can only happen if we broaden the school-age generation's education beyond a focus on rising above others to achieve individual 'success' measured by wealth, social capital and possessions, towards greater human empathy.

Our only hope for future happiness, not just survival, is to radically change our agricultural practices and also promote a non-consuming, communal, citizen approach. Friends of the Earth remind us that the city has always been a site for progress and participation, including political demonstration like the protests at Tahrir Square and Gezi Park. It looks to Copenhagen, Medellín and Seoul to inspire a future 'sharing city' that encourages a negotiated flow of pedestrians, cars and bicycles; the development of mixed use public areas which encourage walking and cycling; increased participation through community land tithing and the development of community centres; and co-housing and shared production facilities. They extrapolate trends like bike sharing, freecycling and shared parking spaces and imagine how they could be diversified to encompass the urban poor, marginalised groups and the socially disenfranchised to promote inclusive sharing, rather than the exclusive, elite 'sharing' seen in gated communities. It also addresses the fundamentals of citizens' well-being and sense of enfranchisement: cheap housing, access to high quality and affordable education, childcare and healthcare and common space for leisure or shared cultivation.

I was inspired to write about smart optimism because Friends of the Earth's Big Ideas papers are based on long term research, with verifiable results. The goal of smart optimism is to inspire innovation and a change in values within civil society, which will then shift the debate and create a grassroots pressure propelling governments and corporations towards change. Not only can we negate future damage, we can make a society that is stronger, kinder, more accepting and less afraid. The only thing standing in our way is a mistaken belief that we are powerless to change the world for the better.


What's Hot