On the Frontline: The Age of Pessimism

On the Frontline: The Age of Pessimism

Matt Carmichael

The EU referendum result and its aftermath has left many in a state of shock. In circles where UK politics was a subject to move on from because it was so dull, now it is to be avoided for the opposite reason – it engenders rage, disbelief, confusion, even (how unBritish) tears.

But what if this is only the first rumble in a much bigger earthquake? There is a growing section of the population for whom the tumultuous events of summer 2016 were not only predictable, but almost insignificant compared to what they expect will follow. Shelves full of books now serve the emotional needs of this subculture, with titles like Navigating the Coming Chaos, Coming Back To Life and Hope in the Dark. Websites explore the emotional impacts of their work on climate scientists and facebook groups offer support networks.

In 2006 I attended a lecture on the state of climate science and policy by deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Kevin Anderson, entitled “Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon”. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had just come out, and many audience members were freshly aware of the importance of the problem. The effect of his presentation was palpable. Using simple graphics and clear explanations he drew regular gasps of horror. His title was no exaggeration of his thesis. In 2008 he returned with new data, under the title “Last Orders in the Last Chance Saloon.”

So, whereas a decade or two ago the pessimists in society were a small, disparate group dominated by those with a penchant for doom, now they might better be characterised as a network of people who seem to be paying the most attention. It isn’t a character trait that defines them; many are playful, joyful types in their home lives and professional relationships. They are simply haunted by what they know.

Biff Vernon is a former geologist in the oil industry who has spent a lifetime teaching Science and Maths in higher education. He says the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU recognised the work of people like his father, an economist who paved the way for Britain to join in the belief that the interdependencies they set up were making war between European nations impossible. Biff worries that Brexit opens the road to fascism again, but also that such a scenario is made much more likely when environmental threats are adding to the tensions. “Whatever climate change mitigation we may manage to pull out of the hat, the melting of the ice is past the tipping point… eventually we will see around 60 metres of sea level rise. The generation of today’s children will have to deal with the first couple of metres of that rise, seriously affecting several of the world’s largest cities and vast areas of the most fertile agricultural land. There will be much migration over the coming century. We seem to be coping very badly with the relatively small numbers now… Increased frequency of extreme weather events and marine ecosystem collapse with ocean acidification will add to the difficulties.”

Max works in strategic socio-economic policy development in the seaside town where she was brought up. She too worries about the climate and also links these with economic and social factors which exacerbate her concerns: “The UK Government already has about £1.5 trillion of debt. It faces a future of lower income streams and higher demand for spending. This isn’t under control. The number of people in retirement is going to rapidly increase – in 20 years or so there will be real challenges to paying [the state pension]… I quite often hear people talking about how they have paid their National Insurance so they have a right to a pension – but they don’t realise that there isn’t a pot of money with their name on it anywhere. I think many people also expect social care to be provided by the NHS and are surprised when it isn’t. If people don’t understand the current system then the next few years could potentially be full of nasty surprises for them.”

Both foresee a reduction in living standards, widening inequality and the heightening tensions that often accompany them.

Sam, 28, studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, and now describes himself as a Quaker activist, working alongside people dealing with mental health issues in Hull. “At its simplest, I believe that everything is connected and that we reap what we sow. Soon we will therefore be harvesting catastrophe. Within my lifetime we may see the collapse of the whole financial system, widespread floods leaving cities like mine uninhabitable, food and water shortages so that starvation becomes a ‘1st World’ problem, more war, and new diseases.”

It is supremely unfashionable to be a pessimist – unfashionable enough for potential interviewees for this article to fear for their jobs. If you don’t see things working out okay, you’re not “on message”. Everyone from government departments to environmental NGOs insists on a solution-based focus and an optimistic tone, or audiences may switch off; psychological studies now confirm the tendency Paul Simon articulated half a century ago: “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Part of the personal cost of pessimism is frustration with exactly this aspect of human psychology. Max gets frustrated with the political focus on relatively trivial problems. “I want to respond, ‘Haven’t you realised we can’t carry on like this?’ It makes me feel like I’m speaking a different language or something.” Sam echoes these sentiments: “I feel like I live with this sense of deep urgency, while most of those around me seem to me to be sleepwalking off the edge of a cliff. At times I just want to scream ‘wake up’.”

If their instinct is right, that a culture of optimism is vulnerable to denial of real dangers, there are different dangers in the burgeoning culture of pessimism. An example in the climate movement is the popularity of Guy McPherson, an American Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona, who lives off-grid, in a straw-bale house. He now tours America and Europe offering pseudo-scientific proofs that humanity is doomed to certain “near term extinction”, and musing on how one lives in the light of such a fate. His website, which once described suicide as a “thoughtful choice”, no longer “advocates either for or against”. What may seem strange is the way people flock to his hopeless message. My own take on this is that a significant proportion of people resist uncertainty even more strongly than they resist despair. McPherson tells us the end of our story, then offers a relatively painless path to get there. It’s a psychological euthanasia very attractive to people who are tired of dashed hopes.

In his remarkably incisive study of psychological responses to climate change from denial to despair, entitled Don’t Even Think About It, the founder of Climate Outreach, George Marshall, says of activists, scientists and campaigners, “people who deal every day with climate change provide an important insight into the ways that humanity as a whole will cope” as the world warms.

Perhaps not well; the pessimists struggle. Yet they also tend to share a broad vision of a better future, albeit one that isn’t on the mainstream political agenda yet. It involves a fundamental shift of values away from consumption, acquisition and status competition, towards living in harmony with earth and in real community with our fellow humans, sharing both depleted resources and creative ideas for the common good.

Unfortunately, if they’re right, it may take far bigger shocks than Brexit to place this agenda centre stage.


Matt Carmichael is the co-author, with Alastair McIntosh, of Spiritual Activism on Green Books.