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For a Grieving Optimism

The Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension features this piece, my “writing with movements” column for the magazine. This one is co-written with Alexis Shotwell. I’m reposting it here with links included.

Climate change is hitting hard. The heat waves and fires of this past summer – and this fall’s storms and tornados – are just the most recent manifestations.

We are living in a future many people worked to prevent, which is also a future some actively accept even though it produces ecological destruction in service to profit. The science fiction writer William Gibson is often quoted as saying, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Usually we think of this in terms of the distributions of good things. However, as anti-poverty activist and scholar Virginia Eubanks notes, Gibson’s quote can also help us see the uneven distribution of suffering. And, indeed, the people most directly experiencing the pain and death of climate change are not the people responsible for causing it.

But global transformation is coming even for those who have been most protected so far. Increasingly, we see reporting of the possibility that it is too late to stop the effects of global warming or that we are simply doomed.

Common responses to this unfolding transformation include denial (“we’re just having a hot summer”), despair (“there’s nothing we can do, might as well take long plane trips while we can”), and an approach we could call dystopian (“there’s nothing we can do, but we should actively know about how truly terrible things are”). This last approach calls for more attention to the catastrophe humanity faces. In this vein, the Marxist writer Richard Seymour contends that the apocalyptic tone about climate change needs to go further: “If you think something can be done, you will be serious and urgent rather than facetious. The catastrophists are the optimists here.”

While Seymour elaborates many of the ways that things are catastrophically bad, he doesn’t offer a picture of what kind of optimist it’s possible for catastrophists to be. And just focusing on scaring people has limited effects; at least in encouraging people to shift their behaviors around health, we know that fear sometimes works for one-time changes, but not for ongoing, systematic change efforts. As radical writer and broadcaster Sasha Lilley points out, we should thus be wary of catastrophism on the left: “An awareness of the scale or severity of catastrophe does not ineluctably steer one down a path of radical politics.” It’s not necessarily the case that things have to feel much worse before we work on making them much better.

Here, we think of Tank Girl, a comic book character living in a devastated world. In one frame, she pulls on her boots for the day, cigarette dangling from her mouth and a coffee cup beside her. She thinks, “I can’t let things be this way. We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this shit around.” What can we learn from Tank Girl?

Perhaps we can be grieving optimists. We can have what Italian communist Antonio Gramsci popularized as “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Pessimism of the intellect means refusing to shy away from how bad things are; instead, it is to examine the world realistically and seriously consider worst-case scenarios. It also means understanding that destroying places and people for profit is not human nature; it is capitalism. And in this moment, mourning comes along with understanding: the human and non-human beings, ecosystems, ways of life, and ordinary happinesses that we have lost and will lose deserve our grief.

We can also organize. Optimism of the will means that, although we perceive how bad things are, we act anyhow. Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear observes that Indigenous people have been living in a post-apocalyptic world for centuries. Those of us who are settlers could learn something about carrying on after devastation; there is grief, but there is also persistence and resurgence.

Optimism of the will isn’t about individual heroism. It’s about acting with other people to create conditions so that what currently seems impossible becomes possible. We’ve witnessed this most recently in fights against resource extraction and transport projects. The victory represented by the August Federal Court of Appeal ruling on the Trans Mountain Pipeline is one clear example. That ruling was propelled by Indigenous-led struggles that, through fierce collective action across the Canadian context, shifted the project from a done deal to an open question.

Organizing out of our grief for this planet and all of us on it rests on the certain knowledge that, for the vast majority of us who are not rich, most of the problems facing us now are at a scale beyond our individual capacity to solve. The way to be a grieving optimist is to band together with others who care about this world, and to struggle.

We can be wonderful. We can be magnificent. We can turn this shit around.

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