The words we use and the ones we purposely avoid are indicative of where we stand on an issue. It’s an indicator of how much we have put into something and what we have left out.
I’ve developed an interest in the relationship we have with words that end up working against us, the ones that inadvertently give us a license to be inactive. 'Optimism' has the potential to be one of those words.
I should begin by saying this post is by no means a critique. It is an observation born out of concern. A concern that optimism has become a subconscious free pass to not engage with the worst aspects of climate catastrophe.
For the most part, most of us have short-lived relationships with optimism. Making a commitment to be optimistic generates almost immediate praise and acceptance but you’re making a commitment to be, rather than to do. And you’re being rewarded on taking a position as opposed to taking action, which is why optimism doesn’t have the lifecycle or weight of ‘responsibility’, for example.
The frequency and stubbornness with which optimism is attached to the global warming narrative is interesting. To be optimistic is to make a conscious decision to focus on the positives and swat away the negative and in that sense it allows for emotional disconnection.
The Middle Ground between Optimism and Pessimism
It made sense for us to energise the climate conscientious base with optimism at the start. But now we need to expand. Because optimism for all its virtues, doesn’t activate people as well as it can lend itself to complacency.
To borrow from Brain Pickings, ‘Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naivete’.
We’re missing a component here. There needs to be a middle ground where those of us who are not for smoothing or sharpening the edges of an otherwise already sharp issue can speak. Because neither optimism or pessimism is going to cut it, anything other than staring this thing down and calling it out for what it is, is going to work.
The Price of Optimism
We have been living in a state of wilful optimism about the state of the climate, and optimism, diplomatic and aspirational as it is, is no plan in and of itself. At best it can be described as a frame of mind and it’s a frame of mind many in the Southern Hemisphere can’t afford to invest in.
So, what do you do if you can’t afford to be optimistic? What if reality is all you have to work with?
Climate change optimists, as well-meaning as they are, belong to an exclusive club and the outcome they elude to, is becoming more unrealistic, more and more resoundingly abstract and is unwittingly doing those without a voice a disservice.
To be fair, there is perhaps a cultural connection here that I’m not getting. There are parts of the world that handle optimism as an end game, not as a starting point. I originate from one such climate vulnerable corner of the globe. My tribe don’t champion optimism. They default on it. When things go awry, they say, ‘well, we gave it a go, now let’s hope for the best, let’s be optimistic’.
Again, this is not a critique. Much like Jack Kerouac I have nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion. I’ve been confused by what it means for instance, to be a stubborn optimist. When did being stubborn help anyone or anything? Even when applied to a good cause, being stubborn means you're less likely to elicit empathy.
Stubbornness is something you tolerate, not bank on and it makes me think optimism is a word we need to keep building on. We don't have to discard it, just temper it with some black and white realness. A realist is just as commited to the climate cause as an optimist.
Reality is motivation enough.
Substituting ‘Optimism’ with ‘Responsibility’
While I was working on Insurance + Adapting Cities, there was one word that trumped all others - Responsibility.
In the event of flooding and hurricanes, who takes responsibility? Where does it lie in the event of disaster? So far, there’s been no clear answer. The most important words also seem to be the most elusive.
Responsibility lacks the slickness of optimism. Words like ‘commitment’ and ‘sacrifice’ are by-products of responsibility and these are not sexy words, but they are necessary and in need of our attention.
Sometimes putting up a fight is all about making sacrifices. Sacrifices like steak, wine, almonds...more steak related items.
The EPA Website
There are not many words in the climate change glossary. The best of them aren’t terribly descriptive and the word pool is expanding and narrowing all at once. The EPA website is an example of what’s on the line, the regression that looms over us.
During his campaign, Trump vowed to ‘get rid’ of the EPA. Once in office, he appointed a notorious climate change sceptic to head it and, according to Reuters, ordered the removal of climate change information from the site.
The EPA has since gone on to remove ‘outdated language’ on their website.
If science is being gutted, words need to take on even more meaning. They need to be more specific, more explicit and elude to the outcomes. Because if we can't attribute the right words to a problem, we can't manufacture a proportionate response and if we can’t warn people, we can't protect them.
The Big Questions
We are living in a time of paradigm shifts and I hope there’s one coming this way. I’m hoping there will be space for people to ask more questions about how we’re processing, reporting on and responding to climate change.