The Danger of False Optimism in the Difficult Struggle Ahead Combatting Climate Change

Posted Nov. 11, 2015

MP3 Excerpt of talk by Tim DeChristopher, climate activist, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

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Climate activist Tim DeChristopher gained notoriety when he served almost two years in prison for a non-violent act of civil disobedience in 2008 by making false bids for gas and oil development leases. After his release from a federal prison, he enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, with the goal of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. He has now taken a year's leave of absence to co-found the Climate Disobedience Center, which aims to provide support to activists who risk serious consequences for engaging in direct action to combat the causes of climate change. DeChristopher was a keynote speaker at the third annual Climate Stewardship Summit held Nov. 5 in West Hartford, Connecticut, organized by the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, the Connecticut affiliate of the faith-based national organization, Interfaith Power and Light.

DeChristopher began his talk by giving examples of both good and bad news in the previous week. He mentioned the Obama administration's denial of TransCanada's request to put their bid to build the Keystone XL pipeline on hold. Obama went on to reject the permit to build the pipeline the day after the conference. He also cited a bill introduced by seven members of Congress, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, to keep all fossil fuels under public lands and waters in the ground. The bad news DeChristopher mentioned included China’s admission that it had under-estimated its carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants by 17 percent, or a billion tons a year of additional carbon dioxide, the planet’s most damaging greenhouse gas.

A portion of his talk, excerpted here, focused on the difference between hope and optimism, especially the false optimism he says many environmental groups project out of fear that people can't handle the truth about the serious challenges we face on combating climate change.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: So, we're holding these two extremes, this extreme paradox here, between so much positive progress and so much new opportunities and the expansion of the possible, and so much bad news that seems to be closing down so many possibilities of actually preventing a significant collapse of our civilization. And so I think it's worth asking, How do we deal with that paradox and this divergent, dual reality that seems to be stretching us farther and farther every day? And I think a significant chunk of the climate movement is making their choice, which is to let go of one side of that dual reality, to let go of the bad news. And the answer that I often get from climate movement folks and even climate scientists, is that people really can't handle the truth, that you'll scare people into paralysis, that you'll push people into despair and they'll never get up again.

It was probably best articulated to me by Sarah van Gelder, the editor of Yes! Magazine. I was spending some time with her in Oregon a couple of years ago, and we're having this conversation, and she said, Well, if we tell people that it's too late to stop climate change, then what's to prevent them from abandoning all their values and giving up on the struggle for justice and just living as hedonistically as possible with whatever time they have left? And I didn't have a particularly good answer for her at the time. All I could say was if we don't find an answer to that question that we're going to become increasingly irrelevant as a movement. And so answering that question has been a big focus of my work over the past couple years.

And so I've started digging deeper and thinking more into this idea that people need a sense of optimism in order to keep struggling, that things are going to turn out okay in order to keep doing this work, in order to not slide into a completely paralyzing despair. And I realized that a lot of this comes down to our views of human nature, and there are certain assumptions we make about human nature when we say that people need these easy answers, people can't really handle this full truth; people can't handle that kind of paradox of a whole world that could be lost – of so much that has already been lost – and yet so much to still fight for, that that's too complicated for folks.

And so I thought about what it means to be pursuing this work with that kind of a view of human nature. But the question is whether what is manifesting in our current alienated and consumer-driven society is actually human nature or whether it's something that has been imposed on our society by those who profit from an apathetic and ignorant citizenry. If we actually hold the view that that level of apathy and alienation and ignorance and seeking easy answers that we see in so much of our society – if we hold the view that that's human nature, that that can't be changed, then that's deeply, deeply pessimistic for our future. That puts us on a really dark path. That to me is actually the scariest thing to think about for our future, because that means that whatever hardships are now inevitable, people will turn to those easy answers; that's when things get pretty scary. If we're optimistic because we think people can't handle the truth, that's just a veil for a deeper kind of hopelessness. And it's not genuine hope; that's optimism as a flimsy and fragile kind of hope. But real hope is always on the side of truth. If we are misguiding people away from the truth because we're afraid that they can't handle the truth, that is not genuinely hopeful. Genuine hope is always on the side of truth.

For more information visit DeChristopher's Climate Disobedience Center at climatedisobedience.org; Tim DeChristopher's website at timdechristopher.org; Climate Stewardship Summit at irejn.org/what-we-do/climate-stewardship-summit/.

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