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  • Kevin Bowers

Cynicism Vs Optimism and the Climate Crisis

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

Here in North of America I find myself confronted by arguments of cynicism and inevitability. Many intelligent and progressive people argue with great conviction that we are fucked. They contend that people are too greedy, our political institutions too corrupt, our technologies not sufficiently robust, our natures too weak and lazy, and our culture too full of hypocrisy to face our immense challenges.

Our predicament is sufficiently existential and vast that this conclusion has the benefit of seeming reasonable. The argument that our collective demise is inevitably is both compelling and dangerous, and I think dead wrong.

I refuse to be a cynic and accept the narrative of inevitability for several reasons. The first is that it is a capitulation to our narcissistic system. The billionaires and the media and politicians that they own are entirely happy when lefty intellectuals decide that the fraud they have woven into our system has calcified and become inescapable. It is a glorious victory for the artful narcissist when the skulduggery and delusions and doublespeak and nonsense with which they have painted the world is given credence, permanence, and authority by the very people who see the deception. It is a master class of Orwellian consciousness when we recognize the lie but capitulate to its truth.

Fuck that.

First of all there are plenty of plain old technical reasons that optimism is a reasonable stance to take towards our crisis:

· The science and engineering is clear on our technical ability to respond to our carbon problem. Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford University's Atmosphere and Energy Program published ‘A Road Mapto 100 Percent Renewable Energy in 139 Countries by 2050’. Our media conveniently ignores this massive study, but it spells out an optimistic and well-referenced guide to how we can save both our planet and our grand kids.
· Planting a trillion treeswould absorb the lion’s share of the carbon that we have belched into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. This re-wilding of the planet would have the added benefit employing millions and it would be one hell of a renovation to our derelict planet.
· Lab Meatis a technology that could drastically reduce cruelty to both animals and planet: “it is estimated that lab-grown meat, involves approximately 7–45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use depending on the product compared.” Preliminary reports from foodiessuggest that the meat is fricken delicious. And if your initial instinct is that lab meat is gross and unpalatable, just Google: ‘slaughter house images’, and the argument for petri dishes prevails.

Secondly, those that bow to the inevitability of our civilization’s demise, who believe we are incapable of change do not give adequate credit to our culture’s precedents of radical and rapid change.

Plenty of deeply entrenched social and economic structures changed quickly despite powerful opposition in media and politics. I offer a brief list:  emancipation of slaves, women suffragettes, apartheid, Jim Crow laws, gay and lesbian rights, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 A decade before any of these eventualities a cynic would have been sure that these hopes were just leaky pipe dreams spilling into an immutable Sky. Those articulating and fighting for progressive policies would have been perceived as foolhardy idealist without a deep understanding of the intractable nature of power. Bleeding hearts and dreamers have always been perceived as naive and somehow unserious.

Today there are plenty of signs that point to the kind of swift cultural and political changes that should challenge any cynic. Established western political orthodoxies have lost credibility across the board.

In 2011 the Occupy Movement sprouted like mushrooms in Parks all over North America. Occupy popularized the concept of the 1% versus the 99%. Obama and his paramilitary police raids squashed the movement itself, but the narrative of a class war was unleashed into the mainstream, and half a decade later Bernie Sanders, whose campaign used words like ‘socialism’, filled stadiums with young enthusiasts crowds. At the start of his campaign ‘socialism’ was deemed a suicidal word in the American political lexicon. It ends up that establishment wisdom is exactly wrong.

During the democratic primaries, the polls showed that Bernie could have beaten Trump handily. He had about a 10% spread on Trump. Bernie’s chances against Trump were far greater than Hillary’s. It amazes me the number of people who are surprised by these data points. The disconnect between the polls and the narrative that was spun into the minds of the public is a testament to the media’s ability to avoid glaring truths in order to sculpt narratives for the benefit of the establishment.

These polls should recalibrate a cynic’s scepticism. These numbers are more amazing still when one considers the treatment that Bernie Sanders received from his own party and from the media. The electorate is both way more progressive than the media is willing to acknowledge, and subsequently the electorate is more progressive than they think they are.

A further reason that optimism should be a logical conclusion rather than a pipe dream is that young people are overwhelmingly in support of fundamental Progressive change. The 18 to 35 demographic voted for Bernie at over 70%. This is a headlinein the Washington Post in 2016: ‘More young people voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined — by a lot’. If one follows the narrative logic, a progressive revolution is damned near inevitable. If the young vote at the same rate as the over-65 demographic, the world changes very quickly indeed. The Republicans and corporatist Democrats could quickly become a tiny minority in a decade if these numbers hold up.

In the last months the sunrise movement and AOC have popularized the Green New Deal. The scope and grandeur of this legislation is unprecedented and would utterly change the economy and energy sectors of the United States. This idea would have been unthinkable a mere three years ago, yet it is now part of the vocabulary of our culture. The Green New Deal polls at an astounding 80%. It has picked up a healthy handful of Democrats who six months earlier would have considered such a piece of legislation both bonkers and suicide.

The fact that the politically impossible became mainstream political discourse in under 4 years is a rational for optimism, and ought to be sufficient to steer us away from the seductions of the cynics.

The people and movements that have effected this change hold lessons that might guide us out of our ecocidal orthodoxies. Their consistency in the face of establishment naysayers and gas lighters and cynics is key. They demanded a $15 minimum wage, student debt relief, Green New Deal, getting out of wars, Universal Health Care before these issues were in the national consciousness. They introduced these progressive ideas to the mainstream knowing full well that the establishment’s reaction would be frothy with bellicose venom, and that they would be decried as socialist’s handing out free ponies. Bernie and AOC and Jeremy Corbyn knew that they were trampling on the establishment’s sacrosanct narrative. They knew that the media and political classes would do what ever they could to discredit and marginalize this affront to the status quo. But they also knew that they were right, that they had people on their side, and that the best way to confront a narcissistic culture is to circumvent it.

What these movements and progressive politicians demonstrate, despite illusions to the contrary, is that the stories we are told in order to maintain hegemony are not very robust. Even though oligarchs own the media, they don't have the narrative control they think they have.  Mere months of clear and consistent messaging from an independent white haired Vermont Senator or from a 28-year-old Latina from the Bronx are able to break what seemed an impenetrable wall of cultural certainty. 

These are solid reasons and arguments for optimism, but they should not be misconstrued as certitude. I am not sure that progressive forces will swoop in and save us from the existential calamity that amasses on our collective horizon. On the other hand, I am sure that the chances of our survival decrease when people withdraw into the illusory comfort of cynicism.

Cynicism has the shabby benefit of being self-fulfilling. A cynic has a damned good chance arriving at the very disaster they predict, and their rationales and arguments will prove quite astute. People will have been too lazy, self centered and calcified in their ways to do much of anything to avert our civilization’s derailment, and they will be able to view the wreckage with the dim satisfaction of being right.

From my perch here in North of America, I will chose optimism. I am optimistic that if people actively poke at our establishment’s orthodoxies, the orthodoxies will crumble, and this collapse will engage a huge constituency of people who have been turned off by the stultifying conventions of establishment politics. I am confident that there are millions of people who want a sane and sustainable future, and I am optimistic they are ready for fundamental and exciting changes that can employ, rejuvenate, and ultimately save our planet.

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