I’ve been wrestling this month with the relationship between future climate change and the residency task I’ve set myself. My task is, in brief, to identify and understand economic models that offer alternatives to the current system we live in – and then to create some way of imagining what it might be like to live under those conditions. This is in response to the way that that well-known ‘business-as-usual’ scenario seems to be leading to accelerating disaster. Whether we wish it or not, change is coming; rather than it being runaway global warming (which will by itself force economic change), I’m interested in what proactive change might look like in relation to our systems of value and exchange. This change might provide a greater degree of social justice and reduce reliance on carbon. By ‘economy’ I mean ‘system of exchange of goods and services’ – and the reason it interests me is because it enshrines or encodes the ways in which we perceive ourselves to be successful as human beings. To come up with a resilient alternative to the current scenario, a different model of what signifies achievement will be needed. But – and this is what I’m currently wrestling with – it would be fantastical to imagine that if we could possibly embrace an economic system that diverted human activity to ends that did not damage the planet, and that climate change would suddenly cease. There is much concern about the arrogance of placing the human as the initiator of a whole geological epoch – the Anthropocene – but whilst it is entirely conceivable to me that this could be the case (in a species sense, just as locusts decimate large areas when they reach critical mass), what is truly arrogant is to imagine that having set such change in motion, that we have the power to make it stop.
Thus my task – to imagine how to live and to imagine who we would be – under conditions of alternative economies cannot just take the physical environment as it is now. Because to model that would be to imply that climate change might not happen, that we could somehow engineer a complete solution, and all would be well. Not only is that a fantasy in relation to the future, it ignores the reality of many lives around the globe for whom climate change has already had extreme social, economic and indeed existential implications.
But if imagining the complexities of the social and personal effects of changing our economic system is daunting, the need to posit a model for how the climate might be different in which these alternative economies might play out, is mind-boggling. To ‘rehearse’ effectively for the future, there needs to be a recognition among all participants not of ‘truth’, but plausibility. Any scenario must be comprehensible and possible. But how to pinpoint just one, when climate models show us how extraordinarily varied the possibilities are? The ‘if’s proliferate.
In the meantime, in everyday life, the future is postponed. As a family we (Zoë, Leo, Max, Tom) spent last weekend in Glasgow with the Family Activist Network. Seven families were at this event. We crossed Glasgow Green, lacking ourselves any epiphany to match an idea George Watt had there in 1765 on his morning stroll. An idea that made the steam engine massively more efficient, and – supposedly – exponentially accelerated the industrial revolution. If only someone could have an idea now that topped this, and there could then be a pivot away from the environmental damage that Watt’s idea has led to. Locating momentous change in single lightbulb moments is dangerous: if it is really true that a morning walk changed the whole course of industrial history, then all we need to do is wait for someone to have another such idea, and everything will be solved. We might be waiting a long time…
I wondered, as we walked – is the responsibility in relation to climate change rather like being in a group with children there? We are both responsible and not responsible? The planet is not owned by any of us, directly, and no one is charged as an individual with taking care of it, but we feel a responsibility to it – in our peripheral vision. But we can be easily distracted, and by accident we might all move away, paying attention to other things, and leave it to its fate.
The group discussed future scenarios and how to talk about climate change with children. Paula McClosky suggests that the way forward with the children is to enable them to imagine a world without humans. To move beyond our concerns with ourselves and recognise we are merely part of something that doesn’t ‘need’ us. It denaturalises our perception of our centrality. This is not a case of taking children on an imaginative journey through the apocalypse and out the other side, but rather to reduce the othering, by simply imagining a landscape/world that does not miss us. This is not about the end of humanity but about our non-necessity. I think this is brilliant. It is like a kind of relief. It renders my moral knots null and void and takes us away from the strictures of language (of ‘fear’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘loss’) that currently shape climate change discussions and also which I think are the thing that feel wrong to share about the future with children. We talk about the need to try to equip our children to handle complexity, complexity and uncertainty. That this is what might make them resilient. Because we don’t know what the future will be, we don’t know what kind of climate we will be living in. Paula describes imagining the posthuman landscape as an act of grace.
And indeed it offers a space in which to think about how we might want to live differently: if we recognise the planet doesn’t need us, then we also recognise that we need the planet. We need an economy that recognises the symbiosis of ecosystems – rather than mastering them (and with it, us) out of existence.