29 months and counting
Recently I was called an "apocaloptimist" – a term I hadn't heard before. Galling, because I've written a book titled Cancel the Apocalypse which, it might be argued, embodies apocaloptimism. In fact it is slightly off. An apocaloptimist is defined online (it is yet to be recognised by respectable dictionaries) as: "someone who knows it’s all going to s**t, but still thinks it will turn out ok."
Certainly, I see climate trends mostly braced for cacotopia (yes, that is a real word, and means pretty much what it sounds like).
As a recent report on fossil fuels, To the Ends of the Earth, summarised: globally we consume ever more energy per person, the amount used per unit of economic output is going up again, and we’re literally scraping the geological oil barrel to find ever dirtier fuels to feed demand. However, rather than thinking things will turn out okay, I only think that they could, if we draw the logical conclusions about necessary action from what we know.
Nevertheless, half-smiling in recognition, it struck me that to avoid the twin evils of denial or despair, it’s a state of mind that must be increasingly common. Are you hooked on an almost certainly doomed national football team at the World Cup? Be an apocaloptimist. Young and want to buy your own home in Britain? Ditto. Europhile, peace lover in the Middle East, polar bear? Ditto, ditto, ditto.
But why be upbeat when it is so easy for others to mock, as the contrary facts tower over you? The comment aimed at me almost certainly wasn’t a compliment. Here’s seven reasons to be an apocaloptimist:
- I tried being miserable and expecting the worst about big world problems (nuclear devastation, acid rain etc) as a teenager and it just made me miserable and expect the worst.
- It made everyone around me miserable too.
- Being defeatist makes it harder to get off your arse to do something that might actually change things and bring about a better outcome. Doing something also makes you feel better (there’s good research on this) and hence likely to do more, creating a positive cycle. Win, win.
- At the same time, I want to stare the challenge in the face, such as global carbon emissions hitting a record high. Being in denial of the facts would be like walking backwards down a motorway, against the flow of traffic, and that would make me nervous.
- To ignore the facts would also mean never considering answers big enough for the size of the problem and so not even looking to see if they existed – which would be a shame if they do (I think they do) as we’re talking about preserving a climate fit for civilisation.
- Being positive about the possibility of overcoming seemingly insuperable odds has history on its side: abolition, suffrage, civil rights, ozone depletion, universal healthcare (surprises are everywhere, in spite of all you read to the contrary. For example, the NHS is, objectively, the world’s best health system). And, regardless, you really never know how big, complex problems are going to work out.
- Staying in bed too long contemplating the potential pointlessness of it all gives me a headache. Being positive, yet aware of just how precarious things are, feels realistic, open and an important acknowledgement that I’m fortunate to be able to act. It also gets me out of bed in the morning to make a cup of tea, and I like tea. And, I can’t think of a better way to be alive in the world than trying to solve the great challenges of the age.
So, yes, my name is Andrew Simms and I am an apocaloptimist. The climate clock is still ticking yet there are incredible opportunities to make things better. I just wish I’d discovered the word before finishing the book.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010