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Why Bother? On Fighting a Losing Battle

Monday, 9 July 2012  | Byron Smith

"It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth's living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue "sustained growth", the primary cause of the biosphere's losses.

"The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before.

"The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics."

- George Monbiot, After Rio, we know. Governments have given up on the planet.

George Monbiot reflects upon the outcomes of the recent Rio+20 conference, indeed upon the whole sweep of international negotiations since the first Rio conference, and reaches a healthy degree of pessimism. Our present political system is, apparently, incapable of performing the kind of deliberation required to implement policies consistent with its continuation beyond a fairly short timeframe. This much is not particularly news, though the failures at Rio only underscore the tragedy of our present situation.

However, I'd like to highlight the closing paragraphs of Monbiot's piece, where he turns to the question of giving up.

"Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long? It seems to me that there are at least three reasons.

"The first is to draw out the losses over as long a period as possible, in order to allow our children and grandchildren to experience something of the wonder and delight in the natural world and of the peaceful, unharried lives with which we have been blessed. Is that not a worthy aim, even if there were no other?

"The second is to preserve what we can in the hope that conditions might change. I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds. But I might be wrong. Would it not be a terrible waste to allow the tiger, the rhinoceros, the bluefin tuna, the queen's executioner beetle and the scabious cuckoo bee, the hotlips fungus and the fountain anenome to disappear without a fight if this period of intense exploitation turns out to be a brief one?

"The third is that, while we may have no influence over decisions made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders."

If we compare these reasons with the motivations of someone facing terminal illness, we find some parallels. Why continue any form of treatment when the result will still be death?

First, because sometimes, extending life is worth the effort. There are limits to how far this stretches, but particularly where there are still opportunities to bless and be blessed by others, then the pursuit of a longer life can be a faithful response. I think this is an important perspective, since, in the long run, a warming sun will see the end of all life on earth (perhaps in a few hundred more million years) and indeed entropy will ultimately see the heat death of the universe, making all efforts at sustainability ultimately contingent and temporary. Whether we manage to extend something like the present ecological order for another ten, hundred or thousand years can't hide the fact that change will come. But relative gains still matter. I may be certain of my own death within fewer decades than I have fingers, but I'm still willing to do things that make it more likely that I get onto my second hand, or even onto my second digit.

Second, because one never knows. Perhaps a miraculous remission may materialise after all and the terminal diagnosis turn out to be incorrect, despite all the odds. There are no guarantees of such an outcome, but the possibility remains open. If a cancer patient may hope for the sudden collapse of the tumour that threatens the life of the body, Monbiot is here hoping for the sudden collapse of the machine that threatens the natural world on which it relies. What would it look like for the machine of consumer capitalism to collapse before the collapse of natural systems? Is this an outcome that can be actively pursued or simply hoped for? Obviously, when talking about an politico-economic-cultural system, for it to collapse raises the question of what replaces it. Whether you think there are genuine alternatives that can be realistically implemented on pathways that maintain human flourishing without massive and violent disruption will largely determine whether you are a bright or dark green.

Third, because I might not be able to win the war, but battles can still be won or lost. I might be doomed to die, but symptoms can be treated. Monbiot goes on to speak of re-wilding as a strategy that can be feasibly pursued at a national or sub-national level even in the absence of international agreements. And perhaps there is value in such a move. But his three points leave me wondering: can these be extended? Are there more reasons to keep going, even when to all appearances it looks like a losing battle? I can think of three more.

a) It is the right thing to do. Even if unsuccessful in averting global tragedy, to live in ways that individually and communally show respect for the community of creation and acknowledge our finitude are simply to live in line with the truth about ourselves. Whatever the outcome, to live honestly is to live rightly.

b) The way of the cross is the way of light. Faced with suffering and difficulty, the Christian is called not to shrink back in self-protection, but to walk forward in obedient trust, seeking to love and care even where this comes at personal cost, based on a hope in the God who judges justly. We are not to conform to the pattern of the world - neither its hyper-consumption nor its catastrophist resentment - but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. What does it look like to deny myself and take up my cross in a world threatened by converging ecological crises? The answer will be complex, though some of the first steps are clear enough.

c) We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Hope for the renewal of all things is not a get out of gaol free card that justifies a life of selfish indulgence, but a summons to live in the light of the future. If God refuses to abandon his good creation, neither can we.

Byron Smith is from Sydney and is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He blogs at Nothing New Under the Sun.


Alasdair Livingston
July 9, 2012, 9:17PM
My life, compared with the world average, has been one of "selfish indulgence", to borrow from Byron Smith. But my home is a hovel in comparison to the mansions that are being built in near-by streets. It has been remarked that there are two classes of people who believe that "growth" (which seems to be code for an ever-increasing standard of living) can go on for ever: they are economists and madmen. To maintain even the degree of comfort that we have now, for an ever-rising population, cannot continue without "growth", unless we are prepared to see mass starvation in countries whence we get our goodies. My grandchildren, I believe, will have to live in a less indulgent world, but I doubt they will be less happy than my life has been.
Charles Sherlock
July 11, 2012, 10:40AM
Really important stuff - I found the UK Sustainability report, Prosperity without Growth, to be very helpful in trying to think (and live) through these issues. And Kevin McCloud's (he of Grand Designs) 43 Principles for Home - living sustainably in the 21st century - to be very practical. Neither are 'specifically' Christian, but operate out of 'reign of God' type worldviews.
Byron Smith
July 13, 2012, 5:26AM
Charles - Thanks for those references. "Prosperity without Growth" is a very important phrase (I haven't looked at the details of the report, but have read some summaries) as it speaks to precisely the concern that Alasdair rightly raises. The goal is not for life to get worse, but for us to seek what improvements we can within an honest and responsible assessment of the limits we face as finite creatures on a finite planet. Living more simply does not mean being poor, but can actually be an opportunity to invest in the things that really matter: relationships of trust and sharing. This may not mean maintaining present levels of "comfort" (where this is defined in terms of material consumption), but for Christians, comfort is not a particularly central goal in life. We follow one who had nowhere to lay his head and was crucified and who invites us to take up our cross too.

PS The line I've heard is that only two beings believe in infinite growth: economists and tumour cells.
Becca Allchin
July 15, 2012, 9:08PM
Thanks Brian. Indeed we are acountable for the life that we live and have a moral obligation to love and care for the world that God gave for all to flourish. Those with the least buffers against our changing world are those who have contributed the least to creating the changes. As Christians committed to God's justice we must not let apathy or hopelessness render us powerless. We are called to act on behalf of those the poor and powerless and we worship a God who gives us hope to continue even when the outlook looks bleak.

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