What Must We Do to Live?
Climate collapse demands heroism from all of us, all the time. That’s good.
“What do we do about it?” is a natural question that follows from one of the world’s preeminent scientific bodies proclaiming we have a small number of years to thwart the collapse of everything we know.
“What do we do about climate change?” is a long-running question with no real consensus on the answer. There is broad consensus on what humanity has to do. It’s clear that the world’s collective governments, markets, companies, and institutions must do one thing: decarbonize. The world—all its economies, supply chains, industries, vehicles, households, and farms—has to stop emitting greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, immediately.
How does this collective of institutions do that? The answer is clear: transition energy to non-carbon sources, reforest much of the world’s land, abandon industrial agriculture for agro-ecological food systems, and remove carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere.
But what must happen for all of these institutions to achieve the unprecedented engineering and administrative feats involved in decarbonizing the global economy? At this point, consensus breaks down. Some argue we have to dismantle global capitalism and build a new ecosocialism in as many governments as possible. Others argue that we have to incentivize market forces to favor non-carbon energy over fossil fuels. Some say we must “degrow” the economy. Others believe we just have to wait for a technological miracle to come along and save us.
All of this has to happen. But as answers to “What do we do?” these missives fail to satisfy me. They don’t really tell me anything about what I must do when I wake up in the morning and get on with my day. They don’t say much about how I must shape my life to nudge, ever so slightly, the world toward a future in which humans and other animals can continue to live on Earth.
The answer to that question—what do I do?—is much harder, both to articulate and to practice. Unfortunately, attempts at answering that question have been dominated by powerful institutions that want to keep people placid and consumptive.
Many mainstream commentators have suggested that in order to completely and fundamentally change the way the world economy functions, all we must do is tweak our consumption patterns.
Even as CNN and much of the rest of the media remain behind the times, climate scientists and activists have moved on from the belief that minor consumer shifts can halt this problem. More recently what we hear from climate activists (including me!) is that we need collective political action. All of us collectively need to vote, join political organizations, participate in direct action, strike, support pro-climate candidates and call our representatives, give to nonprofits, and volunteer. Sometimes we’ll even push for meaningful consumer actions like purchasing electric vehicles, making sure your utility is providing non-carbon electricity, buying only local food, joining a community renewable energy project, buying solar panels, or investing in non-carbon energy companies.
All of these actions are important. We should be doing as much of this as we possibly can, given our varied degrees of access to time and money.
And yet, these actions don’t quite feel satisfying. They feel like what you’d find on the back of a nonprofit’s brochure or in a political pamphlet. I can vote one or two days a year, sure. I can give money to a nonprofit and be done in five minutes. I can volunteer for DSA a few hours a week. I can campaign for an exciting politician once every couple of years. I can put solar panels on my roof and spend five minutes watching that cool indicator thing show me how much electricity I’m producing.
But these actions don’t really feel commensurate with saving the world. None of these actions really demand that much. They still resemble small tweaks in the face of complete upheaval. None of them get at the question of how the reality of climate-driven collapse must reshape our lives, both today and in the near future. And yet, it must. If we’re going to avert global collapse, we must fundamentally change our lives, now.
Sure, we have to vote once every couple of years for candidates who genuinely care about solving this issue. But there aren’t many of those. So we also have to be those candidates. Some of us will have to give all of our life savings to fund our own political campaigns and, even if we hate the spotlight and fear failure, run for office in our communities, stand onstage, and risk the humiliation of losing. There are about half a million public offices in the US, from utility commissions to city councils to the Senate. We need multiple candidates running for each of those seats. Enough of them need to be filled by people who are willing to prioritize decarbonizing the economy above all else, and override the people who get in the way. That means many, many more of us have to run for office and take as much formal power as we can. Maybe you are one of them.
Those seeking power will have to make a lot of personal sacrifices. Some will have to reshape their behavior; some of us will have to be more ambitious than we are, more (or less) extraverted or cunning, more (or less) charismatic or ruthless, more compassionate or hardworking, to increase our personal power however we can. If we’re going to nudge trillion-dollar budgets and massive global institutions toward decarbonizing, then the people who care about saving the world have to gain formal power. There’s no substitute for this.
But that’s not all we have to do. For those of us who cannot seek political power, we will have to put all of our talents and skills into this every day. We have to use whatever our gifts and whatever role we play in society and bend them to this issue. We have to reframe how we see ourselves and the meaning of our work in the world. Even if we’re not climate scientists, or activists, or politicians, we can still take heroic action in pursuit of averting collapse. We have to demand this heroism of ourselves and each other.
If you’re a writer, then you have to write about this. If it you’re an artist, then you have to make art about it. If you’re an Uber driver, then talk to your passengers about it and everyday bring someone on board. If you’re an entrepreneur, then start a non-carbon company and infiltrate business associations, convince your customers to act. If it means you find an opportunity to sabotage something that your unique position gives you access to—a fossil fuel executive’s business lunch, an auction of public land, a politician’s press conference, pipeline construction—the heroic thing to do is take the risk of penalties in committing that act of sabotage, however small it feels. Support someone who wants to run for office or start a non-carbon company. Some of us will have to go to jail and live with the trauma of that for the rest of our lives. Every single day, in our jobs and lives, we have to find creative ways to do something, anything, that can work towards not only avoiding collapse, but building a new world. This new world, one capable of equitably hosting life on earth, must be built on our heroism. It will only be birthed by the pangs of sacrifice. It will emerge out of the joys of mutual support and interdependence.
We have to carve out a space in our minds and our souls and give that over entirely to this issue, as daunting, boring, scary, and painful as it can be. This entails learning a lot of new ideas, giving up notions we thought we understood, pouring our time into mastering some new knowledge or skill, stretching our own personal, individual talents to their limits. And once we’ve done this, we have to be that embarrassing person who’s always bringing this up and trying to engage people on it, trying to reach out to others for camaraderie in the face of this collapse. Some of us will have to quit our jobs to work on this full-time in some other capacity. Some will have to take a risk of starting a company that may fail, or starting a nonprofit campaign that may never get funding.
Perhaps most importantly, we have to wake up in the morning and love more fiercely. I don’t mean that in a trite, perfume-advertisement way. It is simply necessary that we love other people more selflessly than we do now in order to address this crisis. That, above all, is what confronting climate disruption demands.
Parents often love their children selflessly, sure. But that’s not enough: they have to learn to love other children just as heartily. As climate refugees flee their homes, we’ll have to take strangers into ours. We’ll have to willingly spend tons of public money—that is, our own money—to experiment on technology that may fail, on projects that may weaken our country’s strategic position in the world, on funding projects with benefits we may never see. We have to do the uneconomical thing, take less to give someone else more, pay more for electricity, or pool our resources to buy solar panels. We have to want a future for someone we’ve never met on the opposite side of the world.
We also have to hate more fiercely. There are men in power who are rapists and murderers, who want us and our children to die painful deaths, who are jeopardizing all life so they can jerk off into a jacuzzi in space. We have to hate these men in a way that is commensurate with their evil. We have to prepare ourselves psychologically to compel the state—or whomever—to take away everything they possess. We have to learn to turn off that human tendency to extend empathy to everything with a face, beautiful though it is, and be willing to put powerful men in prison forever.
Being motivated to do that means pouring our rage into the world, and suffering the pain of that. We have to confront the fact that real evil exists in the world, and it is the main obstacle to ensuring our survival on this planet. We have to realize that it’s unimaginably difficult not to capitulate to that evil, but instead summon the will and courage to fight it.
In all the superhero and spy movies, somehow the world always finds itself about to be destroyed. To save the world from destruction, the heroes must do some acrobatics, punch some bad guys, and look really cool. Sometimes they make a sacrifice or two. Well, the real end of the world is now staring at us in the face. It’s real. And no superhero is going to fly down and take care of it for us. Every one of us has to be heroic, and real heroics demand far more than what movies tell us they demand. Meeting this challenge will require an almost inhumanly selfless generosity and courage. That’s just the nature and the scale of the problem.
But in finding our heroism to meet this challenge, we might find that how we live in the world becomes better than it is now, that we become better people. Perhaps the antidote to the selfishness running rampant in the world is a threat to our survival so immense that it demands an unprecedented selflessness. Summoning the love to take in strangers, or to sacrifice for wildlife, building the moral fortitude to fight evil men, forcing ourselves to expand our knowledge and our talents, finding the ambition to gain power in our societies, these are all necessary for avoiding climate collapse, and they can all make us superior to our current selves. This challenge can bring us together. It can build us up. We might find that it will conspire with our resilience to, finally, make us worthy of survival.
Samuel Miller McDonald is a writer and geography PhD student at University of Oxford studying the intersection of grassroots movements and energy transition.