The Trap of Climate Optimism

The Trap of Climate Optimism

Dan Sherrell’s Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World shows us a new way to tell the story of how we might cope and survive a future of catastrophe.


There’s a very specific kind of writing on climate change that we’ve probably all read, a realistic and pragmatic science journalism about the future we must stop from happening. It gives us facts, projections, and stirring rhetoric; it delicately balances fear with hope, measuring the dire consequences of what could be against what we must do to prevent it. Most of all, it has an activist’s faith: Because we must, we will.

Dan Sherrell’s Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World is a different kind of climate change book, one that offers a different kind of faith, and it’s written from a much more depressing point of view. Sherrell is a climate activist, and his book is a memoir of a decade and change of struggle, from university activism to the effort to pass climate justice legislation in New York to his current position with the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. Though he revisits the movement’s victories and offers a measure of hope, Warmth is the story of Sherrell’s slow realization that optimism is a trap—and an unrealistic one. Climate change is not a future to be prevented; it’s a present to be survived. Because climate change is already here.

This is not an easy reality to live with, especially for an activist. How do you keep going? How, in a world without optimism, can you continue to feel hope? I asked Sherrell these and other questions in a recent Zoom call. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady: Maybe we could start with how you brought faith into this book.

Dan Sherrell: Well, growing up Jewish, tikkun olam and the associated liturgy informed my conception of my role in the world: to spread my power and privilege out to as many people as I can. But it also lent a pretty strong sense that materialism and scientific empiricism—though deeply necessary for facing the climate crisis—aren’t in themselves sufficient. We also need to be able to metabolize this crisis emotionally, even spiritually. As a culture and a civilization, we’re way behind the eight ball in doing that work.

This realization led me to traditional faith practices. Faith communities are some of the few public spaces left where there’s room to digest social issues with the people you know in an emotional and intimate space. That makes it a really obvious place to start when thinking through how we should live our lives in a climate-changed century. And for middle-class people in the Global North, the problem will eventually come for us, even if it comes for us last.

So how do we live? How do we live with ourselves, and what is incumbent on us to do? For me, this book was a way to deepen and expand what organizing means beyond raw leftist materialism or numb scientific empiricism. People aren’t just political actors; we’re not just rational automatons. We need narrative, and we need emotional sustenance, and we need to feel meaning and location in the universe in order to survive. We should be scouring our cultural history and talking with each other, and reading and thinking and processing and emoting, to try to create the cultural and spiritual resources that will see us through the crisis.

That said, I’m wary of the ways that faith doctrines don’t actually map onto the crisis. One of the challenges posed by the climate crisis is that it’s very resistant to narrative. But we love a good narrative! Think about how conspiracy theories work: They give people these sort of lizard brain sublimations of the kinds of non-narrative political and economic precarity that’s always bubbling at the peripheries of their worldviews. Things we can feel, but a narrative can’t encompass. When you’re handed this incredibly sexy and compelling messianic narrative that seems to explain everything very simply, that becomes a seductive alternative to reality.

But messianic narratives dangle the carrot of an ending in front of us, promising some final reckoning. The cookie will crumble, and we’ll finally know how it all turned out. But with the climate crisis, that’s a red herring. This thing will never end. We have to keep living with it, and through it, for the rest of our lives and probably for many centuries to come. I’m interested in how we do that.

AB: I appreciate your insistence on uncertainty, because part of the relief of apocalypse movies is that we finally know, and we can see it. And there’s a kind of climate denialism where if we can’t see a blockbuster dystopia outside our window, we can’t imagine that it’s happening. If there aren’t zombies coming, then climate change must be too far off to worry about.

DS: I haven’t done the regression analysis on this, but I would bet the number of zombie movies correlates pretty well to the prevalence of climate research in the public discourse. But apocalypse narratives tend to force people into one of two directions, both of them bad. On the one hand, there’s the fatalism of “Well, we’re doomed, so why bother?” And I struggle with that myself sometimes! But there’s also complacency, where we’ve seen the end of the world so many times on TV that we look out our window, and it doesn’t really look like that. The world appears mundane and normal. So that leads us to assume that we’ll just jump into action when the time comes. But the time is now!

Neither of those things is what we need, politically. What we need is something that balances patience with urgency. What we need is to feel real possibility without being blinded by facile optimism or crushing despair.

AB: Is that why you call it “the problem” in the book, rather than a more familiar term like “the climate crisis” or “global warming”?

DS: I wanted to defamiliarize the crisis to orchestrate a genuine emotional encounter with the enormity of the thing itself. When people hear the words “climate change,” there is a very specific pigeonhole that this crisis gets foisted into, a very scientific box, a technocratic box. It becomes a set of anxiety-inducing but ultimately dead facts that arrive to you through the content hose of your news feed, along with all sorts of other information about politics and entertainment and your social life. It’s hard to get under the skin of this thing that’s bearing down on us, because it’s too abstract, too easily compartmentalized—until the flames are literally at your door.

AB: That’s helpful because, when people talk about environmentalism, they often think in terms of conservation—preserving and protecting. But it’s not a “conservative” project you’re describing.

DS: It can’t be just an “environmental” issue, because it’s going to impact basically everything about the way we live, on the entire planet, for centuries. The climate movement really is about the maintenance of civilization as we know it. Though I should amend that slightly: It’s not about “the maintenance of civilization as we know it.” It’s about creating a more just and sustainable society, which is literally the only option we have if we want to survive.

The other reason that I called it “the problem” is that in some ways the materiality of the climate crisis—the accumulation of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere—is more of a symptom, an emergent property of a deeper problem. We’ve created a civilization that, to its own severe detriment, has devalued and withdrawn attention from certain kinds of people and from large swaths of the natural world. We’ve blinded ourselves—or capitalism has blinded us—to how critical to our survival it is to pay attention to those things, and care for them.

AB: Give me an example.

DS: In most investment models, there’s something called the “discount rate,” which is when investment calculations presume that future generations are going to be smarter and more technologically advanced than us. So that means that a problem of a certain scale in this generation is going to weigh proportionately less on future generations. As a form of can-kicking, neoliberal magical thinking, this allows us to say that a small benefit to our generation is worth potentially massive costs to future generations. In that way, we convince ourselves that it won’t be such a big cost. But it devalues future generations in a way that makes no sense, if you believe—as most major religions do—that every human life is equally inherently valuable.

Or think about how the fossil fuel industry fuels a certain kind of lifestyle, but only for a certain portion of the globe. That’s a massive wedge driven between the rich and poor people on this planet. You can see it at the extraction sites—the immense harm to the environment, from the Amazon to the Bight of Biafra to West Virginia—and in the way the global climate crisis will, first and foremost, impact people who have been made invisible or otherwise devalued politically. Chevron and Exxon have been given free rein to just bulldoze their rights and economies and livelihoods completely.

We’ve also radically devalued those species that we don’t rely on for protein. The ratio between the living biomass represented by cows and chickens and literally every other species is a frightening statistic.

I could go on. But we have this myopic worldview that has tried to squeeze the world through the tiny little bottleneck of monetization. And as it turns out, that works incredibly poorly. Certain Indigenous civilizations have sustained themselves for tens of thousands of years, but after only a few hundred years, the civilization created by the Industrial Revolution is collapsing in on itself. We have the wrong model.

I was very averse to landing on a “take” in this book, but if I were to extract one now, it would be that what the climate crisis requires of us—morally, but also for survival—is to massively expand the bounds of our attention and our love. This isn’t a woo-woo thing; it’s the deepest pragmatism. We have an ecological gun to our head. If we’re not able to pay attention, as a polity, to those people who have been made invisible, and to the many species that have been made invisible—let alone the inorganic circuitry that runs our environment, like the seasons, the oceans, and even things like rates of sedimentation—if we’re not able to encompass all of that in the sphere of what we really do care about and treat it all not as externalities to be sacrificed or saved, but as indivisible and constituent parts of what we are, then we’re going to go down in flames.

The climate crisis presents us with a spiritual and intellectual crucible. We can choose to move through that and come out with a radically rebuilt world, or we can choose to cling to the world that got us into this mess in the first place and just go down with the ship. And it seems like much of the conservative right wants to do exactly that, or can’t imagine doing anything but that.

AB: Not just the conservative right! One thing that leaps out of this book is the feeling of intense loneliness that people in this movement sometimes struggle with, which comes from walking around in a world that you can see collapsing, when it feels like nobody else can.

DS: I absolutely wrote this book out of loneliness. For a lot of climate organizers, the isolation and horror our work engenders creates a kind of double consciousness. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and do normal things like make dinner or fold your laundry, but you are constantly aware that there’s a giant asterisk hanging over everything that you know and love. And that asterisk is getting larger.

At the same time, in the climate movement, all of us are so slammed with pedal-to-the-metal organizing, and so exhausted from e-mail and conference calls, that the space for psychic processing is pretty thin and rare and not all that developed. So I feel a need to have a real encounter with this thing that I am ostensibly taking action on every day—to feel the actual enormity of it, rather than filter it through a news feed or through data visualizations. And that’s really hard! But creating the cultural spaces where we do that work is going to be immensely important for life in the 21st century.

In that respect, I’m also quite hopeful. Even just this year, even just for laypeople, we’ve seen a marked increase in the reporting on and prevalence of extreme weather events. It’s a grim hope, a complicated hope, as many of them are in the age of the climate crisis. But the boundary is dissolving quickly between the layperson’s and the organizer’s understanding of the severity of the climate crisis. It’s horrifying, but it’s also long overdue.

AB: How has the climate movement changed in the time you’ve been a part of it? “Optimism” is not the right word, but it is different now.

DS: I would trace three dominant trends. First of all, it’s grown by leaps and bounds: People know what the climate movement is, and it’s increasingly represented in the media, a concept that is much more familiar to people now. It’s still not nearly broad enough, of course. We haven’t reached the goal of actively mobilizing 3.5 percent of the population. Maybe we’re at 1 percent.

But the climate movement has also developed a real sense of how it can wield political power, and it has wielded that power. I take immense hope in the fact that, even in the last three years, the Overton window in the Democratic Party has jolted radically to the progressive left. That’s been driven by the amazing work of comrades in the Sunrise Movement and beyond, and by some of the candidates elected by the Justice Democrats, who have redefined the parameters of debate. And to an extent that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the presidential campaign, the Democratic Party has followed that lead.

The climate movement has also become a lot less white. It has collectively come to the realization, or been able to voice the realization, that the climate movement without the leadership of the people most affected by the climate crisis would be a paper tiger, unable to wield real political power or create the breadth of constituency that we will need to take our democracy back from the fossil fuel industry.

Those three trends give me immense hope. But I don’t want to confuse hope with optimism. I’m not necessarily optimistic.

AB: Break the difference down for me.

DS: Optimism is the feeling that things are going to work out in the end, and I don’t have that feeling—at all. I think we have to be real with ourselves about the possibility that political systems could fail to rise to the occasion and climatic feedback loops could start to set in, and the 21st century could become very, very scary.

But hope, for me, is equivalent to indeterminacy or anti-fatalism. What I outlined above is one potential pathway, but we really don’t know how this thing is going to go. There are a range of possible outcomes between 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and 4 or 5 degrees, and the difference between those two worlds is night and day. But we do still have the ability to shape where the dial lands between those two poles. That is hope: the ongoing feeling that the future is not predetermined and that we can help shape it. There’s a truism in the climate movement that says hope is a discipline, and you have to actively cultivate it. Hope isn’t “Liquid hydrogen will come in and save us all.” Hope is knowing that every increment we move the thermometer in one direction or the other saves or consigns millions of people to life or death. I can’t imagine higher stakes than that. And I can’t imagine anything that would invest a human life with more meaning than that struggle.

AB: What do you think about the case that Andreas Malm has been making for the necessity of a more direct and militant attack on fossil fuel infrastructure?

DS: I agree with his basic ethical case: If it were likely to lower planetary warming by even a few tenths of a degree, thus sparing probably millions of lives, then destroying fossil fuel infrastructure seems not only justified but morally necessary. But Malm fails to make a compelling strategic case. The strategic rationale would have to go something like this: With enough distributed guerrilla activists sabotaging pipelines, investments in pipelines writ large would grow prohibitively risky, and the pool of financial backers would dry up. My fear is that the likelier outcome would spell disaster for the climate movement: The state would clamp down immediately, climate activists would be imprisoned for decades, public support for the movement would dip significantly, and the right would paint all climate advocates as “environmental terrorists” and accelerate its creeping fascism in the name of law and order. In my opinion, the climate movement would have to shift the Overton window a lot further in order to win public support for blowing up pipelines and to inoculate against the inevitable right-wing backlash. If the backlash is more effective than the tactic—which I believe it would be in 2021—then it’s not a good strategy.

I’m not certain I’m right in this assessment. But in the interviews I’ve read with Malm, he tends to adopt a “might as well try it” attitude, and I just don’t think that’s sufficient when the “it” in question could very well end up being a net negative for the climate movement. But this is a frustration I often have with the left: If an ethical principle isn’t paired with a rigorous strategy that would make it manifest in the world, then it’s more like a thought experiment than a tool for improving the lives of working people.

AB: From Greta Thunberg to the Sunrise Movement, so much of the climate movement is about youth, about the young people who will live in the climate-changed future. But in a lot of ways, this is a book about being a youth activist who is growing up, who is contemplating having children, who is worrying about burnout.

DS: In part, I did write this book because the window in which I could call myself a youth activist was closing. I needed some new story that would carry me into the second phase of my life. Nobody invokes “the middle-age climate activist”; it’s only “the youth climate movement.” The climate movement of my dreams would support people moving through each stage of their life. There would be infrastructure to organize parents around this, infrastructure to organize empty nesters and retirees, each as meaningful and vivid as what it means to be a high schooler in Sunrise right now. The idea that only the youth have the energy and the idealism to take this thing on, while the rest of us fade into the background as we age—that’s just not a good model for intergenerational solidarity, for movement sustainability, or for movement power. But the same stories that sustained me in my teens and 20s—and I just recently turned 30—are not going to sustain me as I consider having children, starting a family. And it’s going to be a long, messy century of two steps forward, one step back. There’s not going to be a point at which we can demobilize.

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