Friday, October 12, 2012

On despair, and its management

Here's an interesting piece by Jonathan Porritt, one of the UK's leading environmentalists, on why it makes little sense at this point for scientists to play down the ongoing climate disaster for political reasons and in order to get "taken seriously."

I tend to agree with his main thrust. I'm becoming sick and tired of all these efforts to appear politically correct and willing to compromise, in the face of what is actually the most unreasoned, unscientific, illogical, corrupt, and downright immoral movement of recent human history: organized climate denial.

The time for compromise may be running out.

Indeed, how can you compromise with a lie?

In twenty or thirty years' time we'll be talking about climate denialism the way we currently talk about communism and fascism -- how even smart, educated people were duped or soothed by the lies and manipulation of the apparatchiks, and how the whole thing was really run as a racket by a shady cabal of Stalinesque insiders -- except of course that these insiders aren't foreign idealogues and Homburg-hatted thugs, but rather the leading lights of major American corporations and, saddest yet, the rank and file of one of America's historically great political parties. Followed deliriously, of course, by an army of monstrously ignorant, ranting, drooling Internet trolls -- modern day "Orcs".

And don't we need the imagination of a Tolkien or an Orwell to simply grasp the full hideous meaning of it all? Billions of humans will have their lives impoverished, shortened, and made infinitely more stressful by what will happen to the planet's climate.

And not what may happen. What will happen. The amount of uncertainty about whether or not warming is underway, about what it will do to the planet's weather, and about whether it's happening too fast for human systems to deal with, was reduced to a irrefutably irrelevant statistic long ago.

The danger is, of course, despair.

I'm not particularly prone to despair myself. One of the special advantages of a military career, particularly one in military rescue, is of course that the training and the practice drives you to your physical and mental limits. You become fully familiar, even intimate, with the feeling of despair and learn to manage it.

As you get older, you may lose the physical prowess, but you keep the mental ability.

I was reminded of all this last night when one of my advisees and mentees came to class to give his internship presentation. Young Andy was in both the British Royal National LifeBoat Institution
and the US Coastguard before coming to Unity College to take a degree in Conservation Law Enforcement. He's had a lot of experience with Outward Bound, and made his first year as a Lead Instructor for Outward Bound into his required Unity College internship, which I have to say was a unique but ideal combination, because Outward Bound trains its lead instructors very well indeed.

His well-humored and humane presentation reminded me of the philosophy and reasoning behind the development of Outward Bound and its founder Kurt Hahn -- it was to learn to deal with despair and to manage it, to save lives in the Atlantic convoy system during World War II. (It also reminded me of what good human beings Unity College students turn out to be. Andy is a great credit to us all, although we can't take all the credit, with so many other great institutions in his background.)

Outward Bound works by pushing young people to and through what they think are their physical and mental limits, so that they experience the depths of despair, and the heights of victory over despair, all in a controlled and safe environment, if you can imagine.

If we are to survive the monstrous and fully avoidable idiocy we call climate change, we'll have to call on these old but trusted techniques for dealing with despair again, and again. Read Hahn's Wikipedia page, if you need a starting point. Of course, I've always loved the educational principles he used, especially the one about rescue service.

It's funny how you get so involved in the minor struggles of each day that you sometimes forget what your life has been all about. After literally years of working in the wilderness, these ideas were a huge part of why I came to Unity College all those years ago. I got so focused on climate change and the energy solution to climate change that I lost a little bit of my old focus on experiential education.

It may be time to move back in the other direction and in fact bring the two back together. After all, we're going to have to learn anew how to deal with despair.

A poet, nearly a hundred years ago now, may have figured a lot of it out for us. (Although the sexism must today be edited out. I'll let you do that part.)

(Rudyard Kipling)

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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