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Environmental Crisis and Despair


I heard about the conversation a few months ago. It took place between my 18 year old daughter and some of her friends. Her friends had concluded that they would not permit THEIR children to have children because they believed that by that time the world would be coming to an end.

To this day I remain stunned by that conversation. Sure, over the years I have heard people say things like “…I am not going to have kids because this world is crazy…”, but what was striking about the conversation between my daughter’s friends was that this was based on an analysis. Their analysis was that the environmental crisis would become such that human life would probably cease to exist.

There are many people feeling that way, and I can sense it in various discussions. It does not need to be verbalized to be very present in our talks. It sits there, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, and few of us will acknowledge it. It is that sense that maybe, just maybe, we have run out of time as a species because the rich and infamous have pushed us down a road to global disaster.

There was a tendency somewhat along those lines at different moments in the Cold War. Particularly when it seemed as if we were on the verge of nuclear annihilation, e.g., during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Yom Kippur War, there was this sense that things were completely out of control. This worked its way into our culture through dramas such as Rod Serling’s classic series The Twilight Zone that frequently contained stories addressing potential nuclear disaster.

We seemed to survive that immediate threat but we have found ourselves facing a different one with consequences no less severe but with a longer fuse. The changes, for many, seemed almost inconsequential for so long until we started to notice everything from the disappearance of honey bees to Hurricane Katrina to the scarcity of clean, drinking water. Yes, we are in a crisis.

For those of us on the Left, there is a significant challenge. Insofar as despair, rather than anger and protest, grip our constituents, we have no hope of turning things around. Instead, much like what appears to have taken place in the midst of the collapse of the ancient Mayan cities or those in Europe toward the decline of the Roman Empire, people will disperse, all seeking their own individual solutions, or solutions in small groups, but few people will turn toward the need for a progressive social transformation.

That is what made the conversation between my daughter’s friends so unsettling. The potential horror that we face is very real and cannot be denied. To that extent it is important that we expose and ridicule those who would deny global warming. Yet much more is needed. In fact, the urgency of the moment necessitates greater attention toward programmatic solutions along with strategies and organizations to advance social transformation.

When Rosa Luxemburg suggested that the future was one of “socialism or barbarism” there was a tendency by many people-even in the midst of World War I-to view this as hyperbole. As it turns out, it was rather prescient. This warning through juxtaposition is critical but not enough. Understanding that we must turn away from barbarism-in whatever form-and toward socialism and the end of capitalist exploitation is a critical awareness but it must be translated into organization and action.

One immediate conclusion from all of this is that we must act with urgency. That does not mean that we should act stupidly. But it does mean that within the Left we must determine what are the minimum bases of unity that we need in order to move forward together. While it is important that we debate our differences, we need to be quite clear what differences can and must be decided today vs. those that will have to await another moment.

A second conclusion is that forms of organization and action must be introduced that win people away from despair and suggest that collective struggle can help to avoid planetary disaster. That means that it is not enough to fight the good defensive battles but that we on the Left must be thinking in terms of offensive strategy. In other words, we must be thinking about how to win.

A third conclusion is that it is important to dream. By dreaming I mean to suggest that we consider possibilities for the future that improve the human condition. Being a science fiction fan and a Star Trek devotee I always remember a scene from the film Star Trek: First Contact. Captain Piccard, having traveled back (from the 24th century) to the middle of the 21st century, is speaking with a scientist from that era. She asks how much the starship Enterprise cost to build. His response was quite interesting. In effect he said, the economics of the 24th century are quite different from yours. For us the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our existence. We seek to better ourselves. It is that notion that must work itself into our everyday realities and serve as the inspiration for action.

I want my daughter to have children-should she wish to have children-and I want her children to also reproduce, but to do so as they witness and participate in the construction of a better world rather than existing in the misery of someone’s dystopia.

My fourth conclusion: it all starts now. To borrow and paraphrase from a slogan of the South African movement: socialism is the future; build it now.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international writer and activist. He is the former past President of TransAfrica Forum and can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

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