Why not quit?

“So, if it’s as bleak as all that, and the Titanic has indeed hit the iceberg, and the Carpathia is nowhere to be seen, why keep struggling?”

Different activists will have different answers to that question. I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone. If it “works” – stops you from burning out, burning other people out, helps you help make the world a less grotesque place – then whatever floats your boat. Or stops it from hitting your own personal iceberg, to recycle the metaphor.

Here are some answers that I can see to the question “Why carry on in the face of certain failure?”
I would be very very interested to other people’s takes on these, and any others they have or have encountered…

God* told me to do it
If you’ve religious faith, and your interpretation of it is that we are here to make the world better for our fellow Man (sic), then presumably you’re not expecting to see results or rewards in this life. And so, presumably, it’s not so hard to carry on? Anyone who’s not a Godless-Atheist want to pitch in at this juncture?
(Presumably new and improved New Testament God, since the Old Testament one seems rather more keen on smiting the disobedient than in encouraging Good Deeds)

We don’t have the right, given the debt we’ve racked up
We (as in, most of the 50 or so Westerners who ever read this book) will have grown up in the fossil-fuel civilisation of Western Europe, North America or Australia. We have lived very high on the hog our whole lives. We have privileges – drinkable tap water, no American bombs falling on our heads, formal freedoms such as freedom of speech and assembly. There is medical technology around to stop us dying from simple infections. We are educated (or trained, anyway) to a pretty high standard. These are all luxuries that would boggle 19th century royalty. With those privileges comes noblesse oblige. I reckon, anyhow.
When I was in Mozambique in the early 1990s, the school text books had something like the following on the cover- Vamos estudar e fazer da nossa educacao um instrumento da libertacao do povo. “Let’s study and make of our education an instrument of the liberation of the people.”
It was obvious to them, in a dirt poor country and without a big mystifying welfare state around, that not everyone was going to get even four or five years of education. And so those that did, they had a duty and responsibility to put something back.

By the way, whether we “succeed” or “fail” (though what do such terms actually mean?) is morally irrelevant. Just because it is hopeless, doesn’t mean we are off the hook, IMHO
I suspect this argument will only appeal to a small subset of people in the “prospector” category…

It’s what humans do or “You have to imagine Sisyphus happy.”
It’s the human condition. Each of us pushes the boulder up the hill, watches it roll down. After three score and ten, our legs give out and we stop pushing. So it goes. Sure, it’s worse now, because we used to be able to imagine either a Better Future for your kids and/or our name going down in posterity [link to Barbara Adam quoting Benjamin Franklin], but humans have always had to deal with their own death. The death of their species is merely a change in scale, not of type.

If you have kids
Sooner or later they are going to look at you and say “what did you do in the climate wars daddy/mommy?” Good luck with telling them “short-haul flights, mostly”.
I don’t have kids, won’t be having kids (had the snip to make sure). Apparently this is the big cosmic “don’t do” in trying to win over skeptics/agnostics. It’s seen as moral blackmail. But seriously, won’t someone think of the children?

The Mirror Test
You have to be able to look yourself in the eye, don’t you? You have to make the effort, regardless of whether you think you have a snowball’s chance in hell of really changing anything. Alice Walker has the quote “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” That’s the title of a very very good website, by the way.

It might not be as bad as all that…
We might, through our efforts, still stop enough of the increase in emissions that take us to a six degree world. I, a layperson, suspect that the ‘positive feedbacks’ theory (insert taliks and methane burps and sink failures here) is pretty sound and we are gonna lose the icesheets, the coral reefs,etc. But there might be some successes. And we may be able to do enough preparation to allow for a very bumpy landing rather than a cataclysmic one. I’d rather not hit a brick wall at high speed, but if I have to, I want to be wearing my seatbelt, I want an airbag and I want us to be doing 60mph not 120mph. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to walk away from it, I’m pretty sure I’m dead, but you never know…

If we do nothing, we guarantee total failure (aka “Pascal’s Wager”)
Noam Chomsky very kindly replied to a letter I wrote him from Southern Africa, in 1995.

“You asked how one keeps hope alive. One way is to see that people continue to struggle for justice and freedom with courage and honor, under conditions that few of us can even imagine. Another is to look over the record of the past, even the very recent past, and see how much has been accomplished by dedicated effort. It’s not hard to fill in the blanks in the above. A third way is to put our rational minds to work, and ask what the world would have been had these struggles and dedicated efforts not taken place. And yet another – if you don’t mind, I’ll quote myself: “We are faced with a kind of Pascal’s wager: assume the worst, and it will surely arrive; commit oneself to the struggle for freedom and justice, and its cause may be advanced.”

Does that keep hope alive? Not necessarily. Does it indicate that we should act as though it is alive? Definitely so. It may not be the most uplifting and inspiring message, but I think it is a fair and right one.I also have the sense that I’m preaching to the converted, and that you know all of this, and much more, far better than I do, from your own experience. So you should be telling others, not asking me.”

No, really, who wants to be a “Good German”? Or “Godwin’s Law confirmed…”
After World War 2 the Germans (and presumably the other populations that lived under the Reich), had two excuses
a) I didn’t know what was going on.
b) I was scared to do anything in case I ended up in trouble myself.

“Posterity” (usually written by people who never lived under an occupation)! tends to look down on these. The “I was ignorant” excuse is seen to not hold water – people should have known, it seems, should have taken the trouble to find out.
The second excuse is regarded as illegitimate as well, though it’s hard to know what you COULD do against an entrenched evil that was astute at buying support (or silence) and telling the sorts of stories that most people wanted to believe about themselves.
I don’t believe that posterity will be very forgiving of all the people who claim – a decade or two from now – not have known what was coming. The question will be “why did you trust rogue weathermen and oil-company backed ‘scientists’ and journalists with no qualifications at all instead of proper scientists,” “Did you take the time to learn any of the science at all?” “Why weren’t you disinvesting from coal companies and declining to refinance airports.”
People turning around and saying “The scientific facts collided with my sense of how the universe works, or how societies should run, so I decided to ditch… the facts” will get very short shrift from their children/their neighbour’s children. Really. Way beyond eye-rolling.
[see Just World Theory]

You don’t hear about people being afraid to take climate action (though certainly people were scared off participating in things like Climate Camp after the aggressive policing in 2008 at the Kingsnorth camp). Instead of “I was scared” you tend to hear a different (but similarly self-serving) refrain “My efforts are too small to make a difference,” “the problems are too big, too complex” “My efforts won’t make any difference.”

But, being charitable, maybe with the sickening of the welfare state, folks are scared of slipping down the social pecking order, of their children not doing Better than Them? Certainly the British are working longer and longer hours (sometimes by choice – middle-class presenteeism, and often for the poor often NOT by choice – wages are so crap that folks are working two jobs to keep body and soul together.)

The irony (rather like everyone driving their kids to school because it’s not safe for the kids to walk because there are so many cars on the road) is that the indolence and acquiescence/complicity of these children’s parents is condemning them to a future in which they indeed will NOT “do better.”

PERSONAL DISCLAIMER: Hundreds of thousands of French people claimed to have been active in the Resistance, which probably numbered no more than 5000. I don’t think I’d have been caught resisting. I strongly suspect I would have done exactly what most did – keep their heads down, run with the hounds and the hare.

Weak Reasons
It beats the alternative of just bobbing along on the currents of consumerism and triviality that make up most of our lives.

Retired Reasons
An answer I used to use sadly (for me anyhow) no longer applies. I used to say “you meet the coolest people.” Well, either I’ve gotten to setting my standards too high, or the quality of the cadre has dropped, but for the most part most everyone seems happy in the Smugosphere.

So, anyone got any other reasons why we should Keep Going when there’s nothing else in you except the will that says, “hold on”?
And is it helpful to keep on going when you are obviously burnt out? That’s a luxury question for spoilt westerners, isn’t it? Shouldn’t they just get their gameface on?

In a video I made, called “Mind Your Language: Talking about the End of the World” there’s a brief answer to the ‘why carry on’ question.

AC Grayling and “The Choice of Hercules”


About dwighttowers

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11 Responses to Why not quit?

  1. Phil K says:

    Seriously good post Dwight – enriching at so many levels. I know we’ve had this conversation before but I am not hesitant about opening my presentations with my daughters – and the condemnation I will get from them for not doing more. Emotional blackmail? nah – just my situation. Not sure if it resonates with the child free….

    Keep up the good work –

    [bites lip not to mention the Ashes]



  2. leavergirl says:

    First, we don’t have access to certainty as to what will be. Get away from doomer porn, people! 😉

    Second, this is what I wanna be doing, most of all. Looking for a way. The biggest bestest adventure, these days…

    • dwighttowers says:

      We can’t be certain, no – it’s impossible to know how it will pan out. This is why I am a bigger fan of “resilience” (rightly understood) than adaptation (very passive). It is an awfully big adventure – a quest, where there is absolutely no guarantee that we’ll be there to throw the ring into the pit at the end…
      Best wishes

  3. vertalio says:

    To expand the “think of the children” metaphor…Think of the whole of creation. Be less of a humanist; we are but one species and would not be here but for the lives and deaths of all who went before, from single-celled to primate.
    We owe them all to leave things better than we found them.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Yes, well said. In other places I’ve mentioned that – we have an obligation to think of the millions of other species we “share” this planet with (the quote marks because what we are doing is not sharing, it is pillaging). I will try not omit this from future posts! Many thanks

  4. mike k says:

    “Why not quit?” What a wonderful question. It has been burrowing into my inner parts for the last couple of days, and early this morning as I meditated, the deep answer surfaced. I will try to share that later, but for now, the simple answer is: I cannot quit because to do so would deny the very basis of who I am. Thanks so much for this truly pregnant question Dwight. I hope all of us will give it the consideration it deserves.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Yes! It becomes part of your identity, doesn’t it? Have just read a book called “Activist Wisdom”, which I shall be reviewing very shortly, and there’s a chapter in there about hope and despair. And one of the answers folks give the authors is that it’s just who they are… Look forward to your future answers to this question!!

  5. JayD says:

    Leavergirl wrote,
    “First, we don’t have access to certainty as to what will be. Get away from doomer porn, people!

    “Second, this is what I wanna be doing, most of all. Looking for a way. The biggest bestest adventure, these days…”

    To this i say, first, the value i find in “doomer porn” is not to watch in frozen fascination as the Titanic ship we are on rips into the iceberg. Too many are paralyzed in the watching and waiting, for a certainty of how it will come down, or whatever they’re watching for (proof they can do nothing to avert it?)… While for me the info and speculation shows that we DO face a future that is clearly unsustainable, but that can’t be precisely predicted, which keeps me motivated. And it shows the likelihood that we have the means and the time to cobble together and deploy some more lifeboats. And those lifeboats are about a new way to survive, to intentionally evolve.

    Second, i say, yes, thus the “looking for a way” is what i too wanna be doing these days!

  6. pendantry says:

    Typo alert:
    “Each of us pushes the boulder up the hill, watches it roll down.”
    I know, I know, I’m just fiddlin’ while Roem bruns…

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