No one was forcing them to believe in anything, these fifteen-year-old Unitarians, taking their turns at the pulpit. They were delivering “spiritual reflections” to their parents and friends on a recent Saturday evening. Their speeches were the culmination of a year’s worth of coming-of-age classes they’d attended, a formal summing up of what they’d learned and where they stood. They were an impressive and articulate group, and I’m not saying that just because my daughter was one of them.
What a pluralistic exercise it was–each speech a nuanced and individual expression. Still, if I were to perpetrate some analytical violence on the reflections as a whole, I might divide them into three categories. The first group, when facing the big questions, turned to science. If science couldn’t explain or solve everything, it offered the best method of investigation, the best source of solutions to be found. The second group had arrived at a kind of working dualism. They, too, deferred to science but allowed for a realm not reachable through its procedures. A few placed God in that realm, though they did so with understandable diffidence. The third group restricted their comments to practice. “What’s the use of putting beliefs into words?” they implied. Even the vaguest metaphysical statement lands somewhere on the dogma spectrum. What’s important is tending to our relationships, enjoying them, nurturing them, caring for them. I’ve always admired third-category people, but I suppose I’m too fond of categorizing to ever count myself among them.
These three groups are not novel in any way. In fact, my impression was, despite constant and ever more rapid technological change, how very little the basic questions and options have changed. It was also my impression that the largest group was probably the first one. Again, no surprise. The dominant American culture is secular. The liberating effect of scientific knowledge and technological innovation is its creed. The cult of progress seems undimmed, even against the prospect of climate change. Indeed, the belief in salvation via technology seems to take its purest form when that prospect is most directly confronted.
David Wallace-Wells’ lengthy article of last year, “The Uninhabitable Earth”–the most-read of any published in the history of New York magazine–expresses what I mean. As its title suggests, the article was a lengthy survey of worst-case consequences for a planet predicted to warm by several degrees. In his conclusion, Wallace-Wells remarks on the fundamental optimism of the climate scientists he’d interviewed: “They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.” Wallace-Wells identifies this as “a strange kind of faith.”
Sarah J. Ray is a professor at Humboldt State University and the coordinator of its environmental studies program. The environmental humanities journal, Resilience, sent out a notification about a talk Ray gave at Swarthmore College called “Coming of Age at the End of the World: Eco-Grief, Effective Resilience, and The Climate Generation.” A transcript of the talk was posted online, and I read it with great interest. Ray described the typical student in her program and their “emotional journey” through its curriculum. Students enroll in environmental studies at Humboldt because they are concerned about the environment, specifically about climate change, she explained. Many saw An Inconvenient Truth when they were children, “a major watershed moment for them.” In the time-honored way of young people, now they want to be part of the solution.
I can see some of the young people in my daughter’s coming-of-age class making the decision to go to Humboldt or some place like it in a few years, especially those in the first group. In fact, a number of Ray’s students start out in environmental science but then first-year botany does them in. Too dry? Too demanding? “They want to understand the human element,” Ray said. “They want to think about power and politics and economics and history and religion and literature.” I can sympathize. At this point, some shift to environment studies. There they get more liberal arts but it’s also, “in some ways, emotionally more difficult.”
How so? Ray described the next part of her students’ journey as “various rugs being pulled out from underneath” them. By the second year at least, they’ve begun to grasp the scale of the problem. There is no straightforward fix, they learn. Experts and education aren’t reliable. They’ve considered the social construction of words like “nature”–the basic concepts we employ to orient ourselves in the world. They begin to see how deeply sunk are the causes of our climate predicament, not only in the way we live but in the way we organize perception. “They become fatalists in the face of no easy solutions and immobilized by a growing awareness of their pervasive complicity in the problems.” Their faith, one might say, has been shaken. Not a few of them wind up in her office in tears.
Ray calls this “climate trauma” and “ecological despair.” My ears perked up at these phrases. In my book, Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, I tried to approach this trauma historically. I looked at the interface between systems thinking and the emergence of modern environmentalism in the late 1960s. I didn’t use Ray’s terms but one from a quote of Richard Falk’s–“the apocalyptic encounter.” The apocalyptic encounter is to confront the depth of our pervasive complicity, to grasp that our predicament isn’t an engineering problem to be solved by better engineering, but about who we are, what we do, and how we know. Whether this is a formal and prolonged encounter, like the one Ray’s students undertake, or whether it’s a glimpse only momentarily bearable, the response can be a crisis of faith. To conceive of this response in the pattern of what Bateson called double bind is to see it as an urgent act of retrenchment of the very faith that the encounter indicts. That retrenchment is again undermined by evidence, and the pattern repeats itself. The oscillation between undermining and retrenchment results in immobilization and pain. It’s an “urgency plus inability equation,” in a phrase of Michael Maniantes, one of the scholars Ray cites. It’s what her students are feeling.
Ray eventually realized that her office was not the place to deal with her student’s climate trauma, that she was not trained to handle it, that it was taking time from her other duties as a classroom instructor and administrator. It got in the way of her research agenda. With encouragement from another scholar and friend, Ray changed her agenda to focus on the trauma itself. She wants to learn about it, understand it, and develop ways to bring it into the classroom. She wants to use the curriculum to build “new muscle” in her students so that they develop “emotional resilience.” Ray is working on a book on this topic. She has some ideas and offered several of them in her talk. They include making the emotional content of classroom material more transparent. They include affirming self-care. They include study of the history of social movements and of theories of social change.
Ray’s talk and ideas set my mind off in so many directions that I can’t take them all up in one post. For the time being, I’ll conclude with one obvious thought. We’re all Ray’s students, are we not? We may not be doing their assignments, but what they confront, we confront, too. We’re experiencing the trauma, we’re coming of age–but how healthily, I wonder? I think about all the anger and blame I feel toward those who deny climate change complicity per se. Yes, when I think about these folks, the stance of the current administration, the disposition of today’s EPA—I want to shake my fist, I want to cry. As if fixing them will fix the problem. Surely the anger I feel is legitimate and necessary. At the same time I wonder if it isn’t a kind of denial all its own.
A version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog.