Lately we have been pondering the strategies by which aware people have been approaching the existential threat posed by climate change. It makes little sense to squander time on strategies that are doomed to fail, so we periodically have to ask ourselves whether time devoted to our raging, reinventing and reframing is well spent.
For the past many years we have taken an "all of the above" approach to climate change mitigation advice, according equal weight to the exasperating processes of negotiations and to mass arrests.
On the one hand we engage in ritualized complexity at weeks-long United Nations meetings trying to consense on binding codes of conduct. On the other we cheer at street demonstrations and listen to pep talks from celebrities telling us how we need to modify our lifestyles, green up, conserve.
For many years we have held out the enticing prospect of ecovillages, with progressively more satisfying iterations, until by now many of the actual real-world experiments are able to provide decades of valuable data on best practices. Each decade the number of conferences on alternate energy, holistic management and restoration ecology seems jump by an order of magnitude.
At the same time, we are confronted with inexorable progress by the dark side, evidenced by that growing body of science on arctic methane releases and the odds of near term human extinction; macroeconomic assumptions tilting the gameboard towards delay; and neurobiological impediments like confirmation bias, stranded ethics, lost investment psychology, and impaired discount rate.
Rather than exposit on all of these, we oversimplify and say, strategically, it comes down to a choice between playing the fear card and playing the hope card, although they are not mutually exclusive, or even opposites.
We sometimes wonder if, by advocating rapid climate healing using regarianism and permaculture, biochar and agroforestry we are not dispensing hopium. Are we selling indulgences? All you have to do is flip a switch and voila! civilization is transformed to meet our needs for food (including grass-fed beef), clean energy, enchanting shelter and right livelihood while net sequestering gigatons of greenhouse gases and returning Earth to extra innings of the comfortable Holocene.
And yet we know it is not that simple. All the biochar in the world will not save us from the exponential function applied to the pleasure principle and human fecundity. Fukushima and all the stockpiled MIRVed warheads held by Israel and North Korea will not simply go away even if the UNFCCC agrees in Paris to keep the Koch Brothers' coal in the ground on penalty of extradition to The Hague and internment in Spandau.
Humans still have a lot to answer for if we are going to have realistic hope of dodging Mother Nature's swinging bat.
In The Laches, Plato reconstructed a dialog that Socrates had with two well-respected generals. The generals, Laches and Nicias, had been asked by some distinguished citizens of Athens, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether young men should be taught armored combat in school. One said they should, the other said it gave them nothing of value. It was the same kind of argument parents may have today over whether their children should be allowed to play with war toys.
Socrates told these distinguished military men he wanted to first inquire, since they were both expert in the art of fighting with armor, which of them was an expert in the soul of youth since that is the end product they seek. He asks one of them to define a particular virtue of the battlefield, courage.
The general defines a man of courage as one who does not run away from an enemy. Socrates explains that this definition does not cover all the cases of courage so the general then defines courage as "an endurance of the soul." Socrates continues to press. The general narrows his definition to a "wise endurance of the soul." Socrates mocks his definition by showing to him that courage is actually closer to a foolish endurance of the soul.
At this point, the other general attempts to define courage. He defines courage as a kind of wisdom, or as "knowledge of the grounds for fear and hope."
Socrates: We hold that the dreadful are things that cause fear, and the safely ventured are those that do not; and fear is caused not by past or present, but by expected evils: for fear is expectation of coming evil. You are of the same mind with us in this, are you not, Laches?
Laches: Yes, entirely so, Socrates.
Socrates: So there you have our view, Nicias, —that coming evils are to be dreaded, and things not evil, or good things, that are to come are to be safely dared. Would you describe them in this way, or in some other?
Nicias: I would describe them in this way.
Socrates: And the knowledge of these things is what you term courage?
Socrates: There is still a third point on which we must see if you are in agreement with us.
Nicias: What point is that?
Socrates: I will tell you. It seems to your friend and me that, to take the various subjects of knowledge, there is not one knowledge of how a thing has happened in the past, another of how things are happening in the present, and another of how a thing that has not yet happened might or will happen most favorably in the future, but it is the same knowledge throughout. For example, in the case of health, it is medicine always and alone that surveys present, past, and future processes alike; and farming is in the same position as regards the productions of the earth. And in matters of war; I am sure you yourselves will bear me out when I say that here generalship makes the best forecasts on the whole, and particularly of future results, and is the mistress rather than the servant of the seer's art, because it knows better what is happening or about to happen in the operations of war; whence the law ordains that the general shall give orders to the seer, and not the seer to the general. May we say this, Laches?
Laches: We may.
Socrates: Well now, do you agree with us, Nicias, that the same knowledge has comprehension of the same things, whether future, present, or past?
Nicias: I do, for that is my own opinion, Socrates.
Socrates: Then courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, for it comprehends goods and evils not merely in the future, but also in the present and the past and in any stage, like the other kinds of knowledge.
Socrates: So the answer that you gave us, Nicias, covers only about a third part of courage; whereas our question was of what courage is as a whole. And now it appears, on your own showing, that courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage; such is your present account of what courage must be. What do you say to this new version, Nicias?
Nicias: I accept it, Socrates.
Socrates: Now do you think, my excellent friend, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, as regards what is to be dreaded and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behavior towards them?
Nicias: I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say.
Socrates: Hence what you now describe, Nicias, will be not a part but the whole of virtue. … Thus we have failed to discover, Nicias, what courage really is.
— Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1955).
As we can see from these passages, the question came around to whether courage was something to be cultivated, and assuming it was, whether one could separate fear and hope for the future from fear and hope from the past or present. Socrates said there was no separation. We wonder.
We can do little about our present and nothing about our past, so fear and hope for them is useless. Fear and hope for the future are of a different quality. More than ways of looking, they are ways of motivating to action. Socrates and the generals place them on equal footing.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;Yeats, The Second Coming, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The question Socrates seemed on the verge of asking, but did not, was what to think of a person "who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about evil things likewise" but fails to use his or her gift to take due precaution or procure good things. We can surmise that Socrates and the others would have thought such a person to be without courage, although not necessarily without other virtues, and perhaps that would have resolved the philosophical impasse in the discourse.
Coming back to our question, we might reframe this to ask, are we more likely to bend the arc of civilization towards sustainability by instilling fear of the consequences of remaining on our present trajectory as it proceeds from the known past or by offering a vision of a path forward — a believable story, no matter how long the odds against it becoming reality?
Plato ends his narrative without resolving the philosophical point. In the Greek philosophy, that would have been called aporia, a neutral ending. We come out similarly with our approach, which could best be described as carrot and stick. They both seem equal motivators. It is just a bit sad that collectively we seem to need a good lashing from the stick before we venture to take a nibble at the carrot.