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It’s not easy being a solutionist

Jonathon Porritt explores whether hope has been politicised – and how we can avoid falling into despair
Earth experiencing extreme high temperatures and a thermometer showing high temperatures

This article first appeared in our Earth Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 22 April 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Let’s spare a thought today for the ‘stubborn optimists’ and ‘indefatigable solutionists’ who have taken upon themselves the critical task of holding us all back from despair at today’s ever-worsening Climate Emergency.

Their task gets harder and harder as the data from the climate front line gets grimmer and grimmer.

With El Niño stoking the flames of our rapidly warming world throughout 2023, providing that reassurance got somewhat complicated.

And as the emblematic threshold of ‘no more than 1.5ºC increase above pre industrial levels’ also went up in smoke at the end of the year (hopefully on a temporary basis, with the El Niño effect already abating) it got very, very complicated indeed.

Things aren’t grim enough

Up until around 2015, I was one of those indefatigable solutionists – albeit with a slightly darker edge!

But it became apparent that today’s incumbency (massively powerful fossil fuel companies, standing shoulder to shoulder with massively corrupted and compromised politicians and their billionaire media backers) had literally no intention of pivoting towards a genuinely just and sustainable world.

So I began to question some of the dominant tropes in the solutionists’ worldview.

That progressive companies can ‘offset’ the power of that evil incumbency. They can’t.

That all the technology we need is right there to drive radical decarbonisation of our economies. It is, but that won’t happen fast enough on this incumbency’s watch.

That the majority of people see the threat of accelerating climate change and want our politicians to act before it’s too late, but they have little appetite for engaging politically to ensure that’s what our politicians are obliged to do.

In short, things aren’t grim enough yet to defeat that incumbency.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but just get your brain around these few words from the CEO of Saudi Aramco back in March:

‘We should abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas, and instead invest in them adequately, reflecting realistic demand assumptions.’

My question to all stubborn optimists and indefatigable solutionists is this: why do you suppose the CEO of every single progressive company you know wasn’t lining up to condemn this self-serving insanity?

Could it possibly be they’re ultra-cautions line-toers?

Without that readiness to stand up and be counted, standard corporate solutionism offers no reassurance.

Few solutions. No grounds for optimism – stubborn or otherwise. This would appear to leave us with a difficult choice: hang in there with the hope-mongers, however naïve their political instincts may be, or throw in your lot with the doom-mongers, however disastrous that might prove to be – both psychologically (on a personal basis) and politically.

Hope – and more

Fortunately, it ain’t that binary! The truth of it is that we do indeed need everything on the solutionists’ agenda. We need all that technology, and a lot more besides.

And that revolution is well and truly underway: investments in renewables accounted for an astonishing 86% of all new capacity in 2023.

I’ve heard Mark Jacobson (author of No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate) speak on a number of occasions – and I’m a BELIEVER!

We still need all those progressive companies to help smooth the path to a sustainable global economy.

I’ve just spent the last 30 years working with some of the best of them, and I know what they could do if they weren’t so cravenly enthralled by today’s all-powerful shareholder-first capitalism.

And, yes, guess what? People really do expect more of their politicians. And as things get grimmer (which they will), it’s still possible that they will rise up to protect literally everything that matters to them in their lives.

It all comes down to that: will we see a massive ‘rise up’ social tipping point kicking in before a dozen or more physical tipping points take us into irreversible changes? Or will that moment come too late?

That possibility is why I’m doubling down on my criticism of the stubborn optimists and indefatigable solutionists peddling their hopium in a way that is detached from political reality.

We have to make sure hope is not being deployed as a mechanism to maintain the status quo.

Finding your sweet spot

The author David Lambert is keen to strip away all the illusions around the standard hope trope: ‘Recently, the insistence on hope seems to be getting political. That beautiful word now seems to have a shadow, a doppelgänger, and I have started to wonder why. There is something not quite right about the optimism and positivity espoused by business and political leaders; something almost coercive. And likewise, there seems to be a new level of vehemence around insisting we must have hope.’

I can’t pretend that those words don’t make me uncomfortable. Personally, I often find myself conflicted trying to keep the balance between authentic hope and gratuitously disempowering despair.

All I know is that we all have an obligation, right now, to find our very own ‘sweet spot between hope and despair’ – and then live by that as bravely as possible, in everything we do.

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