“I decline to accept the end of man.”–William Faulkner in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature; December 10, 1950
Today, in a society where each crisis seems more troubling and more urgent than the last, one still looms above them all: climate change. We read the Internet reports or watch the Democratic debates or simply remark on how it was hotter this summer than the last, and we acknowledge that it’s undeniable. If we take the time to really think of it, we end up wondering whether or not anyone from Generation Z will ever have grandchildren.
Even if we think these negative thoughts, though, we usually just carry on as we were. The end of the world isn’t here yet, right? May as well drink another beer before we go eat a hamburger or hop on a plane to visit our friends at their West Coast schools. Even if we recognize the implications of the climate crisis, we feel unequipped to change our lifestyles, to change our lives, to combat a threat whose magnitude is truly alien. We revert to our normal ways, because they are, by definition, all we really know.
We revert to our normal ways because the next easiest option is to despair.
Once you think about it, it’s all too easy to fall into despair. It requires nothing other than that we give ourselves over to a negative notion, the sole condition being that such a notion be much bigger than us. The more overwhelming the size disparity, the easier therefore to surrender. Despair doesn’t attract us simply because of a dearth of alternatives, however; despair offers us a unique comfort in the totality of its conclusions. Nothing will work, we tell ourselves, nothing will save us. There’s no use in even trying, so we should all give up now and go down burning, maybe with a few friends and a few memories along the way.
Despair doesn’t last, though; it takes too much energy to fret so much on a daily basis. If we ever get to the point of succumbing to despair, it usually leads us two places. We either once again revert to our old ways, unwilling to expend the new energy required to proclaim our woes, or we find that we would rather seek a different outlet for it, one that’s just a little more amusing.
“Two thousand zero zero party over / Oops out of time,” Prince sings in his 1982 smash hit about the apparently inevitable end of the world in some kind of Y2K apocalypse. In response, the singer sees no alternative but to, simply put, “party like it’s 1999.” Perhaps Prince is right, and we should drown out the noise of our anxiety with the noise of bursting kegs and a hundred voices chanting along to “Mr. Brightside.” But that can’t be the response either. It’s the same logic behind downing shots instead of attending therapy when your mother dies or your boyfriend breaks up with you: it may make you feel better for a while, but in the end it only makes you feel worse.
So that only leaves us with one option: to confront the reality of our circumstance as constructively as we can. Such a confrontation surely involves at least a dash of that despair. Without that spark behind us, where else will we get the urgency we need to combat the growing threat. On the other hand, we cannot yet completely abandon our old habits, or else we will leave behind with them both our sanity and the level-headedness required to deal with a problem of such a magnitude. But as important as both despair and habit surely are, we must go further: we must remember who we are.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech given a few years after the end of World War II and the unveiling of the annihilative powers of nuclear weapons, American novelist William Faulkner bemoans that “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: when will I be blown up?” He goes on to declare that any writer who ignores “the old verities and truths of the heart” in favor of pure pessimism will therefore “write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.” Sound familiar?
So what? we ask ourselves. We’ve got a dying world to resuscitate. What does it matter that our art is a little less honest, a little less true, while we all just try to get by? But just because we may very well be watching the end of humanity doesn’t mean we should write like it. Art certainly isn’t just about entertainment or aesthetic theory or esoteric conceptions of “art for art’s sake,” as wonderful as any of those notions can be. It also isn’t just about understanding ourselves through reflection or communicating our experiences to others in ways we never could before. Maybe it was before, but we no longer have that luxury when we’re faced with potentially impending doom. It’s about all of the above.
Faulkner asserts at the end of his curt address that “the poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Through “creat[ing] out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before,” we as humans can reassert our own humanity through its encapsulation, however fragmented.
The closest I’ve ever gotten to such an encapsulation is through connection, through art or intimacy or just conversation. Ideally, we would all start healing our world by sitting with each other, as people, telling one another about the shapes of our hearts. Yet no matter how wonderful my hippie commune pipe dream may be, its immediate implementation is just as far-fetched as the notion that tomorrow the impetus of the profit-margin will collapse and we’ll all celebrate the beginning of a post-Green society, where the priorities of justice and equity win over the priorities of unfettered capital accumulation. If that were likely, suitable climate policy would have been enacted years ago.
Allow me, then, to suggest an alternative, perhaps the next best thing, the first step towards a world where we all understand each other just a little bit better: to keep writing, to keep singing, to keep painting, to keep talking. In short, to keep creating, to keep connecting.
I like to think sometimes in my moments of naivety that there might be dimensions beyond our own. Somewhere, there’s a plane populated purely with images just too beautiful to go unexpressed, a plane where the wonders and tragedies and conflicts of our lives and our souls convene in a glorious clash of all the beautiful contradictions that make up human life. What is art but the attempt to express ideas beyond the pragmatic or the practical, beyond the strictly communicable, to express the inexpressible? Whatever is lost in the attempt, it’s better than what we could do before. That must be worth something.
This may seem a conveniently saccharine justification for art in the face of the existential threats of our and all time, but when we weigh our alternatives, none seem to cut it. Whatever face the climate crisis presents, whether now or down the line, it can’t be a nice one. Regardless of whether or not we can solve the crises that face us, we can either hold on to our humanity on our sinking ship, bearing it like a badge of honor as we get to work plugging as many holes as we can, or we can forsake it.
But I, too, decline to accept our end. The solution to climate change begins not with carbon taxes or vegetarianism or the replacement of pollutant corporations with wind turbines, as crucial as these steps can and will be. It begins with self-engagement, with a collective acknowledgement that we are humans and that we therefore can indeed be consumed not only with greed or despair or apathy, but more importantly with “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” to quote our dear Mr. Faulkner once again. We must continue to affirm ourselves not in spite of climate change, but because of it. If we don’t, maybe we humans aren’t really worth saving after all.