Embracing a “narrative of abundance” and rejecting the deception of “austerity” that fossil fuels impose upon us will be key to spurring climate action, says the American feminist writer, historian, and activist, Rebecca Solnit.
“Much of the reluctance to do what climate change requires comes from the assumption that it means trading abundance for austerity, and trading all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience,” posits Solnit in a Washington Post op-ed. What if this “impoverished” orientation to the future is blocking a truer vision, she asks: “What if austerity is how we live now—and the abundance could be what is to come?”
Countering those who argue that a prosperous future can be guaranteed only through a fossil-based economy [as suggested by many Chevron ads—and this brilliant parody of one—Ed.], Solnit writes, “Look closely, and you can see that by measures other than goods and money, we are impoverished. Even the affluent live in a world where confidence in the future, and in the society and institutions around us, is fading—and where a sense of security, social connectedness, mental and physical health, and other measures of well-being are often dismal.”
Drawing a line between these dismal metrics and the burning of fossil fuels, she adds, “We know that the fossil fuel industry corrodes our politics. We know that worldwide, breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel kills more than eight million people a year and damages many more, particularly babies and children. And we know that as fossil fuel fills the upper atmosphere with carbon dioxide that destabilizes temperature and weather, it increases despair and anxiety.”
Far from being the guarantor of a secure present and optimistic future, fossil fuels are the very engine driving us deeper into a world of lack, Solnit says. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” she writes, citing the poet William Wordsworth.
Instead, she asks us to imagine a world where we decide to switch the fossil engine off, a move enabled by “a large-scale change in perspective.”
We could imagine “wealth” consisting not of money held in bank accounts or material goods derived from fossil fuels, but of community, closeness to nature, and good food produced without abusing labour. “What if we were to think of wealth as security in our environments and societies, and as confidence in a viable future?”
Surveying those who have chosen to “recover those powers, to be rich in time, instead of stuff,” Solnit celebrates “farmers who consider not just crops and profit but the sustainability of the wild things and waterways and nature around them—who work the land for this year’s harvest and for the long-term well-being of the whole,” and “the resurgence of Indigenous power and vision in climate protests, but also in ideas about food, time, and values.”
Such shifts and resurgences “need participation, defence, and expansion; we need to cultivate and amplify this knowledge until it’s how the world works and how we understand the world,” Solnit adds.
To accomplish this, we must “reframe climate change as an opportunity—a chance to rethink who we are and what we desire.” Even in bleak times, our guide can be a hope-filled orientation to the world, one that embraces the possibility of carbon-free abundance rather than fossil-driven austerity.