A Case for Optimism

As the world literally burns and melts around us, it’s very easy to feel discouraged. The concept of “climate grief” is back in the news and I’m sure a lot of you are feeling it. When Joe Biden defends himself from attack ads by saying, no, he’s not going to ban fracking, it’s hard to see how we can get the massive changes we need in time.

All of that is true. But I’m still optimistic, and here’s why.

A flower blooms in the pond at Tanner Springs park beneath skies choked by a gray haze from the September 2020 forest fires that consumed the West Coast.
(Bloom in darkness. Photo credit: Austen Lethbridge-Scarl)

Back in March, if you’d asked me for my real opinion about climate change, I’d have told you that, unless there was some fundamental change, we were probably doomed. For decades, we’d been struggling to eke out small victories in a system where polluters make the rules. The political and economic systems sending us towards oblivion were functioning exactly as intended. No Green New Deal worth a damn could survive Democratic backbiting and the inevitable waves of violence from right wing extremists convinced that Nancy Pelosi was bringing Stalinism to America.

None of that has changed. These are problems that simply can’t be solved in time. But here is the new dazzling truth: We don’t have to. A new path has been revealed.

Today, the national fury unleashed by the murder of George Floyd that has proved impossible to contain. Constant state violence and incrementalist reforms have entirely failed to calm the movement. I wrote in June that this was the beginning of the just transition and that the battles for racial justice and climate justice had come into complete alignment. The forces killing our planet are interdependent with the institutions of racist violence that protect them. If you end one of them, the other will crumble.

If you’ve ever wondered why the cities with the worst police violence—Portland, Kenosha, Richmond, Rochester—all have Democratic mayors and governors, this is why. People worrying about protests “playing into Trump’s hands” have it exactly backwards. When elected Democrats use physical violence as their first and only strategy for challenges to their authority, they not only play into Trump’s hands, they play his own cards. Indeed, this surge of authoritarianism we’re seeing across the globe is politicians who have failed to meet their citizens’ needs making this exact same decision, over and over.

The crucial thing is that the people and institutions hiding behind this violence are the same ones who have failed for decades to take even modest steps to avert the end of civilization. There’s no place for them in a post-transition world, and they know it. That’s why they’ll brutalize anyone who threatens their position, even as it guarantees their own destruction.

But the fact of the struggle itself reveals the truth. The foundations of the world are shaking. I said we needed a fundamental change and I’ll be damned if one didn’t show up. Things we’d have never dreamed of a year ago are now suddenly on the table.

I’d say our odds of stopping climate change still aren’t great. At best, we’re in a race to see which collapses first: neoliberalism or our planet. Meanwhile, about 35% of our country is all-in for fascism right now and liberal democracies don’t have a great track record at resisting these kinds of things. And if either the US or China starts a war with anyone, we’re basically toast.

But there’s a chance! We’re not doomed! That, all by itself, is incredible! Through the ash and smoke, there is still a future, waiting for us to claim it.

Don’t give up.

About Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

Austen Lethbridge-Scarl (he/him) is the editor of the XRPDX newsletter. Besides climate issues, he focuses on racial justice, police abolition and antifascism.


100 Nights, 100 Days: A Culture of Protest

Update on the Environmental Impacts of Teargas