“I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Travelling in times of the climate crisis

Last week a good friend from Sydney came to visit Groningen and give a paper at a small workshop on early modern philosophy. We met the evening before to do some catching up. Not having had a proper chat for about a year meant that there was quite a bit to talk about, but our conversation was dominated by the climate crisis. Although we enjoyed the meeting, we soon realised that it is hard if not impossible to pretend that all is well. Many people’s lives are more or less directly affected, the news are full of it. But here we sat in a cosy restaurant when my friend spoke the words that continue ringing in my head: “I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Just re-read that sentence, will you? In the meantime, I try to ponder on what it might mean.

Listening to my friend’s account of what had been going on over the last months was scary enough.* But that sentence made it sound like we’ve moved beyond a so-called tipping point. I guess no one needs a reminder of the bushfires that are destroying enormous parts of Australia, while the government is still in denial of the facts. (Here is a recent account by John Quiggin. And if you’re up for it, try the hashtag #AustraliaBurning on Twitter.) Of course, there is much talk about tipping points in relation to climate change, but there are also “personal tipping points” that one will confront. Imagine that you will soon return from a different continent but have no idea what your home will look like or whether it will still be there, whether your friends and family are ok, and what will become of your plans. Whatever might happen, whatever help will be available – there is a sense of reality altered. Something has already changed, but you don’t know exactly what it is and what it will involve. All you know is that it happened, and perhaps sooner than expected or hoped. Such moments are to some degree ubiquitous, while they can also be deeply personal. One might experience personal tipping points in relation to all sorts of things: encounters with others, diseases, loss, war, I don’t actually want to go through all the options. The effects of climate change might be experienced on an equally personal level, but they still feel different in that we know how much they will equally affect others: not only current animals, human and non-human, our ecosystems and cultures, but also, and in much worse ways, our children. Let alone further future generations.

And yet, here we were, getting ready for what has been a most common event, an academic meeting of the sort of which there have been many. One thought that eerily struck us was the idea that people would get on with their business as if nothing were happening. Of course, we do that, too. But how common will that be in a few years from now? My friend told me of recent academic talks in Australia, speaker and audience trying to supress coughing while the smoke is creeping in from under the door. No acknowledgement in the face of the obvious. But indeed, what can we do?

There are a number of things that can be done. Whilst there is much public debate and still a grotesque amount of denial, climate scientists and social scientists have designed concrete plans of action, policies that try to keep the social and economical costs at a minimum. (The PIK in Potsdam is one such institute studying the impact of climate change while working on plans of action. Listen to them in addition to other media outlets!) While I admire a lot of individual action, putting collective pressure on governments to act in accordance with such plans should have priority. In the news, measures to counter the climate crisis are still too often presented as either-or scenarios, while there are in fact many nuanced approaches available. In this sense, the credo of movements like Fridays for Future strikes me as just right: Listen to the science! And keep talking, not least to those who don’t listen or sit on the fence. I often hear the accusation that these movements make high-brow demands and nothing else. This is a lie. They are advised by scientists, and they are pointing to institutions that do have worked out policies. But discrediting climate activism and even climate science is currently rampant. While no surprise, I am struck by the increasing amount of unfounded accusations and hate directed at institutions and individuals.

Like many others, I have been wondering a lot what do. Whenever I listen to the news, my attempts at writing something (e.g. here, here, here and here) strike me as futile. So I guess overcoming the feeling of powerlessness and keeping up hope is vital. That will probably involve amplifying the voices of well-informed politicians and movements, countering denial and silence both as a citizen and philosopher, wherever possible. (My colleague Diego Castro has written an instructive piece about countering denial.)

It’s likely that our habits and ways of interaction (not least in academia) will (have to) change. Sooner than we think we might be travelling around the world for quite different reasons. But we have to be careful. At the moment, we see a lot of incentives to change our forms of travelling. Some people not only take the train rather than the plane, but also begin to refrain from travelling altogether. I’d worry if that should signal a tendency towards gradually cutting ourselves off from others, at locally distant places. Especially now we have to keep in touch.


* I can’t possibly give a recollection of even the most crucial things that my friend mentioned. But here is a quote from a different, enormously helpful and detailed personal account I found through a Twitter search today, which corroborates many of the facts my friend mentioned (and which you might want to read in full): “Even in our cities, where we are safe from the worst of the fires themselves, many days the acrid taste of smoke in the air has been so hazardous it’s risking your health to even go outside. Many days have been designated as total fire ban days. Even many of National Parks have been closed for fear of having to evacuate visitors. […] Since the bushfire season started in September 2019 we have had:

  • 28 lives lost – another fire fighter was lost on 12th January
  • Over 2000 homes lost, not including other buildings such as sheds, barns, and community halls
  • 17.9 Million hectares of land burnt out – already 46% more than the Brazilian Amazon fires
  • Over 1 billion animals lost – including much of Australia’s distinctive wildlife
  • Possible extinction of up to 20 threatened species in just one day of fires on Kangaroo Island (part of South Australia)
  • The largest peace time evacuation in Australia’s history to move thousands of Summer tourists trapped in coastal towns in NSW South Coast and Victoria

Much of this has only happened since New Year’s Eve. We are only 2 weeks into the start of the new year. There’s at least another 2 months of bushfire season to come.

Sydney is known for being the first major city for New Year’s Eve fireworks. This year it felt like we were the first major country for severe climate change impacts.”

2 thoughts on ““I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Travelling in times of the climate crisis

  1. Hello Martin,

    I’m so sorry for your friend and, in fact, for all people from Australia. If it isn’t enough that a lot of people have died and lost all their possessions, over a billion animals have lost there lives and several local species seem to have gone extinct. The behavior of their prime minister, Scott Morrison, has been extremely shameful; when the fires ware raging he was on a holiday. If you read the reactions on Twitter you see a lot of people are extremely angry. At the same time, you read the most absurd claimes, for instance that climate activists set fire to the forest(s) and dry bushes.

    I know the feeling of surrealism and cognitive dissonance very well; here you are doing philosophy and racking your brain on difficult philological and argumentative issues, while at the same time our world is collapsing. So, how should we react? How should I react? Is there stil hope left, or have we reached the (tipping) point of no-more-return? Are we like the orchestra, playing fiddle on the deck of the Titanic?

    To begin with the last question, we should always be hopeful. Call it a duty. The future is not set, we have a certain amount of freedom. To be more specific, we are now heading for a world which will be between 1,5 and 4 degrees warmer; between what might be the extinction of our species as we know it and what might still be a managable raise in temperature. Until recently, I was quite depressed about the prospects of our civilization; that is, until I read about a paper which claimed we are now heading for a raise in temperature of about 3 degrees; and this due to recent technological and policy changes. It is still very alarming, but it gives us (or rather, me) at least the hope that our choices do matter. Being a fatalist about the whole situation will not do; then it will become a selffulfilling prophecy, and no change will occur. So, to a certain extent and in a certain way, there is no fate but what we make.

    There are also hopeful signs worldwide; it’s not just that Greta Thunberg was elected Time Person of the Year, or that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders launched the Green New Deal. Recently, the Green Party and the Conservatives in Austria launched a far-reaching change of policies qua measures to reduce CO2, and Frans Timmermans a EU-supported plan to do the same for Europe.

    So, what should we do? As I see it, we should be politically inclusive and forgiving:

    1. Inclusive, in that we should acknowledge that Climate Change is the only – only – political issue which should include as many people as possible, from the far left to the far fight. It is very tempting to implement left policies like the rights of minorities who are effected by the changing climate or state that climate refugees have a right to come to the West. But this will not do. First and foremost we must combat the tendency to politicize this issue, because of its grave nature. More concretly, there should be Green parties on the left and the right, divided over how to deal with such problems. But green nonetheless.
    Recently Naomi Klein warned against the rise of eco-fascism, and she has a point. But given the international and existential nature of the problem I am also convinced that even these parties will be forced to modify their demands.

    2. Forgiving, in that we shouldn’t ridicule and humiliate people who we feel have made the mistake of denying the problem. In politics and personal life, in the public and the private realm, forgiving is a very powerful way of involving people and stopping spirals of negative mutual behavior.
    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sue oil companies or governments since they knowingly created and sustained the problem. It just means we should try to show magnanimity in personal settings.

    And finally, what can I do? Well, just keep writing your blog. A lot of people, me included, like it a lot. But should I stop flying, you may ask. Well, that is up to you. The best personal advice I give to others who would like to do something is: change your bank. That is, choose the bank that invests in green projects (and is reliable). In the Netherlands, that would be the ANS and Triodos Bank.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your enormously thoughtful comment, Jasper! I agree with almost everything you say right away.
      As far as the social dimensions of tackling the climate crisis are concerned, I think your appeal to forgiveness is particularly important.
      There is one point, however, that strikes me as problematic: What you write with regard to inclusion is important. Indeed, the integration of politically left and right stakeholders is already happening, e.g. in Austria and also in Germany. Yet, you also touch on the question of the rights of climate refugees (of “coming to the west”) and say that “this will not do”. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that, but you seem to imply that such rights should not be granted for the sake of, perhaps paradoxically, being inclusive regarding left and right. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) Now you suggest this “inclusion” would be designed to integrate and “not politicse” the issue. But this *is* already a political decision.
      According to a World Bank and PIK report from 2018 we might have to expect that climate change will “force more than 100 million people out of their homes by 2050”. https://www.pik-potsdam.de/news/in-short/worldbank-report-with-pik-climate-change-can-trigger-migration-of-millions (Compare, in 2019, there were supposed to be about 70.8 million people that count as displaced worldwide.) Add to this that a number of places will simply become inhabitable. This is a scenario we have to prepare for. And a “this will not do” will not do I suppose. But as you say yourself, “even these parties will be forced to modify their demands”.
      Anyway, despite these critical remarks I find your ideas overall very helpful indeed. And I agree that having and inspiring hope is a duty.


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