Remember Rachel Carson, the author of the book Primavera silenziosa (Silent Spring), which in 1962 started the environmental movement in the USA? Her name today is linked to the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC), an international, interdisciplinary center for research and education in the humanities, social and environmental sciences, based in Munich, Germany.
Christof Mauch, who is director of the Rachel Carson Center, recently published an excerpt from his essay Slow Hope: Rethinking Ecologies of Crisis and Fear in the digital magazine Aeon.
A very topical title, because we are facing a global crisis that seems to adhere perfectly to the metaphors of the “perfect storm” or the “black swan“, evoked until yesterday as a possible eventuality, and today as a terrible reality. When Mauch wrote the essay, COVID-19 had not yet appeared on the horizon, but the great threat was the effects of the climate emergency. The pandemic with its ruinous effects only made his analysis even more topical. Here, following his thinking, we see how – although it is easy to feel overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, in reality, slowly and inexorably, there are reasons for hope that must make us continue in the struggle.
Starting from Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” – which describes the gradual, almost invisible nature of much environmental damage – Mauch highlights stories that often fail to make the headlines but represent a slow but positive change. The search for hope does not diminish the scope of the problems to be faced, nor is synonymous with wishful optimism. On the contrary, as Mauch shows, it is possible to look at stories of hope as an alternative to the story of the crisis, and these stories can help us to think creatively and act courageously in these times when health, ecological, social and economic emergencies converge.
Among the reasons for hope, Mauch points to the ability of movements acting from below to change things, and cites one example: Slow Food.
“Today, Slow Food operates in more than 160 countries, poor and rich. It has created thousands of projects around the world that promote egalitarian politics, food sovereignty, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. The unscrupulous commodification of food will continue to cause the devastation of land, threatening the environment. Slow Food cannot undo the fact that food is one of the main factors in the development of the global food economy, but it can upset its ideology, can ‘speak differently’ and allow people, their food traditions and local communities to thrive. Even in the United States – the fast-food nation of Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name – small farms and urban gardens are growing, the US Department of Agriculture is distributing a toolkit for urban agriculture and, according to a recent report exploring food consumption trends, American millennia are changing diets. More and more people realize that “eating is an agricultural act,” as the poet and activist Wendell Berry wrote in 1989, and hope is slowly advancing.”
So it’s worth understanding more about what the theory of ‘slow hope’ is based on, of which as Slow Food we are an integral part, which comforts and strengthens us in our pride in working in the right direction.
According to Mauch, in recent decades environmental threats have taken on a global scale and, more worryingly, are multiplying at a dizzying rate. Periodically, we are reminded that we are running out of time. Year after year, faster and faster, our consumption exceeds our planet’s ability to regenerate. Natural disasters follow one another, they multiply. We fear the collapse of the electricity grid, the end of non-renewable resources, the expansion of deserts, the submersion of islands, air, and water pollution.
Acceleration is the signature of our time
Populations and the economy have grown slowly for much of human history. As the economist Thomas Piketty points out in his The Capital in the 21st Century, it is only since the mid-19th century or so, and particularly since the mid-20th century, that GDP has been running fast, along with consumption.
This acceleration in production, consumption and travel is at the origin of deforestation, the damming of rivers and the consequent loss of biodiversity, as well as the occurrence of floods, ozone depletion and the degradation of ecological systems. If represented graphically, the curve of these changes resembles a hockey stick: with few variations over the millennia and a dramatic rise in recent decades.
If we wait for our salvation to come from a deus ex machina, from a stroke of technological genius, we are looking in the wrong direction: it is more likely to come with many small acts. Global warming and environmental degradation are not technological problems.
So, what to do?
For Mauch, it’s very clear: we have to find ways to help us flatten the curve of the hockey stick. If we recognize that human use of the Earth has been destructive and has caused huge converging threats, we can also imagine that human efforts can help us build a better world for centuries to come. We may continue to make mistakes. But we will also continue to learn from our mistakes.
To counter the fears of disaster, we need to identify situations, visions and actions that help us to imagine a different, fairer and more ecological world. We need recognition of our alarming situation, but also positive language of change.
Hope has its starting point in fear, uncertainty, crisis: it is a creative force that goes hand in hand with utopian “images of desire”. It is found in the cultural products of the past – in fairy tales, narrative, architecture, music, cinema – in the products of the human mind that contain the representation of a better world. What makes us authentic as human beings are the visions of our potential. In other words: hoping makes us human.
To give us hope, there are examples that can help us
Let us take the brutal exploitation of forests for economic interests. When it becomes generally accepted that timber production is not the only function of forests and that they provide many other services to the environment (they serve as habitats for countless species of animals and plants that are dependent on each other; they protect against soil erosion and landslides; they contribute significantly to the water balance by preventing runoff to the surface; they filter greenhouse gas particles and radioactive substances from the air; they produce oxygen)… that is when public pressure rises for the creation of parks or natural areas.
There are cases of companies using sustainable management methods, such as Precious Woods (a Swiss timber company that does not cut down more than three trees per hectare every 25-35 years and which, despite its policy of moderation, operates profitably in the tropical forests of Latin America and Central Africa and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council). Or other initiatives such as Plant for the Planet which planted almost 15 billion trees worldwide between 2007 and 2020 to reduce the effects of climate change (each tree can sequester about 10 kg of CO2). It is true that billions of trees would be needed for a significant result, but this initiative is challenging in its ambition and simplicity, and in the way it turns awareness into action.
Widespread ecological awareness is a recent phenomenon. The concept of an “environment” inclusive of all living and non-living beings only developed in the 1940s. In the 1970s, it gained popularity and environmental agencies, environmental regulations and studies, new integrated academic disciplines such as environmental sciences were born in hundreds of universities. There is a (slow) hope that scholars from many different disciplines have adopted the term “environment” in recent decades. The scientific understanding of ecological processes has influenced new technologies and also politics. We have come to ask ourselves questions about vulnerability and risk, the relationship between nature and power.
The Paris Agreement of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in December 2015, despite its weakness, marked a historic step toward the recognition of the need to act on climate change, with carbon reduction and global cooperation: 195 nations agreed on the limits not to be exceeded. Nothing comparable had happened before this. None of the previous 20 climate negotiations had led to a similar agreement, neither the Rio Conference in 1992, nor the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, nor the Copenhagen Accord in 2009. The Paris Summit was different because it was based on overwhelming scientific evidence, and because it set a target (to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius).
What is the reason for this? The fact that the indigenous and southern voices of the world have been listened to more carefully. To the fact that an unprecedented encyclical on ecology had just been published by Pope Francis. It would have been unthinkable until a few years ago for the Rockefeller Foundation – a charitable fund started over a century ago by US oil tycoon John D Rockefeller – to call ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, “morally reprehensible” and withdraw all its investments in fossil fuel companies. All this happened in 2016 as a direct consequence of COP21.
In short, the situation is serious, and it is true that the slowness with which positive results happen seems to be another exasperating reason to get discouraged: but if we believe that nothing can be changed, then we give up our chance to act. It is time to show success and acceleration in ecological awareness and restoration. The pandemic we are experiencing today is also a global problem. But it must be tackled together with other emergencies, to which it is linked [on the link between CoViD-19 and the destruction of ecosystems].
Hope can work as a wake-up call, an antidote to hibernation. It proceeds step by step, first tackling the dialectic of the crisis, then building awareness and finally organizing the necessary action. The concept of Slow Hope suggests that we cannot expect things to change overnight. If the increasingly rapid depletion of natural resources is an urgent problem for mankind, then working toward a “lengthening of the present” will be a way forward. Identifying differentiated ways to move beyond consumerism and productivism can be challenging and subversive. Our chances of salvation – concludes Mausch – come from urban and rural communities around the world, from a growing number of people who think creatively and act ecologically: from women and men who are inspired by slow hope.
Christof Mauch is director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, and the Chair of American Culture and Transatlantic Relations, both at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich. He is an affiliated professor of history at the LMU in Munich and an honorary professor at Renmin University in China.