There are many people in the world for whom the following scenario is familiar:
You are still young, but not too young. You’re young enough to be a millennial, or slightly older, and you have children. You’re young enough that one or both of your parents are still alive. You can see how much your parents care for their grandchildren, and how on a personal level they’d do “anything” for them. But you can also see that your parents don’t care about issues that threaten their grandchildren…especially climate change. And this creates anger, or confusion, because as more information becomes available, and the situation clarifies, you understand that the biggest existential threat to your children, and to your children’s children, is the destruction of our planet. In a few ways we know, and a few ways that will inevitably surprise us, the changing environment will lead to suffering for us and for all the generations to come. This thought may feel ungenerous, or absurd—is it really fair to get upset that your parents choose not to engage with a political topic, when they’re kind and caring otherwise? Isn’t it ungrateful to be frustrated with them when they do so much for you?
And yet, it still stings. Deep down, no matter how valid their love, it’s clear that on a topic of extreme urgency for their direct descendants, they’ve chosen apathy. There are many justifications and rationalizations—they may doubt the science, or they may accept the science but fail to engage because their generation never had to really care about politics and the habits are already formed—but the fact is that they’re letting you down, and letting your kids down. It stings worse when you consider how long we’ve known about the risk our planet faces, how little we’ve done, and how much responsibility the generations ahead of us bear for creating the situation in the first place. Melodramatic as it may sound, the people who love you and your children the most are simultaneously signing your death warrant with their apathy. They are telling you that, deep down, they don’t care.
Of course, we all have to live our lives, and it wouldn’t accomplish anything to disown our parents for their apathy, and in most cases it might not even be productive to broach the topic. Typically, we have to forgive them even as they doom us, because the truth is that many of them don’t quite understand the stakes. And yet, we also have to realize that they’ve chosen not to understand the stakes. That’s a key distinction; this isn’t ignorance, it’s apathy.
Apathy takes a few forms. As noted above, it can be a function of denial or fatalism or just inaction. (One of the great tricks Republicans are attempting to pull off today is the seamless transition from denial to fatalism. “We shouldn’t do anything because it’s not real” has, almost overnight, become “we shouldn’t do anything because it’s too late anyway.”)
But apathy isn’t reserved for our parents, and among America’s younger generations, it can take an altogether new form: Despair. Watch this recent clip from C-SPAN, where Bernie Sanders took a call on this exact topic:
The caller, Mike, is expressing something that feels very genuine: The sense that all is lost, that the good guys have been beaten into a pulp, that corporate and conservative interests are plunging our country and our world headlong into every kind of permanent destruction and there’s not a damn thing that people of conscience can do to stop them.
It’s understandable, and it may even seem rational. I’ve felt it myself, and been guilty of propagating it—the instinctive belief that fighting and even caring about the political situation in our country, and the climate situation on our planet, is fundamentally a waste of time because America is controlled by greedy people with a death wish who have somehow brainwashed citizens who should know better into supporting their agenda, and they’re always going to win. When I fall into that mental pattern, I end up thinking that I should forget it all, preserve my sanity, and try to make life for myself and my family as comfortable as possible. What’s the use of beating your head against a wall?
You see despair everywhere, even among young progressives. There’s a constant tension in this demographic between activism and cynicism, and the latter tends to take the form of complaining on the Internet (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, etc.). Cynicism has a very different energy from activism, because cynicism is pessimism, pessimism is despair, and despair is apathy. Take the 20-something who angrily posts an example of hypocrisy on social media—that person may feel like he is at least expressing his frustration in a way that makes a point, and there may even be an educational benefit to it. Certainly, this kind of digital politicking has opened some eyes and created some activists. But there’s a negative side too: The underlying message is one of despair, and despair is contagious.
Despair leads to giving up, because the root of despair is a belief that change is impossible. Change might be impossible, at least on the scale needed to mitigate cataclysmic forces like climate change, but in fact we don’t know that. And the point that needs to be made, over and over, is that choosing despair is choosing apathy.
This is certainly not an argument against attacking the right for its hypocrisies, and it’s not an argument against anger. We need those elements for motivation and enlightenment, and rosy-eyed optimism helps nobody. But when that anger is framed in the context of despair, it won’t be motivational. It will be dispiriting, and have the paradoxical effect of bolstering the wrong side by depressing your own. The old cliche “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” applies here—every person like Mike who gives up because the world seems beyond repair becomes an unwitting ally of destruction. Every person who spreads a message of despair diminishes activism and works passively for the other side.
In the face of such a dire future as the one we face today, despair is poison. The emotion of despair is inevitable, but the indulgence of that emotion is a pathway to death. If we’re doomed, then we’re doomed, and we’ll know that eventually when our efforts fall short. In the meantime, to throw your hands up and quit because of despair is to tell your children, or your grandchildren, or the future inhabitants of this planet, that you didn’t want to fight for them. It’s a message that lives on in perpetuity, delivered again and again to those who never chose to inherit a world made toxic by the people who came before; the people who wanted them dead, and the others who wouldn’t protect them.