Powerless to Prevent It? Climate Change and the Sustainability Myth

Author: Ron Dembo

As a species, we’re generally quite an optimistic bunch. Faced with overwhelming amounts of scientific data on climate change telling us that we are boiling our planet, the majority of people still believe we can fix it.

But not John Foster. To concerned but generally positive reviews, his 2014 book, After Sustainability, suggests that we are all collectively being misled by the ‘myth’ of sustainability.

This collective narrative of sustainable development is, he argues, a form of denial so deeply imbued in our society by corporations and the mainstream media that we have failed to realize two things. One, climate change is still happening. And two, it is now far, far too late to do anything about it.

What are the roots of this denial? Primarily the meta-narrative of progressivism. We are so addicted to the idea that the human race is on one endless journey of material progress, mostly technological, that we cannot envision a reality where today is worse than yesterday.

According to Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and the subsequent Terror Management Theory, this societal belief in human progression (in other words, our denial of regression) is a defense mechanism that we construct to enable us to cope with anxiety over our own mortality. We buy into this narrative because it allows us to make sense of our personal finitude by locating it in something infinite.

Essentially, being sustainable allows us to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.

What can we do about all this? Not a lot, according to Foster. It’s too late to reverse climate change, so we’d better get used to it: we need to build “existential resilience” to deal with our denial and “emotional resilience” to deal with the ecological tragedy we face.

Whether or not you agree with Foster’s pessimistic perspective on sustainability, his work raises an important point about our inability to recognize just how bad climate change has become and just how oblivious many of us are to the risks we face from it.

Every year governments, businesses, and financial institutions forecast the future with barely any thought to the radical uncertainty that climate change poses to their operations. But it’s high time we woke up and smelled the coffee, and to do that we need to learn how to risk think.