Back in 2003, a few years before he died, Studs Terkel was on my show and made this comment about "hope dying last":
"Without hope - what's the alternative to it? It's despair. And despair means your head in the oven. Hope is what made this country be what it is. It was hope that made the abolitionists fight slavery, you see, against terrible odds.... I picked up that title [of my book] from a Mexican farmworker, her name was Jesse De La Cruz...She said when times are bleak and bewildering we have saying in Spanish...it means 'hope dies last.'"
As Terkel later pointed out, it's useful to face reality, and then go from there without despair. In some ways it's like a cancer diagnoses: most people handle tough news better than they think they will, and everybody should have the right to know what reality truly is.
This brings us to the discussion around the realities of climate change.
Last week on my radio show, I had Guy McPherson on as a guest, and he had some terrifying things to say about the future of the planet. He said we are experiencing such a rapidly warming planet that it was difficult for him to imagine a habitat for human beings in the not too distant future.
McPherson went on to say that it's over, that humanity as a species will largely die out, probably within our lifetimes. His message is that it's too late to do anything about it, so we should do everything we can now to make life better before it all ends.
On the other hand, Michael Mann, the famous climate scientist who came up with the "hockey stick" graph to show how carbon dioxide has been exploding as the result of industrial activity, says there's still time to do something to stop the climate freight train heading toward us. During an appearance on my TV show earlier this week, he said that we have about two decades before things really start to hit the fan.
This debate – how long do we have before it's too late to really do anything? – is raging in the background of the scientific community right now. It needs more public discussion. We need to prepare ourselves for the worst.
Think of it this way. An old and very dear friend of mine died a few months ago of cancer, and made the mistake of never believing seriously that his end was coming, and thus went out basically screaming, "No!!" It wasn't pretty; he was so angry his wife had to have him taken out to hospice. On the other hand, my dad, who died of the same type of cancer, was ready for it, embraced it, and died at home surrounded by family. While the very end was rough, he had a pretty good last year experiencing life, family, and love while waiting for the cancer to take him down.
I don't think that all the tipping points Guy brings up are yet irreversible, and I believe there's still a lot we can do to save the planet. I agree more with Michael Mann that we still have some time to fix things. But it's still, as Mann points out, going to be damn hard to get the political will going worldwide or even here in the United States. And even using Mann's conservative numbers, we'll be at Guy's point of no return in three decades or less.
Motivation strategies must contain two parts: "moving away from pain" and "moving towards pleasure." The former (touching a stove and jerking back) provokes a quick response, but isn't long lasting. The latter is very long lasting (setting goals and working toward them through your life is a good example), but provokes a much slower and gentler response. The most effective motivation strategies start with pain and then move to pleasure.
It's time for us to acknowledge the painful reality that we've already severely damaged our planet in ways that could, just possibly, and almost certainly if we do nothing, mean the end of humanity or, at the very least, human civilization.
From that starting point, as something that we want to work as hard as we can to avoid, we must then envision a new and better world that's not based on carbon as an energy source, and put into place real-world ways to get there quickly, ways that will also improve the quality of life on our planet.
As Studs Terkel said, "hope dies last." We're all working on it in our own ways; if we all toss in our efforts and push our politicians hard, we'll get there.