Phoenix: The Question of Hope

by Ray Grigg

The Canadian poet, A.J.M. Smith published News of the Phoenix in 1943, the title of his first book of collected poems:

They say the Phoenix is dying, some say dead.

Dead without issue is what one message said,

But that has been suppressed, officially denied.

I think myself the man who sent it lied.

In any case, I’m told, he has been shot,

As a precautionary measure, whether he did or not.

The mythology of this magical bird recounts its periodic and fiery death, then its faithful rebirth from the ashes of its demise. The Phoenix, therefore, is a symbol of renewal from the ruins of disaster. But in Smith’s dark poem, the Phoenix is not reborn — “without issue is what one message said” — so the demoralizing news is “suppressed” by those officials who want to maintain hope in the face of none.

This feeling of hopelessness is beginning to emerge among prominent environmental thinkers. One of the recent admissions of this deepening sense of resignation to inevitable loss comes from a professor of philosophy and law, Dale Jamieson, in his 2014 book, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed.

As Jamieson notes, in the 23 years since the first international climate summit in Rio, all negotiated attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have failed. Unfortunately, these emissions will persist in the atmosphere for about 1,000 years, essentially committing us to the proliferating complications of permanent climate change — a situation that most scientists seem reluctant to publicize because of their concern for public morale.

As a philosopher committed to truth, Jamieson is willing to acknowledge our situation and admit that the magnitude and complexity of the global warming problem may be too big for humanity to solve. Each of the social, economic, technical, religious, educational and cultural complexities is formidable; together they may be overwhelming.

Failure wasn’t always inevitable. But indifference, procrastination and neglect may have made it so. As an indicator in his survey of factors, Jamieson cites leadership in America where “the policies of Reagan and both Bushes were remarkably consistent: do as little as possible on climate change, rationalized by casting doubt on the science and exaggerating the costs of action.” This approach has been repeated during the last decade by Canada’s government.

“It matters,” Jamieson writes, “that many people see climate change as a ‘flow’ problem involving emissions rather than a ‘stock’ problem involving concentrations. They imagine that when emissions go down, the risk of climate change must also be abating. What they fail to recognize is that concentrations of greenhouse gases… may increase even while emissions decrease, in the same way the water in a bathtub may increase even while the flow of water into the bathtub is reduced.”

The ideas in Jamieson’s book are a sobering assessment of our situation. Some will find relief in his honesty. Others would prefer not to know. Still others will faithfully hope that the greatest problem ever to confront civilization will somehow be solved so the Phoenix will once again rise from its ashes. And perhaps this symbol of optimism will not disappoint — if we are willing to wait long enough.