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Han ’23: We cannot let our generation be defined by doom

In the wake of 9/11, Sandra E. Garcia, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote that after the terror attacks, she felt “as if a hole was torn in (her) reality and now anything was possible — even the unimaginable.” Sept. 11 was “the moment” that shaped the psyche of the preceding generation. For our generation, the pandemic has been that event: illuminating political division and the fragility of our global order. Hopelessness has been a common and understandable response to the mass devastation and mishandling of the pandemic. But instead of allowing the calamities of COVID-19 to lull us into an overriding sense of doom and subsequent inaction, they should incite urgency to confront our generation’s largest existential threat: climate change.

With the pandemic and our attendant failures to respond to it, it is natural to feel hopeless. One in every 500 Americans has died of COVID-19. Just looking at the graph of COVID-19 cases brings a sense of defeat, as every time it seems as though the end is near, the graph’s trajectory begins climbing once again. The only thing worse than the pandemic has been the response to it. This is a crisis that we failed to prepare for despite years of warnings. It is a disaster that we have failed to defeat even with the arrival of vaccines that are miraculous in their effectiveness and availability, at least in the United States. It is a tragedy that has devolved into a cynical, absurdist tragicomedy. What else would you call a reality where people have poisoned themselves by overdosing on a livestock dewormer that they trust to protect them against COVID-19 more than the vaccines themselves? For our generation, even those of us who have been lucky and/or privileged enough to escape the worst of the pandemic are dealing with the “hole” that has been torn in our realities. The hopelessness that has come from the dismal policy response to COVID-19 could very well bleed over into a hopelessness about climate change and our ability to combat it.

However, I believe that what defines a generation is how it responds to its “moment.” For the previous generation of Americans, even more impactful than 9/11 itself was the generational response to the attack. Of course, ours is an unimaginable moment that is not really a moment at all, but rather a recurring nightmare. And even if there is a post-pandemic light at the end of the tunnel, our disastrous global response to COVID-19 suggests that the worst might be yet to come. What happens when we are faced with a crisis that does not have the relative silver bullet of a vaccine and requires even more social upheaval and economic investment, such as the climate crisis? The climate crisis will require our generation to find methods of effective global action and cooperation unseen during the pandemic, lest we leave the next generation with the burden of a world that is not only unimaginable, but uninhabitable.

The climate crisis also illustrates why responding to our “moment” with collective hope and resolve is so important. Scholars of climate politics have begun warning us that we have moved past the phase of climate denial and into climate obstruction, where opponents of climate action readily acknowledge the reality of climate change while simultaneously working to keep any substantive action from being taken to combat it. A growing trend has been termed “doomism,” an ethos positing that an uninhabitable world is coming no matter what, and thus, we should stop any mitigation efforts and accept our fate — or as supporters might package it, rethink our “unrealistic hope.” Doomism is a clever ploy because it plays on human nature. When coming of age in a moment of crisis that never seems to end, it is natural to want to embrace doom, especially when that comes with the ability to fling aside future responsibility and embrace our happiness in the here and now in a privileged, “You Only Live Once” sort of way. But no matter how tempting it is — and no matter how futile the acceptance of the impending apocalypse — doom cannot be our generation’s response to this “moment.”

It is well-documented that in catastrophic situations, hope itself is a radical act. In one of my earlier columns, I wrote that the problems facing our world today, especially the pandemic and the response to it, have “not inspired great faith in the human race.” But nevertheless, “our only hope, as small as it might be, is each other… what we can learn from each other, what we can do for each other and what we owe each other.” I still believe we can place hope in one another. I still believe that if our generation shares this belief, there is a chance that we can turn that radical hope into necessary action. We should allow ourselves the space to mourn what our “moment” has taken from us. But we can also view the pandemic as a cautionary tale: one that inspires us to fight the other battle of our generation.



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