The Apocalyptic Optimist Dana Fisher in Conversation

"My research absolutely makes me optimistic. As you know, I'm an apocalyptic optimist, right? So I believe that there are going to be some dark days in front of us, but the thing that makes me optimistic all the time is talking to people who are engaging in community groups and climate groups and environmental groups and working together and taking care of one another and knowing that they will continue to take care of one another and push back against the climate crisis and help us get through it, said Dana R. Fisher the author of From Climate Shocks to Climate Action in conversation with Victor Perton and friends at The Centre for Optimism.


Victor Perton: "Dana, the first thing at the Center for Optimism, we always ask a person is, what makes you optimistic? Is it life experience? Is it mindset or your research?"

Dana Fisher: "Well, my research absolutely makes me optimistic. As you know, I'm an apocalyptic optimist, right? So I believe that there are going to be some dark days in front of us, but the thing that makes me optimistic all the time is talking to people who are engaging in community groups and climate groups and environmental groups and working together and taking care of one another and knowing that they will continue to take care of one another and push back against the climate crisis and help us get through it."

Victor Perton:  "Magnificent. We have an exercise called the Superpowers of Optimism, where we had 150 optimisms listed, and after reading your essay, I added apocalyptic optimism. The roots are millennia-old; however, you are the only person in the world using the term. So tell us what is apocalyptic optimism, and why is it relevant today?"

What's Your Optimism Superpower?

Dana Fisher: "Well, apocalyptic optimism is the notion that we can actually save ourselves and we can actually get past the climate crisis, but it will come after suffering, and it will come after a period that mobilises people through a universalised sense of risk and the experience of personally feeling the climate crisis."

Book Cover for Dana Fisher"This is why my book is called "From Climate Shocks to Climate Action" because of all the ways that people are experiencing climate shocks today; I know you've been having a very hot time in Australia. Even though it's winter, we are also having a very warm time here in the United States. I have the bulbs coming up, even though it's February. Later this week, it will be spring-like. We've had atmospheric rivers, we've had extreme heat waves, we've had places in drought. We've had areas with all sorts of extreme weather, and that will continue.

"My sense of apocalyptic optimism comes from knowing that that will continue because I'm a social scientist. 

"I worked on the IPCC and wrote parts about society, activism, and civic engagement. I spent a lot of time with my natural science colleagues and the atmospheric scientists who did the work to explain to us how these models predict what's happening next unless we start to reduce our CO2 emissions. We haven't, not in any way that matters yet. 

"As a result, I know what's coming because I believe in science, and I've experienced the beginning of it here. 

"So that's where the apocalyptic part comes from. And the optimism comes from knowing that people will bond and work together to save us, to get us to the other side."

Victor Perton: "At the Center for Optimism, we focus on surrounding ourselves with optimists. I'm on the Yarra Valley Water board, Australia's second biggest water company. And the Financial Times listed us as the world's best utility focused on climate change. What we've done is create a positive community. One of our values is "Be Brave for Positive Results". It's optimistic. We've got the country's best waste-to-energy plant. We're going to build a second one, and we will be net zero carbon by 2025, which is remarkable in a utility. So, what you say makes absolute sense."

Dana Fisher: Thank you. I want to stop for a second and say that you are working with a utility with a realistic timeline at the scale that we need the types of changes to happen. I really applaud you because one of the things that's just so frustrating is different utilities, government actors, and businesses saying that they will go net zero. Then they have this timeline of 2045 and 2050, which is outrageous when we know what's coming and coming soon. So thank you for that.

Victor Perton: My next question for you comes from that line in your book, "Let's stop shouting at each other and create communities." What key actions can we, the people and communities, take to contribute meaningfully to climate action?

Dana Fisher: "So my book ends with three specific suggestions. Two are for people who want to engage as activists, and one is for the general people. So, I'll go through all three. 

"The first one is specifically for the activists. I've been doing a lot of research, and the book talks about the people who are becoming increasingly confrontational and making up what we call the radical flank of the climate movement. And many of them are engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. I know you have them down there just like we have them here. And for people engaging in this type of activism, we need to create community and solidarity. And there, I talk about solidarity in terms of thinking through how activists can work not just within the climate space but also with people focused on justice, systemic racism, and labour issues. And that kind of connection in solidarity is needed to find a common ground. So that's number one. 

"Number two is leaning into capitalising on what I call "moral shocks", including violence. And that is specifically for the activists engaging in this confrontational activism. Here, I take a page out of the book of the Civil Rights Movement and what we know from the Civil Rights Movement, which is the way that nonviolent activists used violence against them from law enforcement and from counter-protestors, specifically white supremacists during that period, to help to draw attention to their plight and to bring in allies who were supportive of the cause, but may otherwise not have been in the streets or support even though they were needed. And so I suggest those two things specifically for the activists.

"And then finally, for everybody, whether or not you want to be an activist, everybody should be helping to cultivate community and resilience. And when I say resilience here, I don't just mean environmental resilience. I also suggest social resilience. We all know about environmental resilience. It's about making sure that we can handle floods and weatherproof our buildings, and we can build storm walls, create more permeable surfaces for managing floods, et cetera, and deal with droughts in different ways. But social resilience involves all of us working together to support one another. It consists of identifying civic groups and community spaces to make sure that there are opportunities for people who are in need and in trouble. People who will likely be unhoused by climate shocks, who will not know where to go, will not know how their kids can continue to go to school. Some places will lose their schools and need to send people elsewhere. And so we need to create resilience to care for one another because as these shocks come, some people will need a lot of help.

"The goal here is to think about how you can do that. One of the significant findings that I have that some people don't like very much is that that kind of resilience and community works better offline, which is not to say that I don't appreciate that we're able to talk, meet and communicate and have this conversation over Zoom. That's wonderful. It's excellent how activists have been able to find one another when they live in small towns and find people with similar interests. That's wonderful. But we need not just to be online but also work within our communities and create these relational ties to support one another so that we're not just online but also face to face."

Victor Perton: "Dana, one of the things you talk about is youth. A couple of years ago, the Dalai Lama convened a small group of us, and he said that the most important thing you can do for young people is preserve their optimism and hope, but you can't tell them to be optimistic. You have to model it. And you do that exquisitely. 

What I found interesting in your interviews and the book is your insights and wisdom on the activism of older people. Instead of older people being a crisis and aged care being a crisis, you talk about the resources that are the grandmothers. Of course, I would add grandfathers as well.

Dana Fisher: "Of course, climate grannies and the climate grandpas. The media does not focus on older activists because it's less appealing to them than talking about young people. I do a lot of research at protests. I survey the activists to understand the involved people's demographics, motivations, and histories. One of the things that's been very interesting in the past few years is how bimodal the data are. What I mean by that is we have a lot of young people, and then we don't have a lot of people who look like me because all of us are at home taking care of our kids.

"And then you have a lot of older people out in the streets. And one of the things that's so fascinating when I talk to them is I say, "So tell me about what motivated you to come out in the streets." And they said, "I was in the streets before in the environmental, civil rights, and anti-war movements. I'm out to support young people today because we really contributed to this problem. We need to help solve it." And I think that older people need to continue supporting young people, which is a way to provide optimism through your behaviour instead of just saying, "No, no, no, don't be depressed." Right?"


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