The secret truth behind environmentalists’ favourite argument

by | Jan 20, 2013

When environmentalists argue amongst themselves, whether at some formal debate or late at night over a few drinks, I confidently predict that the argument will go like this.

One will say (in one form or another):
“There’s no time to wait for radical change or revolution; the crisis is overwhelmingly urgent, we simply have to act within the frameworks we have now”.

The other will argue (in one form or another):
“But there’s no point in acting without radical change or revolution; without that we are only addressing symptoms and not the real problems”.

We’ve all participated in those kinds of arguments, and we’ve all heard them a hundred times.  They become a little tiresome.  But I believe that they point towards a truth that remains unspoken.

Such debates are rarely resolved, because one side can argue completely convincingly for the overwhelming urgency of whichever aspect of the crisis they’re talking about, while the other side can argue completely convincingly that without fundamental, radical change, we’re toast. So on and on they go, all night long (hell, all career long…)

But what both sides tend to avoid admitting is that neither will back down because they’re both right. Maybe we do need radical change, and maybe there isn’t time for radical change to take root in our culture.

The fear of acknowledging that is understandable – it’s a scary thing to contemplate. Because if it’s too late, well, what do we do then? Where does that leave us? Despair? Giving up? Surely that’s no use to anyone?


Embracing change - Joseph Thomas Armada Noriega - The Secret Truth Behind Environmentalists' Favourite Argument


But too late for what?

We environmentalists can tend to forget that ultimately, there is no way to make life sustainable, whether on an individual level (we all die) or collectively (the sun will burn out, the universe will cease to be hospitable). Reform won’t do it, revolution won’t do it.

It is clear that if we make sustainability our ‘God’, then we will fail our God.

For me personally, the harsh truth is that I cannot save Nature and/or humanity from the ongoing devastation, though I could burn myself out trying. It seems to me that there is not one thing that I can do to divert history.

And facing that reality hurts.

But, beyond agony, joy.

I sit with that pain, and its attendant tears and rage, I refuse to run from it or to distract myself with entertainment or with frantic work, and I find that it does not end me.

Eventually, I come out the other side, somehow empowered. The psychic energy I have been using to suppress that fear and despair is released, and I look at the world with fresh eyes.


PacWorld - The Secret Truth Behind Environmentalists' Favourite Argument


“Ok”, I breathe, “here I am, in a dying world”. It’s the same dying world I lived in yesterday, but today I see it for what it is. “What now?”

And this time the question feels less desperate, less anxious. What story do I want to tell with this day, with this life? The question is suddenly filled with possibilities.

The knowledge that we are all going to die becomes liberating, rather than oppressive. There is simply no hope, no truth in fighting against that reality. If I seek to overcome it then, no, there is not one thing that I can do. Yet there are many, once I allow myself to accept it and live for viable hopes – perhaps simply to live a life that stands for something.

And then maybe, yes, I decide to spend my time trying to preserve dying species, to right injustices, to create more joy and wonder, maybe even to work for reform or revolution – maybe those are the stories I want my life to tell. But now it comes from such a different energy; from a deeper wellspring. Maybe that new energy will even bring other stories, other possibilities? But certainly it banishes the sense of desperate obligation, the futility and frustration, and leaves the simple expression of who and what I am.

There is no fear of burn out, for now I am doing and being exactly what I choose at every moment. No, the impossible struggle towards sustainability is not what I’m here to do, but for now, maybe it is what the thing that I’m here to do looks like, from the outside.

(…Gah, try as I might to explore the darkness, it seems I always find light there 😉 )

Solar Eclipse photograph - Michael Chow - The Secret Truth Behind Environmentalists' Favourite Argument


  1. Biff Vernon


    That’s all there is to say really.

  2. Adrian Revenaugh

    Thank you for spilling the sack full of marbles onto the table.

  3. Vanessa Spedding

    Shaun, thank you. This is very poignant and, oddly, almost reassuring to read. It’s a strange comfort, but a comfort no less, to know I’m not alone in reaching similar conclusions, and in grappling with quite intense feelings of sadness and frustration as a result (to say nothing of the mental fibrillation the comes from trying to find a positive way forward and resigning myself to the powerlessness). Like you though, in the end, the light shines through – there is always joy to be found in being alive; and I’d rather feel and share the love behind the pain than settle for numbness any day.

  4. Rosalie

    Reading this makes me feel so much more positive, both for me and for you.

  5. Kjrste

    Agreed. I have this bookmarked to re-read.

  6. Tenney Naumer

    That was very eloquent and lovely.

    But it skipped right over the part about how life on earth will soon become hell for all, although it is my daughter I am particularly concerned with.

    And I am indeed powerless to protect her.

    I am not consoled.

  7. Shaun Chamberlin

    Thanks for your kind and honest comments Tenney.

    I am grateful that you didn’t only mention eloquence and loveliness, but also the ways in which my piece fell short of all it might have been, so that I may learn from your experience of it. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to hear that my piece brought you no consolation.

    It was certainly not my intention to skip over the darkness of these times. Indeed, I suspect this piece would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t aware. But that painful dark night of the soul is likely something that we all have to face alone. All I knew to do was to point to it and explain the place that I have now found in relation to it.

    And with regard to your concerns for your daughter all I can offer is that, yes, as you say, you are likely powerless to change the shape of the historical context that is her birthright, but I do not believe that you are powerless to tell a beautiful story with your motherhood, or to shape her finite span of life perhaps more powerfully than any other influence.

    A wonderful relationship between mother and daughter is among the most precious and beautiful things in life, and it seems to me that the fact that both people will inevitably die, or that one or both might live through extreme circumstances, touches that not at all.

    I know only too well that for all of us there are things from which we cannot protect our loved ones, but perhaps the path back to empowerment is to be able to see and hold that difficult truth while creating the most beautiful reality we can with the many things we can influence?

    Still, if you find no consolation in my words then likely mine is simply not the voice you need to hear. I very much hope that you find that consolation elsewhere. If you do, perhaps you will bring it back here to share?

    Best wishes,

  8. Roger

    ‘universes’ come and go and the very name reflects the complacent attitude of mankind not noticing that ‘something’ keeps creating what begins and ends… what makes that ‘hard’ to ‘understand’ is that the something isn’t created, isn’t physical… what makes it possible to understand it is Love …that which religion talks about but does not implement , that which men say makes them the happiest they have ever been but then they go back to being unloving ‘like everyone else’ with any number of ‘reasons’ for not doing what would actually [they know] make them and everyone else happy in life , happy even at death that life was ‘full’ …and despite that every generation says so, this is not a new problem, it was written about as soon as men could write, and they even wrote down where we would end up. and here we are, still STUPID to ourselves , unable to love one another, ALL one another, and so all be happy in life and about death after a full life of Love of fellow man….
    What IS more amazing though [to me anyway] is that the creator somehow communicates this to us, it is in us … we CAN stop being unloving and suddenly life blossoms , our health improves, we walk around smiling with a silly grin that life is good no matter what happens ‘in time as life’… for there is the thing, we get time-mentality as thinking machines we evolved into physically , but even now we know time is not fundamental at all, few have taken in what that MEANS … our ‘society’ creates institutions and yet does not create feedback to make them serve the people, so it kills itself , appears corrupted from its purpose to serve the few, but doesn’t serve them either in the end… it has lost its way because that is what evolution does …it was predicted , and indeed we see predictable, if we can bear to look! … so why not ? … simply that our brains would be overloaded were we not to have inhibition, , it is necessary then… but it enables us to lie , and since we can lie and men can imagine they benefit by lying, so most folks do lie continually through life, even to themselves… so we shut off from reality i a world of fake reason to ourselves,even split up our minds to be a different ‘person’ [different mask worn ] in every situation… we have lost our being, ceased to be integral, and it causes conflicts within not being whole… how then could we solve our world’s problems when most cannot solve their own problems with themselves… ? – But the answer too was given long ago,not by men, but but men who turned to Love explaining that by Love one gets something MORE, one is in tune with the creator by being whole and Loving everyone BECAUSE we are in essence ONE,not many… that pretending one is self , not one’s ‘spirit’ of Love caring and sharing with all, is simply denying what we are , and that simply hastens death and makes life miserable, unhealthy, grey…
    that which is endless somehow creates universes, creates the physical, and eventually we emerge to do what? To discover what endlessness is , to know it physically , that it is ‘undivided’, that it is ‘one’, through our Love… but our evolution will not allow of men all ceasing denial in this one life… men may see that as terrible, billions dying because man failed to Love man and the planet and Nature… failed to Love ourselves, followed dumb inconsistent institutions WITHOUT FEEDBACK, run by fear because fear shuts up most men … no complaints , just misery and in the end destruction because without feedback there is no ‘life’ … so the spirit of Love is obliged to ‘play the long game’ … man will destroy this earth and render this universe useless … why should the endless ‘creator’ ‘care’ about that , creating universes is what it does , re-creating men is no problem either , matters not that men’s limited mentality/imagination cannot yet wholly cope with that… we are just fools if we cannot see that endlessness somehow created us and our limited conception of our ‘selves’ only sees one life then an end… how would we know that? … many have said it is not true….

    and what use is the notion of ‘credibility’ in beings who live whole lives in denial as split persons , different in every situation they meet… we can lie and most do, even to ourselves, even about simply being loving to all in life that would not only make us all happy, but amazingly connect us with the endlessness that somehow created us from itself…
    so here it is, a voice of a man from long ago, how did he know this ? :-

    Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them

    God’s image is spirit, not flesh and blood … how did he know we are not what we see our selves to be [through our mask of self for today , for now ] ?

    why would men ignore this so long? … again it is sort of sad, all the answers were given long ago… men felt the need to pervert them , just as some men pointed out most men would… and so the many determine the world, and now determine its destruction because the few cannot PHYSICALLY defeat the power of the few who hold the credibility of the many… we have a fake ‘god’ of the many and none of the many will stop having faith in capitalism and religion of sinners until that god is dead… but by then our world is dying irreparably too , arguably already is, even as politicians contrive to create a world power , a one world army , reducing the many to servile peasants living in villages because the city idea failed.. what does it matter, if one Loves ? … endlessness can sort it out and none else can … it was simply vain that men thought they could control things without feedback.. by fear… because men eventually get over their fears … kill the fake god … but again isn’t it amazing at least that we were told this and men ignore it even now Ezekiel 28 … a voice from thousands of years ago telling us what is about to happen to the ‘all-powerful world leader’ men will be cajoled to elect as things get really bad… it’s actually rather funny, even laughable, if one can bear the intense sadness of it all, I still barely can, but I sometimes laugh because men take their insanity of actions so seriously as we kill ourselves and our world by our ‘decision machine without feedback’ which is all most actually believe in… not through Love, but through fear of it… respecting the wrong ‘god’ , ignoring the endless ‘creator’ which can only be ‘everything’ and not ‘physicality’ we think of as ‘reality’ …

  9. Tom Bennion

    Inspiring article thanks.

    For me the idea is simple. We are the product of a fortuitous meteorite strike 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and left room for mammals to flourish. We are surrounded by lots of objects that could do similar damage again. I know what joy and happiness in human connections looks like. So the the task for now is maintaining and defending the neighbourhood, its ecosystem and social systems that bring that happiness. Defence of the Holocene if you will. From external and internal threats. Who knows what the bigger meaning is. That task will do for now.

  10. dd

    enjoyed the post, and if any further debate about within the system or action rooted in radically changing the system could look to ‘Capitalism: a structural genocide’ by Garry Leech for a enlightenment on the subject. It connects the dots, makes an academic argument without being too heavy, and all in about 150 pages! if you haven’t read it, please do, and pass on the good word. We need new vocabulary to help us talk about change. And thank you for your links page, it’s great.

  11. Mandy Meikle

    I love this – Ok”, I breathe, “here I am, in a dying world”. It’s the same dying world I lived in yesterday, but today I see it for what it is. “What now?”

    ‘What now?’ is what I thought when I ‘lost hope’. I’d spent years getting involved in non-violent direct action, politics and/or campaigning for change but there was always the split Shaun refers to so eloquently. While ‘giving up hope’ sounds a bit awful, it’s not. I felt freed from the confusion of not knowing what to do – wondering what work would be most effective, where I should focus my energies. Post-hope, it didn’t matter what I did so I could do what I felt was right for me at that time.

    Even if you have given up hope, don’t stop seeking out like-minded people. Talk and listen. Have a laugh, a cry – whatever works for you. I remember returning from the 2011 Dark Mountain Festival to a meeting about the many wind farm proposals popping up in our area. It descended into a shouting match with even the ‘chair’ joining in. I’d been to such meetings before and they usually resulted in me backing off. However, all buoyed up after the DM festival, I organised a meeting the following month and asked who would help me set up a community trust, so we could get wind farm (and any other developer) benefits into the area. Still loads of hurdles and I often find myself saying, ‘shit, what have I started!’ but we’re progressing.

    I believe that building community resilience takes priority over trying to ‘change the world’ because regardless of the future, community and cooperation have been stolen from us by the culture we live in and we need to get them back. As Mary Mellor said when speaking at the 2012 Just Banking conference, “Money is only as good as the society in which it sits.” If you knew that your community would care for you in old age, you wouldn’t worry about your shrinking pension pot, for example. Community is key.

    PS If Tenney is reading, you may not be able to protect your daughter from the future – no parent can. But you can teach her honestly about the future as you see it, teach her to love life (all species!) and be there for her as she makes her choices. That’s all any mother can do. Go well!

  12. ness

    Through hearing voices as honest and as thoughtful as this, do I find a much-needed tonic! Feeling the pain, you’re right, it’s very liberating – leads to great love. a joy to be alive. Beautiful piece of writing

  13. Laurie

    Hi Shaun,

    This post really resonated with a lot of my experience over recent years in coming to terms with reality and how I can play a part 🙂

    I guess you’re probably aware of these but here are some resources that might be of interest/use:



  14. Roger

    contrary to popular misconception of being,
    life is not endless being
    so we have to CHANGE in order to overcome
    the transience of life
    death is not the end of being
    being creates life
    until what ?
    Well there is no limit to the worlds can be created
    even science begins to believe that
    so the end of one life
    is just the beginning of another somewhat different life
    and the end of this world
    is simply the end of this life for all here
    but there is a ‘rule’
    that the next life is in a world of perfect Love
    in contrast to this one
    and the saints of this life
    out of Love to minister and rule that world
    in order to ensure that as many as possible are free of returning to that world
    for all who do not choose to Love there
    are returned free of their sin yet again by a second death
    [Romans 6:7 – he that is dead is freed from sin]
    and denied suicidal death in their shame at two lives of abusing others following sin, not perfect Love:
    Revelation 9:6 in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

    – so the way out of life is not death [as many suppose it is]
    one cannot escape BEING
    one can however escape the self that does not Love, sins
    by choosing to Love
    either now
    or in the next life in a new earth
    or in a third life in the new universe of Love
    … what one cannot do is to keep this earth much longer
    it is dying ever faster from us
    the web of life is broken
    nature destabilised will not support us much longer
    volcanisnm will finish us off after the worst time ever for mankind ]Matthew 24], worse than the mythical ‘hell’ of fake religion of sinners , those who refuse to Love now …

    anyway death is no way beyond life, Love though is the ‘doorway’
    to freedom to new worlds
    that [if you like] is God’s rule for this world and the next
    one need not fear death or the end of any world
    all worlds end and only being is endless
    but the third life of shame is as unattractive as the misery of inner conflict by not Loving as we are designed to do
    Love is within us and we have to deny to abuse others with sin
    to live by capitalism is grey because it is based on lies, instituted sin
    creedal religion to is provably lies dressed up as Truth, like its fake priests….
    you can see why so many choose to deny their Love and live by sin here, destroying our brief home rather quickly now
    Love is simply doing the things which work best for EVERYONE
    life is longer with Love and we need no third earth before all see that , stop smiting their own nose to spite their face
    [it really makes no sense at all to destroy this earth in the name of ‘profit’ in fake electronic money , nor for ‘power” here … LOL? weep? ]
    ah well, it just IS …one cannot change that, but one can decide when t Love and at least thus be ready to move on…
    but the joke is that one cannot move on until everyone Loves, Love will not let you leave anyone behind in misery of the misconceptions they believe they live by …
    now that is funny, is it not?… or very sad? … or just IS 🙂

  15. Celia lafee

    Powerful thought we can apply to a lot of situation ….what matters is the stories we write…they will remain eternal….the love, life and passion we put into them…time can kill life….but not our souls…

  16. Stranger

    even Christian sinners ignore the few saints of this Earth
    and follow MORTAL sinners put in place by oath
    sworn against Jesus’ express command not to swear oaths
    but Jesus did tell us ALL about the new Earth
    and the terrible death of this planet by worldwide volcanism
    we have PROVED is ALWAYS triggered by global ice melt

    the new Earth is now more credible
    as hard Science has prven this universe is VIRTUAL reality
    so is created…we have a CREATOR of our universes
    and as Einstein revealed
    our True God is EVERYTHING… but Science now humbly admits its mistaken conception of REALITY, few yet SEE what that MEANS

  17. John Halstead

    A very belated comment: Thank you for this. You captured very well the sense of … what is the feeling? Not hope. Not resignation. A mix of a Buddhist-like peace and a new-found enthusiasm for a new path: working to build community resilience with the more-than-human world.

  18. RowanRaven

    This is beautiful

  19. Shaun Chamberlin

    That’s a beautiful distillation, thank you Emily. I’m a big fan of Joe’s work, but hadn’t seen that short video before.

  20. Don

    Just what I needed to read this morning, Shaun! Loving the course 🙂

  21. Michael Anderson

    Thanks, I appreciate this perspective ~ I’ve been jokingly and lovingly saying that we’re in the midst of our Sun’s mid-life crisis. 4.5 billion years old with a projected 4-5 billion years left to burn! Much love Earthlings!



  1. The secret truth behind environmentalists’ favourite argument | Ed Dowding - […] Via […]
  2. Climate blues: NBC article | Sustainability in Crisis - […] second article by Shaun Chamberlin on similar themes is also worth reading. Even though he reckons we’ve run out…
  3. Welcome to Dark Optimism! - pinned post - Dark Optimism - […] grief, activism and the darkness in my optimism (see short blog or […]
  4. Deep solidarity - Dark Optimism - […] The secret truth behind environmentalists’ favourite argument […]
  5. Interview on grief, Dark Optimism, aliveness and activism - Dark Optimism - […] The secret truth behind environmentalists’ favourite argument […]
  6. Heroes and villains in Copenhagen - Dark Optimism - […] The secret truth behind environmentalists’ favourite argument […]
  7. Shaun Chamberlin’s response to Steve Schofield’s article – Look to the Local: a re-skilled Britain - […] collectively going to continue choosing the chaos and difficulties of collapse, as I wrote about here.  This is the root…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *