Cynicism is Cheap and Boring
I used to admire the work of Jim-Stephanie Sterling, a video game critic/journalist who was notable for being fiercely independent, who loathed having a corporate parent trying to influence their work in any way, and who ultimately went solo on YouTube to cover the topics they cared most about. However, over the years, I’ve gotten the sense that the internet and social media have gotten to Jim-Stephanie, as they went from a humourous critic and thoughtful essayist to a raging, insatiable engine of outrage and disgust at pretty much everything they talk about. Jim-Stephanie can rage about what dickheads on twitter are saying with the kind of vengeful fury and outrage that I would normally reserve for talking about famine and ecological collapse, and they can spent thirteen long minutes decrying how a kinda bland crossover videogame is an insidious work of evil corporate overloads to dominate humanity’s culture. Their work has become deeply bitter and cynical to the point of almost being silly, and is so deeply awash in misery that I had to give up on their show because it would make me feel lousy for the rest of the day. Who wants that?
And cynicism is alive and well within the climate change movement. Last year, I went back to university to get a Masters of Climate Change at the age of 30, and I was astonished at how much cynicism I heard from some of the 21- and 22-year-olds in the program. Some of the more social justice intensive classes especially. Students would decry the existence of the UN as a weak and toothless puppet; rage about how corrupt, incompetent, and careless governments are; topping the tirades off by railing about how corporations are embodiments of sheer evil out to destroy the world in every way they can and have a good time doing it. A ‘burn it all down’ mentality was popular among the more social justice-minded group, which is incidentally how Jim-Stephanie talks about the video game industry.
While these points make for compelling social media posts and memorable exchanges in musty university classrooms, the kind of cynicism that is widely popular on social media is cheap, boring, and misleading. Because there is waaaaaay more complexity in what governments, international organizations, and corporations do than simply ‘everyone is evil, incompetent, a puppet, or all three’. Governing is hard. Agreements of any kind are usually a compromise, meaning that initiatives and laws are usually weaker than they could be, corporations need to make a profit to exist and employ people/provide a service and their initiatives to improve the planet are usually a sunk cost. So it makes sense why their efforts are limited from a purely economic standpoint. But the popular images of shadowy boardrooms of sick, twisted old men plotting about how best to destroy the world and cause calamity for profit make for a compelling image to stir activists and outrage, but don’t really exist in the same way a ‘deep state’ doesn’t exist. But cynicism doesn’t need facts. In fact, it works better in absence of them. Which is the main thing that bugs me about deep cynics, is how often the grant their opinions the status of fact.
The other thing that bugs me about profoundly cynical people who act as if cynicism is some kind of badge of intellect is that cynicism is dirt cheap. You don’t need to care about something or invest yourself in something to just sneer at it and criticize it. While cynics can certainly make good points sometimes, it takes far more work, heart, and vulnerability to actually put hope and faith into something and to nurture some sentiment that an idea, project, or law could come to pass and make a difference. Putting faith in the UN, your national government, or some influential figure is risky and you can get burned for betting your hope and faith on something that fails. But even when that happens, it is important not to give into the abyss of cynicism. While it may seem like a natural step, I don’t think it helps.
Basically, cynicism doesn’t require the kind of give that genuine engagement and a willingness to dig into complexities does. So when people in my classes mindlessly sneered at (insert thing here) for not doing what they thought was required to save our climate, I always thought that said more about how incurious and inaccessible the speaker was than it did about the (thing). Plus, people can always surprise you. Despite my cautious optimism our our climate, I never dreamed that the United States would pass a tremendous climate change bill this decade, or that Australia (!) would take up legislation to limit their sprawling emissions into alignment with the UN’s climate goals. Cynics could point out the flaws in these legislative achievements. The Inflation Reduction Act (tee hee, they’re still calling it that) is a pale imitation of the failed Build Back Better legislation that would have done so much more. The original proposal in Australia was a 75% reduction in emissions by 2030, which was adjusted to 43%, which you could complain about, but it’s still great news.
One thing people grumble about in the climate movement is that we’re not seeing sweeping, transformative change to a low-carbon society. To which I say: no shit. Sweeping, transformative, overnight change is brutally difficult to do. Democracy, six-pack abs, and decarbonization are not decided and achieved in an afternoon. The incremental steps we’re seeing are tremendous progress, and cynics and progressives who decry this as not enough have a point, but we need to be grateful for the small steps. They can add up to quite the journey.