When Nihilism Sets in, the Corporations Win

I sat outside the School of Art Library a few weeks ago chatting with two friends. Somehow, as is commonplace in most of our conversations, we got onto the topic of that pesky existential friend of ours, climate change.

After a brief discussion, I made the offhand remark, “Oh well, we’re all fucked anyway.” Usually, we reach this conclusion unanimously, then move on. But this time, my friend stopped me. “No, you can’t think that,” they said. “Climate nihilism is how they win.”

This got me thinking. On the one hand, who would blame us as young people for thinking everything is doomed and there’s no point anymore? The evidence of the climate crisis and its rapidly intensifying damage to humankind, especially the world’s most vulnerable, is staggering to behold. It can all feel like too much to bear when we think about it for too long. Embracing some form of nihilism becomes a coping mechanism. Accepting that everything is fucked and that anything we can do is inconsequential anyway is how many of us seem to get by each day.

But on the other hand, perhaps the way many of us have begun to think and speak about the climate crisis is actually just enabling an even greater victory for billionaires and fossil fuel corporations and the corrupt governments (like our own) that are in their pockets. This has led me to think there is a balance that we all must find, which couples our acknowledgement of the serious challenges we face with a belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity. We actually do need some form of hope, and we need to believe that people power means something. Hope is what keeps us going.

We need to believe in a future and each other. Nihilism might be a form of self-preservation but hope is too. Even if the struggle we face seems insurmountable – and with good reason – the best chance we have is to keep believing in the goodness and power of our movement when we all come together.

We can take inspiration from grassroots communities and the wins we continue to achieve. The Stop Adani movement crushed mine development plans, reducing the scale from  eleven coal mines to one. Communities in the Northern Territory stopped Origin from fracking on sacred land. The Torres Strait 8 recently won a landmark case where the United Nations found Australia’s climate inaction is in violation of the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders.

These wins are not enough. It takes years of work and hundreds, if not thousands, of people to stop just one fossil fuel project in this country. New proposals and new companies looking to take the reins pop up in their place. It is important that we maintain a strong sense of reality and recognise that we cannot trust politicians, that corporations are indeed evil and that incremental change will not solve this crisis.

But these wins are also not inconsequential. They are a reminder that people really are powerful. Corporations want us to lose hope and accept defeat, to surrender to them. But there is a strength we have in each other and knowing that there are people out there who do care. Picturing our world without a climate and environmental movement is a terrifying prospect; we would all be living under the shadow of smoke stacks as far as the eye could see. If we are nihilists, corporations will continue to plunder and exploit our beautiful planet even more, without resistance. The fact is that if we gave up, it would all be worse than we could ever imagine.

Climate nihilism won’t help us, but we must not confuse optimism with blind faith in policymakers. Placing all hope and trust in our new government is a dangerous route many are taking. I am fearful of our movement giving up as a result of climate nihilism, but I must admit, I am equally fearful of our movement giving up by thinking a lot of the work is done. I am frequently shocked to hear well-meaning, progressive people praising our new government and their climate policies.

The Albanese government is willingly and knowingly worsening the climate crisis, allowing the development of new fossil fuel projects. It is attempting to deceive us into thinking everything is fine now that we have a legislated emissions reduction target, reached with an outrageously weak ‘safeguard mechanism’. Merely electing a government that is “at least better than the last one” is not the solution to all our problems. Complacency is a dangerous force. We must confront the realities of the world we live in, we must not be blasé about the impacts the climate crisis has already begun to have, and we must criticise our government and call on them to do so much better.

But hope in humanity is not the same as blind trust in government. Trusting our government to fix all of our problems is the easy route. It is hard to maintain hope. Many would say it takes either naivety or, worse, stupidity, but I think it takes strength. And we need it.

Accepting that there’s nothing we can do and the fight is lost means that we’ve given in to the evil, greedy forces of corporations seeking profit at the expense of our people and planet. We are tired, we are angry and we might feel like there’s no point anymore. But I am desperately trying to say no to climate nihilism and yes to believing that there is still hope. We can be simultaneously realistic, critical, cynical, furious and hopeful. We owe this to ourselves and all that we hold dear that we do not give up hope and in doing so, let them win.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.