Give us not serenity but a sense of urgency in the face of catastrophic climate change

During my partner’s pregnancy, the stop sign at the end of our street was crudely altered. Beneath “STOP”, the words “HAVING KIDS” were scrawled in white marker. A walk around the neighbourhood revealed that most signs were similarly changed. Within a week, I’d seen them in multiple suburbs. The guerrillas had been busy.

Had my partner not been pregnant, I’d have still found the graffiti repellently smug. How does one declare war on a biological imperative? On profound desire? To seek the salvation of the planet by demanding something so blithely anti-human is chilling.

As well as its juvenile misanthropy, the graffiti contained a category error. It’s the one found when considering one’s “carbon footprint” and that conflates the decision not to have a child with buying a Prius, or an abortion with selling your SUV – it paints parenthood as just another consumption choice. One that neatly imposes responsibility for climate change upon individuals, and not massive state and corporate actors.

Still, the graffiti begged the question: what world would my daughter find?

That was in 2019. Recently I asked a friend, a new father, if he thinks about his child’s future.

Do I think about my child’s future?” he replied, incredulous. I may as well have asked if he loved his son – or if a bear shits in the woods. 

What I meant by “your child’s future” was the prospects of the world and our children’s place within what I’ve assumed to be a state of irreversible decline. But until now, I haven’t. Not really. My attention doesn’t stretch too far beyond the most immediate domestic concerns. There’s today and tomorrow, and then there’s The Future. Two distinct spheres, rather than overlapping ones. I can’t mentally bridge them – but why?

Well, there was the cocooning effect of the first few months of parenting. A cross-hatching of fear, wonder, exhaustion, novelty and repetition. This environment encourages solipsism. There wasn’t time or energy to contemplate global fragility, or my daughter’s security from it.

Then came the pandemic, and Melbourne’s long lockdown, and if we were in a biological quarantine, we placed our daughter in an emotional one – that is, we clowned and giggled and otherwise made invisible to her our anxiety and resentments. If my agency is cosmically insignificant, it remains compelling in my tiny domestic sphere. 

And if anxiety or depression encroached, I reminded myself to be open to being enchanted by her, to be present – as when she tapped her palm to request me to gently trace circles upon it with my finger; or when she heard that song and wanted to be lifted and held for its duration. Then, I could be inside the moment – rather than, as is typical, straddling time hyper-consciously like it’s a mechanical bull. Which is to say, for moments I could deliciously vanish the future.

But all of this effort – this intense, localised attention – still doesn’t explain my incapacity to imaginatively bridge my young daughter to a future. There was something else. An obstinacy. A subtle, perhaps subconscious refusal to contemplate our collective shuffling towards mass extinction when I felt (and still feel) that contemplation to be useless. Simultaneously, there was a refusal to accept my resignation. And so between those two states of refusal, I existed within an intellectual no-man’s land.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” goes the popularisation of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”.

It’s an elegant line, and offers the act of acceptance as graceful, virtuous, wise. In fact, it recalls a basic therapeutic intervention that asks the anxious patient to distinguish between what can and cannot be influenced – and in distinguishing them, to abandon painfully ineffectual fixations.

But Niebuhr never wrote it. He wrote many versions of the prayer, but the vital difference between his renditions and the popularisation remained:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

See the difference? It’s not trivial. The popularised “Serenity Prayer” emphasises what can be changed. Niebuhr emphasised what should be changed. This complicates the desired serenity of the popular version with a sense of moral urgency. It’s not the invitation to peaceful resignation it’s commonly received to be.

Which isn’t surprising. Niebuhr’s prayer invokes a trinity of virtues, each equal to the other: serenity, courage and wisdom. Naming it the “Serenity Prayer” – which Niebuhr never did – gives an undue and distorting emphasis to serenity.

Of course it does. Niebuhr first wrote his prayer the year Hitler became chancellor, and the theologian was soon warning that American isolationism would help gift him Europe. Against the Nazis, serenity wasn’t a virtue. And nor is it today, against catastrophic climate change.

Niebuhr didn’t just brood in velvet abstractions – and he was not aloof from his time. The things that he prayed for us to have the courage to change included rapacious capitalism, Nazism and communism. 

I won’t ventriloquise Niebuhr as a modern climate activist. I’ll only say that the popular emphasis on serenity suggests a resolution of doubt that Niebuhr never intended. His three virtues exist competitively (and, intellectually, he considered doubt to be more fruitful than certainty). In a catastrophically warming climate, serenity is for the biblical literalists who’ve dog-eared the Book of Revelation.

We’ve misinterpreted Niebuhr, and made sweet and simple his appeals to the complex contingencies of morality. Meanwhile, our government remains serene on climate change. Relaxed and comfortable. Rhetorically, Quiet Australians are commended for their polite silence (it’s never complacency), while there remains something suspicious about political earnestness or protest – something reckless, pretentious, irritating, empty, misguided or corrupt. 

In its December 2020 report, the International Energy Agency fingered 2013 as history’s peak for global coal consumption – and forecast that by 2025, renewables will have eclipsed it as the world’s largest source of power. As that world’s largest exporter of the stuff, this might be thought to be a political reckoning.

It hasn’t been.

Every age has its anxieties, but I wonder if ours – or my daughter’s – will be defined and crippled by them. And wondering this, I can find no serenity – but I’m also unsure how my courage or wisdom might be found or meaningfully expressed. 

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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