Editor’s Note: We’re giving Jim Miller’s column a week off to celebrate the publication of his new book.
By Ian Duckles
Jim Miller’s new book Last Days in Ocean Beach (City Works Press, 2018), explores the question of how to live one’s life in the face of looming catastrophic climate change. The novel, like life, is challenging, depressing, hopeful, sad, and filled with moments of incredible beauty and incredible tragedy and is highly recommended.
In this piece, however, I want to take a more philosophical look at the novel by stripping away some of its rhetorical beauty to focus on the responses to catastrophic climate change suggested by its various characters. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is its formal structure. Divided into 19 chapters, each odd-numbered chapter focuses on the character of William, a marine biologist, who works at the fictional Center for Extinction Studies housed at the equally fictional College of the Sun. William is planning a conference on Global Climate Change, and the odd-numbered chapters follow his conversations with other members of the Center as he plans the conference. These are contrasted with the even-numbered chapters which follow the lives of the residents of the apartment building William lives at in OB. For my purposes, I want to focus on the odd-numbered chapters and the various responses to the coming apocalypse that William encounters.
- I. Alexander
Alexander is a climatologist who works at the Center. In his mind, the solution to this problem is to create a sense of urgency by getting people to think about climate change in terms of how it will impact their children. Ultimately, no one really cares that some obscure animal they have never seen has gone extinct. Instead, people need to have the issue personalized for them so that they can understand how climate change directly impacts the things they care about. For Alexander, nothing gets people more motivated than a concern for their children. Thus, he proposes that “…we need to get people to see every arcane discussion about resources, planning, and potential sacrifices through the lens of their children’s future.”
In thinking about this solution, I am reminded of the account of Justice provided by the American philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (Belknap, 1971). In this work, Rawls argues that to determine whether a law or policy is just, we must imagine individuals making rules for society from “behind a veil of ignorance.” The idea is that to ensure a just society we need to come up with rules for that society ignorant of where we will end up in it. In this way, we will choose rules that are just or fair since if we chose unjust or unfair rules while ignorant of our position in society, we might accidentally find ourselves on the wrong end of such a rule. Thus, from behind this “veil of ignorance” we have an incentive to choose rules that benefit everyone in society. One such factor that we are ignorant of from behind this veil of ignorance is what generation in society we will find ourselves in. Thus, within Rawls’ framework, true justice can only be achieved when we consider the impact of our social and economic policies on future generations, much as Alexander recommends.
- II. Molly
Molly is a former Naval Officer and Analyst for the Defense Department. In her view, technology and scientific advancement will be able to salvage a decent world for those with the resources to do so, while everyone else will descend into a Hobbesian state of nature where it is a war of all against all and life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” She argues that the US needs to focus on ensuring the strength of the US, and essentially everyone else should be left to their own devices, except where the US needs to step in to prevent potential threats to its own well-being.
In effect, Molly is arguing in favor of the need to adopt a “lifeboat” ethics. This is a view of morality proposed by the psychologist Garret Hardin in the 1970’s. As Hardin sees it, many situations around global resource allocation can be understood using the metaphor of a lifeboat. We are to imagine that the US (and other rich nations) are like lifeboats floating on the ocean. Surrounding these lifeboats are hundreds of other people (folks from poor nations) trying to get into the lifeboat. Hardin argues that we have a moral obligation to refuse entry into the lifeboats for most of these people because if we let everyone in they will overwhelm and sink the lifeboat killing everyone. Hardin argues that our natural charitable impulses can inadvertently lead to our destruction if we aren’t careful. In the context of global climate change, the implication is exactly as Molly presented it.
- III. Indira
Indira is an Indian scientist focused on the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food security. Unlike Alexander and Molly, Indira is quite optimistic, and it is this optimism which fuels her activism. For Indira, much of the hand-wringing about climate change from the Western World is really a “panic of privilege.” For most people living outside the developed world, these problems of food insecurity, lack of access to water, famine and plague caused by environmental factors, etc. are not hypotheticals about some near-term apocalypse, they are the actual lived experiences of most humans on the planet. Thus, she is extremely suspicious of solutions like that offered by Molly. In her opinion, the only solution is one that takes global climate justice seriously, and which melds environmental concerns with concerns of social and economic justice.
- IV. Antonio
Antonio is a political scientist who takes a much more radical approach to these issues. In his view, the problems facing the planet are not due to ignorance. Those in power (industry, media, the government) recognize the severity of global climate change, they just don’t care as long as they are making money now. Thus, the goal should be to stoke outrage among the general population. Basically, people trying to save the planet need to use some of the techniques of the climate change deniers, who have done a very good job of channeling the anger of the citizens in ways that serve their interests. Antonio argues that the proper solution is to take that anger and direct it in ways that are more productive to achieving the goals of climate justice. This is a much more activist and radical approach than what we have seen from some of the other potential responses.
- V. Buddhism/Existentialism
The final response offered in the book is one that is heavily influenced by Buddhism. It also has a strong affinity with certain strands of Existentialism, which is why I have grouped these two traditions together. The basic insight of both Buddhism and Existentialism that is relevant here concerns an idea expressed by a friend of William: George. His advice to William is, as befitting a Buddhist, relatively short, but is pregnant with meaning and significance:
Be present, but don’t let yourself become a hostage of expectations. Do the work with no expectation of any particular outcome. What matters is your commitment and right action in that moment, every moment. Hope is a movie in your head. Dread is a movie in your head.
The core idea here is that one can’t control what others do. All we can control are our own actions and our responses to other people. While it is only natural to get caught up in worry or to get angry at the laziness and perfidy of others, there is nothing we can do about any of that, so to worry about it or get angry only causes us suffering. Thus, if we want to avoid suffering, we just need to focus on ourselves and our actions and responses, and not worry or stress over other people. In thinking about this response, I am reminded of the attitude expressed by the narrator of Albert Camus’ The Plague, a doctor who recognizes how little impact his actions are having as people drop like flies around him, but who nevertheless perseveres to do the right thing even in the face of this almost unimaginable tragedy.
At the end of the day all we have are our actions and our responses to others, if we can control those and just focus on the present (the past is gone, the future is not here yet so all we have is the present moment) then we can alleviate a great deal of suffering in ourselves and ultimately be better positioned to actively work to make the world a better place for everyone. To demonstrate this idea, the novel closes with a description of one of the greatest experiences available to any OBecian, the pleasure of a sunset:
It was a gorgeous display, golden light exploding off the water as the sun sank toward the ocean. They’d forgotten their sunglasses but they didn’t get up. It was just so brilliant they didn’t want to miss anything. It was like heaven on earth, if just for this moment. … [H]e…took a sip of his beer, and squinted into the blinding light, trying to keep touching this small part of the radiance of the world.
The beauty of this passage is that this experience that Miller describes is one that is still available to all of us. While I no longer live in OB, I can still take pleasure from the beautiful display of the dying light of the sun on the clouds in the sky. If we can all take pleasure in that moment, we have the capacity to take similar pleasure in all the other small miracles that make up each moment of our lives. And in this lies true freedom and true salvation.
Dr. Ian Duckles teaches philosophy at San Diego Mesa College. His research interests include exploring the intersection of philosophy and labor. He currently resides in City Heights.
Last Days in Ocean Beach by Jim Miller Book Release Event
Friday, April 20th from 7-9 PM at the Ocean Beach Green Center
On Friday, April 20th from 7-9 PM, there will be a reading from Last Days in Ocean Beach, a new novel by Jim Miller, to benefit the Ocean Beach Green Center (4843 B Voltaire Street, Ocean Beach 92107).
All proceeds from book sales will be donated to the OB Green Center.
Last Days in Ocean Beach is the story of William, a scientist working at the Center for Extinction Studies, a think tank at the College of the Sun funded by a green billionaire. William lives “on the border between dread and wonder” as he desperately works to raise the alarm about climate change and its dire consequences to an apathetic public, learns to live with grief, and hold on to love. Along the way, we meet the residents of his wonderfully shabby apartment complex in Ocean Beach–bikers, hippies, skate punks, adventure tourists, reggae singers, aimless young professionals, Iraq war veterans, decadent retirees, a hospice nurse, and a Buddhist monk, all of whom are searching for something, looking to live more fully. Last Days in Ocean Beach is a blues song moaning and rocking the beach party at the end of the world.
“Jim Miller’s protagonist observes what each one of us knows–we’re all heedlessly driving and flying our way to oblivion. At a time when our planet is under siege, this important novel explores how delicately our individual lives and our relationships are woven into its future and the future of human life.”
–Sandra Alcosser, author of Except by Nature
“Jim Miller manages to find real warmth in the cold light cast by our apocalyptic moment; this is a rare instance of actually dealing with, instead of attempting to ‘fix,’ the cascade of emotions and ideas that naturally come from the immensity of the challenges around us.”
–Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth
For more information on City Works Press and to buy a copy of Last Days in Ocean Beach, go here: www.cityworkspress.org