Written by Lukas van Diermen
Paiting The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallishoto, 1856 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)
For some time now I have been caught in an internal battle between the idealist and the pragmatist that both occupy parts of my consciousness. I think this battle is taking place in many young heads in Europe today. At a time when I feel we are all supposed to have clear-cut and solid opinions before we even open our mouths, I thought it might be a good idea to explore this inner conversation and give it a place on ‘paper’. Therefore this piece was supposed to become an ode to doubt, to inner conflict, an ode to honesty about not always knowing which way to go.
Soon, however, it turned out that my idealist has morphed into a bitter and angry pessimist, and my pragmatist into a hopeful optimist. Normally this wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem, but I found out that the pessimist has become ever louder and more certain of himself, while the optimist has become small, insecure, defensive. What was supposed to become an ode to doubt became a heated discussion in which I found myself losing hope more and more. The primary cause for my desperation were the elections that recently took place in the Netherlands, my home country. As many eyes were on our small country anxiously awaiting a possible win for the far right, I had become involved in the Green Left party’s campaign (GroenLinks). I had developed the belief that this formerly fringe environmentalist party might just be able to win this election, and tell Europe a completely different story about the direction we were going to take. For the moment, however, it seems like the liberal conservatives who have ruled our country since 2010 will stay put.
So no, I didn’t set out to write something quite as grim as what you’re now starting to read. I actually thought this would be quite a positive story. The elections saw the parties that take climate change seriously double their seats in the Dutch parliament, which is just one of the developments we have seen over the last year. Bernie Sanders got very far in the 2016 Democratic primaries with a clear and proactive message on climate change. Awareness about the issue seemed to be rising as well – although I can never be sure if maybe that’s only the case in the bubbles I am a part of. These should be good signs, filling us with hope and belief in a better future. Still, if the Dutch elections really are to be used as an indicator for what France and Germany will do it seems the corporate neoliberal establishment of Europe is holding on firmly to its position of power, offering weak and insufficient measures to curb the catastrophes we are facing. And if that’s all we have to offer instead of outright populism, I’m not sure if it’s a result worth cheering for.
And that got me wondering whether it is all too late, whether the wheels have already been set in motion. Sometimes I get the feeling we are all just here biding our time till it’s all over. Till everything crumbles to pieces. Till chaos takes over Europe and peace is a word of the past. Till the country I grew up in, once gained upon the sea, is lost to the waves once more. Till war, environmental disasters and food shortages force Europeans to seek refuge on other continents, drowning in sight of unwelcoming shores. When are we going to wake up? I ask myself then. When are people going to start realising that sustainability isn’t just a fancy buzzword, but quite literally about whether we can create a civilization that isn’t doomed to collapse at some point in the near or distant future?
It seems like we are all locked in a room slowly filling up with water. Sometime soon there will be no air left to breathe. The tap is wide open, and though it is a big and powerful tap, together we might just be able to close it. But instead of us coming together in an effort to turn it shut, we sit around waiting for somebody else to stand up and try. And while we are sitting there, waiting for someone else to take the lead, we have started plotting who first to push under water.
You probably get the gist of where my pessimist side was taking me by now. Looking around myself at other young and progressive people in the Western Hemisphere, I have seen a lot of this anger and disillusionment over the course of the last year. I saw young Brits coming to terms with the Brexit disaster, and I saw young Americans paralysed in disbelief after last November. In the coming year many other Europeans may have to deal with an election hangover. In a way it can be dangerous to get emotionally involved with campaigns centred around hope and the promise of ‘real change’. What if change does not win the elections? What if after months of chanting “yes we can” we suddenly come to realize that maybe we can’t?
But we can’t sit back. As grim as things may sometimes look, and as inviting the idea of just hiding underneath your pillows never to reappear. The world is here. We are here. The powers that currently push our world to where they like to see it – an oligarchy that leaves no power to the common people, bitterly divided under their rule – are much greater than you or me. And they will continue to be just that. But of course this doesn’t mean we should all just give up and lie down.
So if in the future you find yourself in a similar situation, wondering whether there is anything left to fight for, give your pessimism a place. Acknowledge the fact that no victory will ever be easily won, and then continue fighting! Don’t give up. Fighting is not something you should get involved in because you think you will win, but something that you should commit to because you truly believe in what you stand for. In light of recent developments, the battle cry “yes we can!” may seem hollow and outdated. And no, maybe we don’t get to shape the world to exactly how we want it to look like. But that doesn’t make the threats we are facing any less real or threatening. And we need to keep believing that we can at least make a difference, however small. Not because we can, but because we have to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lukas van Diermen is from the Netherlands. He holds a BA in Linguistics and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. He studied in the Netherlands and in Portugal and did research in Brazil. He currently lives in Brussels.