Opinion: Defeatism on the Left

As progressive goals seem to draw further away, we must hold on to the values these ideals stem from.


"Protest at the US Capitol, Anti-War" by wyntuition is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The American left must stay true to its ethics, even when fighting what appear to be losing battles.

Aris Pastor, Co-Editor-in-Chief

As climate politics have developed over the past few years, amid the denialist voices, between those that claim that global warming is a part of the earth’s natural ebb and flow, new claims have come about—specifically, regarding what scientists are now calling climate “doomers.” Rather than refuting scientifically backed claims that climate change is a real and dangerous threat, these “doomers” have taken to a new rhetorical line, claiming that it is far too late for activist or legislative change to have an impact.

In 2022, Zeke Hausfather, a contributing author to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and climate research lead at the payments company Stripe, said, “It’s fair to say that recently many of us climate scientists have spent more time arguing with the doomers than with the deniers.”

This is not a new phenomenon to many climate scientists. In 2018, Jacquelyn Gill, a climate scientist at the University of Maine, stated that the questions she was being asked shifted to the more apocalyptic. Gill said, “I started getting emails from people saying: ‘I’m a young person. Is there even a point in going to college? Will I ever be able to grow up and have kids?’”

These questions are not unfounded, either. As the years have gone by, the temperature of the globe has only increased, and it has become clearer throughout the past few years that individual activism can only do so much. Climate change is a global issue, primarily created and exacerbated by large companies. Even in 2017, the Carbon Majors Report, in conjunction with Climate Accountability Institute, found that 100 corporations were responsible for 70% of all carbon emissions on a global scale.

Doomism, too, can be found in a variety of leftist projects. From climate defeatism to a refusal to vote, many of those on the left have attempted to divulge themselves from the system by refusing to participate in it. Again, this is not a naive line of thinking. As Roe v. Wade’s overturning has cemented the slow death of abortion rights in America, and as the Voting Rights Act has been gutted from one SCOTUS case to the next, the threats to the American left are systemic, powerful, and difficult to combat in a truly helpful way. These concerns are real, and it would be naive to argue otherwise.

However, defeatist attitudes are a shot in the foot for progressive causes. In claiming that leftist fights are ones already lost, there is a loss of engagement, as well as a certain paralysis that comes with that belief. If these are fights already lost, then what reason is there to join protests, or perhaps even to vote?

Are leftists and liberals willing to give up their values just because they do not have the winning hand?

The answer, while unsatisfying, has remained true for years of political change. While incremental, and undoubtedly made in half-measures, these small amounts of progress in litigation are measures nevertheless. They still form the basis of hope, at least, in shifting our democracy forward, however minor change may be.

“What is so pernicious about [doomism] is that it seeks to weaponize environmental progressives who would otherwise be on the frontline demanding change,” climatologist Michael E. Mann told The Guardian in 2021. “These are folk of good intentions and good will, but they become disillusioned or depressed and they fall into despair.”

The leftist project, in many ways, depends on hope, on an optimism for the future, however small that may be. It would be more than a little naive for me to say that optimism is all that is required for change to happen, but progressives certainly will not bring any kind of revolution by telling themselves that the battle they’re fighting is a lost one.

The nurture of defeatism in leftist circles also creates an ethical question, one that lives beyond the circles of any political change. Are leftists and liberals willing to give up their values just because they do not have the winning hand?

An ideology that only creates active engagement in the case of a secured victory is a fundamentally faulty one. Both a group’s and a person’s ethical center and values should not depend on the whims of the government, and they should not be built on how likely it is that the next president will be blue.

As Jonathan Franzen of The New Yorker wrote, “Although the actions of one individual have zero effect on the climate, this doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless. Each of us has an ethical choice to make.”



Editors’ note: All opinions expressed on The Uproar are a reflection solely of the beliefs of the bylined author and not the journalism program at NASH.  We continue to welcome school-appropriate comments and guest articles.