Where is the hope?
I’m not sure we can win with logic.
How do we reverse species loss, climate change, toxins, general overshoot of Earth’s generous habitats? We have the science, but humanity at the large scale does not appear to have the political will. We live in a pre-ecological political world, and public discourse seems corrupted by the mad clinging to those pre-ecological models of development and economics.
The ecology headlines this year feel disturbing — 2/3 of mammals doomed; drought in Kenya, Mozambique, US, Sri Lanka; dry rivers and water wars; Zika virus spray killing bee colonies; methane releases higher than predicted; meteorologists forced to rewrite climate predictions, for the worse; Great Barrier Reef collapsing; and American soldiers serving as a security force for oil pipeline at Standing Rock, arresting indigenous grandmothers and journalists.
Over the decades, we’ve been able to report some good news: Rivers cleaned up (partially), ozone recovering (slowly, with some side effects), a whale sanctuary (sort of), a dumping ban (that gets ignored); and today: tiger populations increasing in Asia; a mangrove saved in Madagascar; salmon returning to Elwha River in the US, after dams removed; and new agriculture regulations in Brazil that may preserve portions of Mato Grosso forest.
Meanwhile, we lose millions of hectares of forest every year, species loss accelerates, and toxins accumulate.
I’m an upbeat person. I’m willing to push, and push again, against the impossible, and still keep a sense of humour, most of the time. Even so, sometimes I contemplate: Where is the Hope?
In geopolitical politics? I have my doubts. The global political process appears too corrupted, too distracted, too pre-ecological, too superficial, and too slow to actually address and solve our deeper ecological dilemma.
In climate conferences? After 30 years of climate conferences, we have the Paris agreement that does not mention fossil fuels or the need to leave them in the ground. The deal does not bind any nation to emission pledges, and - in any case- those pledges no longer appear sufficient to hold temperature increases below 3°C. When we add accelerating methane releases … well, one could be excused for feeling despair. This is where I begin to doubt we’ll win with logic. So, where is the hope?
The long emergency
History shows that transforming social structures can be painfully slow. The work helps one practice patience, which may be a good place to start finding hope. In patience. In staying calm, in feeling the world slowly and carefully.
We may also take comfort in the historical record, that society can change. When actual change occurs, when institutions transform, it can feel rapid, but the great campaigns for racial, religious, or gender equality, have required generations, and still remain unresolved around the world. Nevertheless, we know: Society can change.
We feel a ticking clock with our ecological dilemma, and this too can invoke despair. We hear that we only have 5 years, or, we only have a decade, or we have to change before 2050, or by tomorrow. And yet, nature works over millions of years, millions of generations, shrugs off disasters, and ultimately finds a new homeostasis.
I don’t look for hope in the belief that humanity will solve our ecological crises in my lifetime, or even in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes. Nature is long. Stock plays and pipelines are short.
The wealthy world lives a lifestyle enabled by a massive energy and materials flow to them, dependent upon colonization, exploitation, resource extraction, a trail of toxins, and a political landscape of warlords and tin-pot dictators, overseen by imperialists giants. Globalized, neoliberal capitalism is dead. We are not going to grow ourselves out of this with market forces, invisible hands, and slicker machines. Nature’s rent has come due. Like wolves, who overshoot the food supply in their watershed, our grandeur does not save us.
The logic tells us this, the science and data tell us, our most rigorous researchers keep telling us, and even a few global institutions are beginning to acknowledge the ecological evidence, while mainstream public discourse drowns science and logic in a flood of pettiness and self-promotion.
Somehow, unpretentious human communities may, once again, have to do all the heavy lifting themselves, locally, with the talents they process and whatever resources they can protect. I find hope in simple people, living by simple means, working together, and restoring their habitats.
James Kunstler gives us the term “long emergency” to help grasp the timespan in which both ecological an social change actually occur.
Waking up in the wild world
I find hope in artists, who shake up the mainstream culture. Artists play an essential role in social transformation, giving voice to the the deeper feelings – Rouget de Lisle’s La Marseillaise among French revolutionaries, Marcus Garvey and the international Pan-African civil rights movement, Franca Rame in the anti-facist movement in Italy, El General’s O Leader! inspiring a democracy movement in Tunisian, or the Yes Men staging mock-corporate street theatre. Much loved Canadian poet Leonard Cohen passed away recently. His song from 1988, “Everybody Knows” warned us:
"Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied”
The artists don’t have to explain things. They seize the opportunity and cut to the heart of events directly.
Rachel Carson worked as a scientist, but her great gifts to humanity came through her powers of language and storytelling. In 1965, she wrote in The Sense of Wonder ”A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” She spoke, of course, about the wild world, including the wildness inside ourselves that reminds us we are natural beings, related to all others, to the “four-legged, winged, and finned,” as our indigenous relatives remind us.
“It is a wholesome and necessary thing,” Carson wrote, “for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”
Primarily, this is where I look for hope. I find hope in the wildness that is left in the world, and the wildness left in the human heart. The untamed instincts of of life and love. I find hope in the endless dance of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria, even in the workings of life, hydrogen bonds, nutrients, minerals, sugars, and proteins, in sunlight transformed into life. I find hope in the magic of this and in the creativity of natural evolution.
The hope one might find in the natural world is long, not the transient hope of an easy life or a political victory. It is the hope of a long miracle that outlives individuals, societies, and even species and habitats.
In the human realm, I find little hope with big institutions, governments, corporations, global economics, or conferences. I don’t find much hope in the idea that humankind will “manage” the ecosystem. That feels like short-sighted hubris “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance,” Rachel Carson reminded us fifty years ago, “born of the Neanderthal age of biology.”
Our job, I believe is to manage ourselves, our own appetites, fears, and insecurities. Most of this cannot be organized on a global scale. An enduring humanity will likely move past the arrogance of globalized management and return to social structures built around place and community, around modesty and common decency.
I believe we need to localize, re-commit to, restore, and protect the ecosystems in which we live. The scattered peoples, who have lost connection to the Earth, will, once again, become indigenous eventually. I find hope in communities that have committed to a landscape, and care for it, in outcasts and simple people, disenfranchised, yet persevering and courageous.
“He took satisfaction in the feeling of his own littleness,” Yasunari Kawabata wrote in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. “He even sympathized with the thought that the human species, together with the various kinds of minerals and plants, was no more than a small pillar that helped support a single vast organism adrift in the cosmos — and with the thought that it was no more precious than the other animals and plants.”
I take hope in that sort of modesty, in people who can do the work without calling attention to themselves, or angling for personal benefits.
I notice that many young couples wait to have children, have fewer children, or adopt the homeless. These are sane responses to human sprawl, and they give me hope.
Farmer-writer Wendell Berry wrote years ago in Leavings, “Hope must not depend on feeling good;” and he suggests one looks for hope “on the ground under your feet.”
When I feel despair, I go back to this ground. I feel fortunate to live in a region that still supports some wildness. I walked in the woods last week with an adult friend and some school children from our neighbourhood. We wandered down to a small waterfall that empties into the Salish Sea that reaches beyond to the wide Pacific Ocean. There along the shoreline lay hundreds of Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), who had spawned and perished. Eagles had gathered in the trees to feed. Other, still living salmon worked their way, exhausted, against the current. I watched one fish, facing the current, struggling, beating her tired fins, advancing by a few centimeters over many minutes. This vision serves as my model. Pushing, never giving up, for life.
As great Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Again and again some people in the crowd wake up. They have no ground in the crowd and they emerge according to much broader laws. They carry strange customs with them and demand room for bold gestures. The future speaks ruthlessly through them.”
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
Pre-ecological politics: Kurt Cobb, Resilience
Pace of Ozone recovery: Science Daily
Zika virus spray killing bee colonies: The Guardian
Lisa Gibbons art: lisagibbonsart.com