As we near the end of our Intro Environmental Studies course at Lewis & Clark, I am again struck by the number of times throughout the semester my students have written about hope—typically because their sense of hopefulness has been challenged. What I offer here came to me today by way of a student in this course (thanks, Ivy!), who forwarded a brief essay that poses a novel solution…more on that below.
First let us, for a moment, count the many ways this course has legitimately challenged their hopefulness:
- We started with a text called Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Hulme 2009), which—coupled with on-the-street surveys students performed—suggested that there really are many legitimate different points of view, perhaps not so much about the science of climate change as the all-important question of what to do about it.
- We then read Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization (Smil 2014), which among other fact-filled points made the demoralizing argument that our global consumption of stuff is not going to slow down any time soon, and that (see Jevons Paradox) even if we improve efficiency in production/consumption of stuff this may likely increase, not decrease, overall use.
- Then we did a series of readings on classic and contemporary environmentalism, and here a glimmer of hope appeared as students saw contemporary environmental thinkers (e.g., Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011) actually express a positive sense of the future—but not a future our students felt especially comfortable with, given their embrace of the Anthropocene, of an Earth now in many ways the handiwork of humans (see Proctor 2013).
- Finally, we read Who Rules the Earth? (Steinberg 2015), a book meant to inspire readers to take institutional-scale action, and to instill hope that this will make a difference. And, judging from my students’ posts, it worked!…but many of us had the feeling that the author painted a particularly rosy picture of one’s ability to effect institutional-scale change.
What should we environmental studies faculty do? Should we soft-pedal reality? Should we offer an inspiring story of hope at the end of each class session, say, from Blessed Unrest (2007)? (A preach-to-the-choir book if there ever was one.)
No, in my estimate the problem is how fragile their hope is. I’ve witnessed time and again, for instance, how the slightest sense that individual-scale action may not accomplish much proves to be a shattering experience. This fragile hope is forever in danger of plunging into hopelessness: no wonder my grade-conscious students grit their teeth and do the readings, yet privately admit to me that their souls are suffocating, while others simply avoid or contest the readings so as to keep hold of their (fragile) hope. This is no way to get through environmental studies…and no way to face the world.
The essay my student sent me is titled “To a Future Without Hope” (Nelson 2011). The author writes (p. 459):
What really worries me—terrifies me, truth be told—is the use of hope as a motivator for healing our wounded and warped relationship with the natural world. I worry that hope will actually stifle, not aid, our resolve. I worry that hope can be, and often is, a distraction, an excuse for not getting on with the work at hand.
Nelson’s philosophical argument is similar to one I recently invoked to suggest that one can do things not just because they supposedly achieve a desired end (consequentialism), but also because they are the right or virtuous thing to do. Hope demands at least some faith in achieving desired consequences, no? Well, that is only one justification moral philosophers have provided us for getting out of bed and doing things.
Perhaps the inspiration we environmental studies faculty offer our students shouldn’t aim to feed their fragile hope—which forestalls only for another moment their plunge into hopelessness. Perhaps we can suggest that no-hope is an alternative—not no-hope as in hopelessness, but a bit like [pop Zen alert] no-mind, sort of letting go of the need for hope.
Perhaps we can offer examples of how in our own lives we have remained steadfast in the face of arguably hopeless situations. My own example may be Alder Creek Community Forest, the K-12 educational nonprofit I helped found in the early 2000s on my land in southern Oregon, only to plunge rather quickly into local political turmoil, mirroring what was going on across the country. Things were hopeless—few political leaders trusted us at the time, and opportunities for funding dried up. Somehow we persisted, and slowly regained their trust. Just a few years ago a miracle happened: funding appeared (our bank balance was a whopping $8 at the time, as I recall), and the wind is now behind our sails—but it may not last forever. I cannot hope for that. But I know that we will keep trying to do the right thing in Douglas County, no matter which way the wind blows.
Nelson ends his essay with the following (p. 462):
Each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.
Perhaps that is the no-hope message we can offer our students: you still have the power to choose. You can choose to live, which means in part to give, no matter what the consequences.
[Featured image credits: Darren Tunnicliff 2009]
- Hawken, Paul. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Viking.
- Hulme, Mike. 2009. Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Nelson, Michael. 2011. “To a Future without Hope.” In Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Moore and Michael Nelson, 458–62. Trinity University Press.
Proctor, James D. 2013. “Saving Nature in the Anthropocene.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 83–92. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0108-1.
- Shellenberger, Michael, and Ted Nordhaus, eds. 2011. Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. Oakland, CA: Breakthrough Institute. http://www.amazon.com/Love-YourMonsters-Postenvironmentalism-ebook/dp/B006FKUJY6.
- Smil, Vaclav. 2014. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization. Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley.
- Steinberg, Paul F. 2015. Who Rules the Earth?: How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.