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Is There Hope in Hopelessness?

trex"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free." Nikos Kazantzakis on his tomb in Heraklion.

I have been dealing with some degree of success and some failures with the concept of hope for the past ten years now. What is hope? How does it serve us? And how does it disempower us? Is the loss of hope always tragic?

“A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. . . I do not hope Coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct.” Derrick Jenson

A little while ago a friend suggested only half in jest, after reading one of my political essays berating Obama for being all talk and no action on the subject of energy policy and environment, that I was undergoing Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ second stage of grieving. The more I thought about it the more I began to see the truth of what he said. If one can grieve for personal death why not for the ultimate demise of our living planet? To refresh, Kubler-Ross’ five stages are: 1. Denial, 2 Anger, 3 Bargaining, 4 Depression 5 Acceptance.  My reading on the topic of endtimes is not as extensive as others, but to my knowledge, no one has applied these five principles to the issues surrounding people’s reactions to the impending social and environmental apocalypse.

Each of these five stages must be experienced fully and cannot be skipped. Those at the more advanced stages of grief must be patient with folks who have not yet passed their own early dealings with our global crisis. It is of course necessary to keep the information, the scientific estimates and conclusions out there so people have an informed ladder of facts and projections upon which they may climb their way from one stage of grief to another. It cannot be stressed enough the irreparable harm done to public awareness by all the disinformation distributed by our government, big energy and advertising agencies. It is also important that a person carefully watch his own reactions to events and relations to others in order to know when he has moved from one stage to another. Reason and rational analysis alone are not always a reliable guide in achieving a full understanding. We need heart as well as head in our progress. For example, after I finished following the latest climate conference, I found myself strangely absent the expected rage I normally would have felt after witnessing the inability of nations to respond in any constructive way to what was most certainly our last real chance to impact mankind’s ruination of itself and the environment. I realized I had finally crossed the threshold from Anger to Bargaining.

Those in Denial are not just those who actively oppose the scientific consensus concerning Global Warming. I would classify those who choose not to think of it at all. These are probably among the majority and include probably of the majority of Liberals as well. They may even superficially admit the facts—they are after all undeniable, yet their actions indicate either that they don’t really understand the immediacy of the crisis or more likely that they would rather not think of the whole thing. These are the people I most upset with my gloom and doom predictions. They cannot deny the validity of my arguments; they would just rather not think about the argument at all. They would also not want to face the inevitable move from Denial to Anger that would be necessitated by a true emotional acceptance of the facts. I have been in stage two for a number of years now and it is not a very pleasant space to occupy.

The operative word in KR’s third stage of grief is hope. When the Grim Reaper is on your threshold and his presence can no longer be denied or raged away, one quickly moves to Bargaining. It is perhaps the most pathetic of the five stages, because it would attempt to deny the reality already demonstrated. In spite of its absurdity, in face of the now certain global crisis it is the stage where many who already admit we are fucked start pulling magic rabbits out of their hats.

Many believe the technology or even the very political process that has substantially created the crisis will somehow someway be able to save us. Others, more desperate, say that such an intelligent species as Homo Sapiens will realize the crisis in the nick of time and avert it like the cavalry riding to the rescue in a movie. These technologists are perhaps most to be pitied because sooner or later they mush come to face the fact that even if there was a technological salvation to be had, it is not politically possible to arrive at it given that we are in the grips of an economics of death that will not be completed until the very earth itself is “consumed.” Many of my New Age friends believe in an even more fantastical Bargain in which The Better Angels of Our Nature will save us through some magical spiritual apotheosis. I must also not leave out those conscientious people who have adopted alternate lifestyles in an attempt to ameliorate our impact on the earth.

These range from the recyclers, the Volt drivers, the energy efficient bulb screwers, etc to those few who have moved off the grid entirely. Now there is nothing wrong with all this if it is motivated in the spirit of right-action and a strategy for living out the last days in as realistically sustainable a way as possible. If these people think their actions will change the outcome or move us one generation farther from extinction, they are Bargaining. These Bargaining strategies are all based upon hope—something Derrick Jenson defines as “a desired outcome in a situation over which we have no agency.” Rationally I have given up hope. And yet I am not sure I have gone beyond it emotionally. I will know I have crossed that threshold when the word “hope” is no longer a part of my conscious or unconscious vocabulary. I have still two more stages to arrive at before I will consider myself fully arrived at a full citizenship in the last few generations of human life on the planet.

Perhaps the most difficult stage is Depression. From childhood we have been conditioned to respond to reward. Few have been able to maintain motivation where there is absolutely no chance of a positive outcome. This manifests itself dramatically in therapists' and teachers’ burnout. Many environmental activists experience similar burnout attempting to resist and change bad environmental policies, retard the advance of agribusiness, and a host of other “hopeless” causes.

I think there are powerful antidotes to Depression. One is existentialism. Although this truly modern philosophy finds many precedents in writers and thinkers of the 19th and early 20th Century, existentialism was truly forged in the fires of the Second World War and the material and spiritual devastation wrought by Fascism, the Holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Especially the French resisters like Camus, Sartre and Samuel Beckett who faced the unstoppable juggernaught of Nazi occupation embraced fully the impossibility of hope and the seeming certainty of personal and national destruction. Far from leading them to despair and impotence, they forged ahead with acts of murder, sabotage, and resistance “in virtue of the absurd.” Of course Freud’s full flowering of the idea of Thanatos would have not happened without WWII.

The second antidote to Despair comes from Buddhism. I am not referring merely to the concept of the “real world” as illusion, but the concept of right action. Right action flows from conduct performed consistent with one’s moral and ethical standards, ones compassion for all sentient beings (and here’s the clincher) regardless of outcome. Of course one always seeks to avoid obvious bad outcomes that may arise from acts performed from noble or idealistic motives. Nevertheless we should find satisfaction solely in the act itself and in the present moment of the action. This includes art and technology.

So knowing all this, would you think it incongruous if I were to tell you that I cannot imagine myself happier to be alive than I am at the present moment. I do not believe in Christian teleology, neither do I fully understand Terrance McKenna’s idea of the end of history. There is a heady euphoria that comes from realizing that the end of human history is at hand. By the end of the 21st Century there will probably be no higher mammals left on the planet and perhaps no life forms beyond deep buried viruses. I have never been very sanguine about humanity’s inherent goodness or the illusion of human progress. When surveying all the feasting and fasting of the ages, I have come to see that every event in the progress of “The Ascent of Man” (at least civilized man) be it the music of Mozart or the Hadron Collider has been bought at the price of intolerable human suffering and exploitation. I have come to see this brief sojourn into agriculture and the resultant civilization as inherently evil. This evil might still have been tolerated had it not been for the discovery of compressed sunlight stored in the form of carbon. This has allowed this micro-blip called the industrial revolution, driven by Homo Sapiens’ insatiable predisposition toward expansion to finally seal the fate of the only life sustaining place in the known universe. Without the largess coal, oil, gas and other hydrocarbons and the energy sources’ ability to expand the carrying capacity of his home, mankind just might not have destroyed the planet completely, prior to his inevitable extinction.

After telling you all this I suppose it is a real hypocrisy to say that the only hope that still survives in my human breast is that somehow some miracle will allow us to destroy ourselves before we doom the planet. This too may be a completely false hope because we probably have now started the inevitable effects of runaway greenhouse consequences that will allow us to boil lead in the shade in 2150 if not before. I “hope” life will not have to face the runaway green house effect. And I “hope” human civilization will come to an end as soon as possible. Obviously these hopes are concerns for outcomes over which we have absolutely no agency whatsoever.

I will (hopefully) die before experiencing the worst the coming end will present to the next two generations. At 75 years of age I can expect to undergo the KR paradigm soon on a personal level. I fully expect to die with life’s deepest questions unanswered. There is satisfaction to know I have tried to use my mind to address the questions and wonder at the beauty and magnitude not only of these questions but also at this unique mammalian brain that seemingly was designed (evolved?) to actually do that questioning. Why evolution developed this most amazingly complex piece of anatomy only to let it self-destruct is no more understood than why it created the luscious colored patterns on the tyrannosaurs Rex’s leathery hide. Was it all only natural selection?

You may get the impression that I am unconcerned with the spiritual dimension in this whole discussion. I do not believe in a personal god or the survival of the ego beyond death, I do believe in the inherent non-rational aspect of human compassion, for myself, and my fellow life forms. This does not mean I will ever lose or try to lose my holding to the essential beauty and tragedy of life itself.


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