Toward Meaning: Hope and Despair (Part I)

This is part I in a series of posts that come from thinking on how we often use the word “we.” In particular, it came from many readings of Derrick Jensen’s essay “Beyond Hope” in Orion Magazine and wondering, “Who are we? How do we find meaning?”

I. Hope and Despair

In early 2014 climate change deniers caterwauled for weeks. A deep southerly trough of the lagging jet stream polar vortex moved across the eastern United States causing a cold snap. This regional cold weather met up with news about a ship trapped in Antarctic sea ice (some of the ship’s passengers were scientists studying climate change) and drove conservatives and climate change deniers to further heights of denial. It prompted typically off-the-cuff comments from Donald Trump.
And this past winter saw about the same thing—the U.S. northeast had its coldest winter in quite some time. In parts, we had the coldest February since we started keeping thermometer records. The Senate’s long-standing climate-change-is-a-hoax peddler James Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor as if to prove that winter disproves climate disruption.

Meanwhile, there was no snow for the Iditerod and the rains haven’t been touching California. El Nino has hit and the California drought has only intensified.

Everything about the climate is becoming odd which means the odd has become normal. But not for long. The volume knob is going up on the climate amplifier and we have definitely kicked on the distortion pedal. If the climate is a concert, it used to be a Beatles show but it’s more like a Black Sabbath show. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into the Slayer Reign in Blood tour. And yet there are people whose ideologies and worldviews make them take a hear-no-evil approach. It’s pretty depressing.

A few years ago, the notably despondent author Derrick Jensen wrote that environmentalists everywhere are all saying the same thing: “We’re fucked.” It’s almost impossible to miss the dire sense in the environmental and sustainability communities. As Tom Princen says in Treading Softly, there are so many reports out there explaining in broad strokes and stippled detail how fast things are sliding. Lions, elephants, gorillas, rhinos, fin and bowhead whales and most large mammal populations are cut into with each passing day. Soils saturated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides flow into the seas at a pace you’d think we were trying to export our land base to the gulfs on purpose. Blooms of jellyfish in oceans across the world and exploding populations of pests from bark beetles in the American mountains to black-legged ticks in the American northeast will continue to grow as we change the chemical composition of the oceans and atmosphere, and therefore the biosphere. We are included in that.

We are certainly making the world a harder place to live in for more of us. Making it harder means we are expending more energy to cope with the problems we choose to cope with. And all that energy creates waste that results in places where people live on or near toxic mines, chemical plants, or landfills. And all of us to one degree (no pun intended) or another are forced to adapt to the changing climate. The climate a lot of folks would say we’ve fucked up. But are we fucked?

Some people I know would say there is much hope in resisting the foolish growth that seems inevitable. Through purposeful collaboration, in doing what we can, knowing we can’t control much, we can and are doing things for hope. We must do the things together that we know to be good. Not perfect. Good. From that good work together meaning grows like a sycamore by a stream bank.

Some of this comes from resistance. My friends Toni, Nick, Leah, and Krsytn have protested with their bodies at the White House, arrested to slow or stop the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline. They are joined by people of many colors and creeds and cultures from Texas to Alberta and marchers in Washington, DC (me among them) and New York. Others have obstructed the hydro-fracking gas rush into the Marcellus Shale. Friends and acquaintances have walked through town after town in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to bring justice to Appalachia’s coalfields. I helped organize my home town’s passage of a community and environmental bill of rights.

Some of it comes from embracing. We now have a half dozen farmer’s markets here where there was just one a few years ago. Despite all of its problems as a corporate pro-growth entity, the administration of Penn State (I work there) has invested nearly $1 million into living labs for sustainability, some of which give me hope. I see local re-skilling workshops and riparian buffer planting, people tending the trails where they can ride near deer, bear, kestrel, and rattlesnake.

And yet, when I look at these small gains in which I find meaning, I can’t help but despair.

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