Hope More, Not Less

As I noted at the beginning of this discussion of Crow Planet, it seems impossible to talk seriously about the environment without depressing your reader, knowing full well that the only hope for the environment is to inspire others to help save it, not to resign themselves to defeat. Haupt is too good of an environmentalist not to see the seriousness of the problem:

I look once more at the new climate change predictions that grace the paper. My winged reveries among the morning crows suddenly strike me as both frivolous and irrelevant. It is all just too overwhelming. I try to imagine what hope would look like in such a scenario, hope that bears any semblance of intelligence. There isn’t any, I decide. There is no sensible hope. Despondently (and a little more painfully than intended) I plunk my head down on the breakfast table, just as Claire bounds down the stairs, resplendent in ballerina pajamas and pink-flushed morning face. “Mommy,” she deadpans, “your hair is in the milk.”

I don’t think it’s coincidental that she ends this short meditation by humorously reintroducing her daughter into the narrative. Despite claims from Conservatives that environmentalists are more concerned about birds and animals than about people, most environmentalists I know are most concerned about future generations. Nature in the end will right itself, even if that means destroying those that cause the imbalance. Anyone who believes that humans can survive no matter what damage they inflict on the Earth are simply deluding themselves.

She also knows how difficult it is to avoid becoming cynical in the face of what seem insurmountable odds:

Certainly it is difficult not to be cynical. Despite Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio airlifted to the Arctic in shiny new winter boots on the cover of Vanity Fair and footage of drowning polar bears on Oprah, the pace of our ecological destruction has never been so quick, so forceful, so unabashed. There have never been so many species threatened with extinction. We have the voices of science, poetry, literature, celebrity, we have the beauty of the earth itself, and what do we come up with as a model of ecological living? Two-hundred-dollar recycled designer jeans and a hybrid Lexus — a more efficient conquering of the earth. It was 1949 when Aldo Leopold Wrote, “In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” He had no idea.

How, then, does one avoid becoming cynical and stand up to environmental destruction? Perhaps it’s not accidental that Haupt finds her final answer in a monastery:

“Listenl” it rigorously begins. And how? With “the ear of the heart.” Here Benedict sets himself apart from the intellectual Platonic tradition, grounding his work in the experiential-heart is a word that comes up often. “The question is,” he writes, “Will we fulfill the duties of an inhabitant?” This, I realize, is my question. Now, more than ever, I think of Benedict’s unsparing exhortation in relation to the problem that has grounded my up-and-down year of learning, study, Watching, and on-and-off mental shakiness: how to live. And not just as a decent human, but as an inhabitant-an elegant and perfect word-an inhabitant of an earthly community that has never been more troubled. Benedict’s answer is beautiful: we run toward our ‘great work,” and not in fear, but joyfully. I do not think this means we will not despair. The honesty of our despair may preclude blind hope, but it need not preclude joy or action based in love.

For better or worse, I have had much more training in the Platonic/Aristotelian traditions than in any religious tradition. The only “religion” I’ve seriously studied is poetry. For most of my life, Transcendentalism is as close as I’ve come to a religion. Unfortunately, facts and sheer logic suggest that the environmental damage I’ve observed in the Puget Sound area during my lifetime will continue until the problem becomes unbearable.

In the end, though, like Haupt I trust my heart more than I do my mind; faith not reason drives my efforts to save the environment:

And besides, blind hope is not the only sort. In the monastery library, I find this definition: hope is “that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future.” Not just responsibility for our individual futures but also for that of the world. Hope gives our duties a “special urgency.” Hope is a virtue, a term that can sometimes sound primly moralistic, but the definition I find is just as expansive as the one for hope: virtue is the power to realize good, to do it “joyfully [yes, joy again] and with perseverance in spite of obstacles.”

In this light, hope is our positive orientation toward the future, a future in which we simultaneously recognize difficulty, responsibility, and delight. Hope is not relative to the present situation, nor is it dependent upon a specific outcome. lt has everything to do with the renewal of the earth, whatever shape that will take. Hope is not an antidote to despair, or a sidestepping of difficulty, but a companion to all of these things.

I’ll have to admit most of the time I feel resigned, rather than delighted, to be doing everything I can do to help preserve the environment. If I didn’t think it was possible to improve the situation, though, I wouldn’t be wasting what time I have left worrying about the environment, and I certainly wouldn’t be sending money to the many environmental organizations that besiege me with requests for money.

While I think environmental groups and the media, particularly PBS, have played a part in my concern for the environment, I really identify with Haupt when she describes her connection with nature:

….I do think we can develop a positive sense of our interconnection with life. Aldo Leopold spoke of “ecological perception,” the confluence of knowledge and sense of connection with nature that would allow positive change. This is why the attentive inhabiting of our home place matters so immensely. As we become increasingly aware that our actions are always entwined with the creatures and rhythms that constitute the natural world, we begin to cultivate that outward sensibility, from our homes to the farthest-flung secret wilds and back again. This is a mystical awareness, in part, pressing the boundaries of our material skins. It comes naturally to some and is work for others. In all cases, it is a perception that can be nurtured and cultivated.

John and I were talking about this during our recent walk at welfare, and I realized that my connection with Puget Sound stems in large part from my early fishing trips with my family and from exploring the wetlands near by Rainer Valley home in Seattle. My early fascination with dragonflies has never vanished.

I doubt that I would have been able to articulate this, though, until much later when I read Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Unless, of course, I’d read Crow Planet before them.