“In the face of daunting environmental problems and troubling trends in U.S. federal policy, what gives you drive, motivation, and hope, to continue the work?”
This question, recently asked of environmental studies faculty in an on-line forum by Professor Amy Knisley at Warren Wilson College, resonates with many of us. Here is my response.
I grew up on stories of the holocaust. So, I have always understood that, depending on where and when I happened to be born, I might or might not be hauled out of bed some night at gun point and sent by rail car off with my family to a gas chamber. This is always a possibility.
I also attended one of the first integrated first-grade classes in my little southern town. At the age of six, with an African American teacher and classmates, I was happily unaware that my class-room, two years earlier, was legally white-only.
Humans are animals that have evolved with tremendous capacity for good and evil. There are 7.5 billion of us now, soon to be 10 billion, all aspiring to western living standards, while a tiny elite controls the majority of wealth. Lacking wise governance, we are transforming the planet in ways that will make it hard to sustain that many people, not to mention the ecological systems on which they depend.
That said, in the long run, nature is remarkably resilient. The same is true of human society, if not individual civilizations. And of course, over the very long run, even species diversity will recover. My guess is that 200 or 400 or 600 years from now, there will be fewer humans around, and that natural systems will have the space to recover. How we get to a smaller population matters a lot: we can work towards economic security leading to smaller families— the Japanese or Italian examples. Sustainability means transitioning to a future that is as just and peaceful and respectful of other creatures as we can make it.
For many people, this is the most extraordinary time to ever be alive as a human. More people have more agency to affect the future then ever before. There is much good work to do, many opportunities, and unprecedented tools with which to be creative in the service of a finer future. In western countries, very few of us face dogs or firehoses, torture, prison blacklisting or beatings for doing the work. Given this, existential angst about ultimate dystopic futures seems to me misplaced. Too many people already live in dystopia today, and do not have the agency and opportunity the rest of us have to make things better for people and the planet.
The question of “hope” writ large also seems to me to be misplaced. There will always be people doing terrible things, and there will always be people doing very good things. Whether the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice or chaos depends only on whether enough people work for the good. None of us will ever know the outcome, though each of us can affect the balance.