On the Matter of Hope
The question now peers out of every weather chart, UN climate report, and grim projection: is there hope? Though nebulous, it feels essential to us right now. Yet it’s getting harder and harder to find. Indeed, if you look with utter sobriety at the numbers, it’s hard not to arrive at zero in the hope column.
But is a hope really a quantity that you can have or not have? We seem to treat it as such. It has long been the practice when writing about climate or extinction to give the reader hope at the end, like it were a token they could place in a turn-style, on the other side of which, presumably, would be the will to act.
I’m not sure what kind of hope that is, or if it’s really the kind we need right now. And we do need something like hope, something to give us the sense our efforts will be rewarded, that all is not lost. It’s not surprising that at one of the early meetings of our local Extinction Rebellion chapter, the thing we all talked about when introducing ourselves was our personal wrestling matches with hopelessness. All of us pretty much admitted to having lost hope, yet there we were.
In the end we agreed it doesn’t really matter what quantities of hope supposedly exist or don’t exist in the world. We each have to decide for ourselves whether or not to fight for what we love. We were there because we had already answered that question. It wasn’t hope but something else that brought us, something less definable but apparently more necessary. What should we call it?
I don’t know, but it gave me hope.
I am standing on a high prairie, invigorated by a cold northern wind. Grasses, toughened by that wind, stretch gleaming around me, and I am thinking about hope, and its antipode: hopelessness. I have brought this question in my head onto this prairie, but it’s an argument that feels out of place here, which bristles and rushes with an intensity far fiercer than hope. Here, nothing seeks reassurance of its success, or hinges its commitment on a glimmer of anything. Here it is all in all the time. It has the effect, as wild places often do, of making me want to shout.
Amongst the lichen-mapped stones, snow has melted into a patchwork of pools, clear as liquid air. I look into them, “Do you have hope?” But they don’t seem to understand the question. The word hope, apparently, is not in their vocabulary. I look at the distant mountains and ask “is it hopeless?” but the wind tears the words out my mouth and blows them into nothing as I speak them.
I don’t think the earth, or any of its myriad creatures and beings, have hope as we tend to think of it. They don’t anticipate outcomes. They strive, no matter what. Maybe it’s that constancy of commitment that makes them seem so full of hope.
We’re different. We worry over the future, constantly gauging our odds both large and small, collectively and individually. It’s a habit of the human mind that most other minds would find bizarre. Certainly a salmon would never make it up the river scaling waterfalls if it thought that way. A migrating seabird might think twice about the upcoming trek to Chile. Flowers could well keep their shops closed for fear of hail. But they don’t. They go, they blossom, they strive.
You could say many of these same things about the human body. Whatever our thoughts, it’s always busy at work, the heart vigorously pumping, the arteries singing, the cranium flashing like a small lightning cloud. The human body is like the salmon and the seabird, a creature of the earth. It is the horse we actually ride, not the one in our heads wondering if it’s going to work out.
Thinking now of my time on that wild, windy prairie; was it my mind that wanted to shout, or my body?
Whatever hope is, it may be more physical than we realize. Take a vacant lot, asphalt crumbling, littered with trash. Put beside it a lot of equal measure planted with gardens and native plants, with “at risk” kids proudly growing food for their community. Tell me which side has more hope. A river dying behind a dam doesn’t offer much in the way of hope, but restore that river and watch hope flow. Preserve a prairie and watch it grow. Bring the songbirds back and hear hope sing.
It may be a good thing, this clamor for hope, for it may yet focus our gaze. If it is hope we are looking for, we should roll up our sleeves. We can restore it river by river, lot by lot. We can protect it, we can defend it, we can grow it. The sun is still in the sky and the earth wants to live. This is not too complicated.
The earth is hope embodied, and we embody the earth. For me it’s become that simple. As long as the living planet strives, I strive. And regardless of my mind’s conclusions while falling to sleep tonight, and however uncertain the dreaming, I know my body will wake me in the morning saying what it always says, more life please.
How am I to answer?
And what does hope have to do with it?