What Can We Hope For?

What Can We Hope For?

By   |  Jan. 8, 2015

Each Section in the “Seizing an Alternative” conference launches with a plenary lecture focused on one aspect of Whitehead’s thought particularly relevant to the tracks in that Section. Sandra Lubarsky is the plenary speaker for Section V with a lecture titled, “What Can We Hope For?” and will discuss the topic of this post.  


What do we want the future to be like?  This is a question that occurs to most of us.  Much of the time, hope is directed more narrowly to our personal future and that of those closest to us.  Then it often takes for granted that, overall, the future world will be much like the present one.  Hope focuses on competitive success in that context.  But sometimes we transcend our personal desires to think of the broader scene.

Today, when we think of the wider future, we are likely to be distressed.  Prospects for the future of life on this planet are bleak.  If we project current trends into the future, the planet will become uninhabitable by human beings.  If we ask about human nature and its dominant tendencies, our discouragement is likely to increase.

Some people retain optimism in the face of all these problems.  This is necessarily grounded in belief that there are more powerful forces at work or able to be brought into the picture.  For example, there are those who are quite sure that our evermore amazing technology can solve our problems.  For example, by releasing large quantities of sulfur into the stratosphere we could reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the surface of the Earth.  Fertilizing the ocean with iron could increase the algae at the surface and reflect more of the sunlight.  And so forth.  No one has spelled out a complete technological fix, but those who are deeply confident in human technological capacities can have great confidence that solutions will be found to our problems.

A quite different type of optimism rests in belief in a supernatural deity who can intervene at any time and will do so.  If it is supernatural acts that can be counted on to save us, then no scenario is needed.  Alternately, supernatural thinking can lead to the belief that some will be caught up into heaven while others will be left to the misery of a dying Earth.

For many reasons, the organizers of this conference do not share this optimism.  We do not exclude geo-engineering in principle, but we see it only as, at best, a partial solution to some parts of the crisis we face.  We fear that unless there are deeper changes, they will create as many problems as they solve.  We see no evidence in history or nature for supernatural interventions and have difficulty even comprehending what can be meant by them.  We are not optimistic.

Hope is not optimism.  It nevertheless, at least in our current situation, requires support of some kind.  Some find it in their reading of cosmic history or the history of consciousness.  Whitehead grounds it in what he calls the secular functioning of God.  He believes that every entity is called to realize the most value possible in itself and in its relevant future.  He believed that this call that we experience in ourselves is derived from a cosmic aim at the realization of value.  This can lead to novelty.  Our hope lies in openness to the call and to the novel possibilities that we cannot now anticipate.  This does not mean that a positive outcome is probable or even likely.  But it does mean that we cannot rule it out, and that our openness to new possibilities increases its likelihood.

I think that just now we are called to imagine the kind of foundational beliefs and ways of life that would constitute a positive outcome for survivors of the now inevitable catastrophes.  I think that the more widespread the visions of such an outcome the better the chance of ameliorating the catastrophes as well.  I think that the changes so urgently needed are more likely if there is hope that the changes will have a positive result.  Our inaugural conference is based on the hope that hope will help.

There are those who do not favor hope.  The story of Pandora ’s Box can be interpreted to mean that the escape of hope from the box was the last and worst of the evils.  Instead of accepting the world as it is and making the best of it, it is argued, hope leads to aiming at improvements that are never actually realized.  Often the efforts to improve the situation make it worse.  The disappointment and cynicism that result block the acceptance that enables people to enjoy here and now what can be enjoyed, leaving the future to be what it will be.  Today there are still many opportunities for good living for many of us.  We should enjoy them without anxiety or guilt.

My commitment to Whitehead’s vision leads me to take this critique seriously.  If hope leads to failure to enjoy the present, realizing what value we now can, then it may indeed be an opponent of the good.  But that is not Whitehead’s view.  To aim at the realization of value in each moment does not mean ignoring the future.  Part of the enjoyment of a moment is its sense of contributing positively to the future.  No doubt those moments that are totally self absorbed also can be rich and important.  But in my view they are not the best.  In my judgment working for the benefit of our own future and that of others can enhance the present, and finding enjoyment in the immediacy of the present can enhance our contribution to the future.  Whitehead encourages both/and thinking.

We can, then, hope that however terrible are now the unavoidable consequences of our past and continuing actions, life, including human life will survive.  How much will survive and what kind of life human beings will have in the less favorable environment will be affected by our current actions.  If in that less favorable environment people continue to live and act as we now do, the survival may be only temporary.  If we begin now to identify forms of life that are sustainable, it may be that more will survive and that some will even flourish.  The more clearly we think about positive possibilities, the more strongly we hope for this outcome, and the more attractive the prospect becomes, the more we will invest in thought and in practices that have a chance of bringing these prospects to fruition.  That is what this conference is all about.

The subtitle of this conference is “toward an ecological civilization.”  That is the label we give to the human society for which we hope.  The tracks in this section are reflections about some features of an ecological civilization that can inspire positive action now.  This lecture is about the contribution of Whitehead.

That contribution is largely indirect.  The sense that we live under imminent threat to the survival of our world was not part of his experience.  Any sensibility of this kind was rare before the dropping of the atomic bombs.  Whitehead died within two years of the nuclear attack on Japan.  Few if any observers paid attention to the effects of human action on climate.  Whitehead did not anticipate the changed human situation in which we live.  Today, we have all learned the extreme importance of the sustainability of human life styles.  But we will not find direct help in Whitehead.

Nevertheless, I claim that Whitehead’s thought is urgently needed if we are to move toward ecological civilization.  Indeed, I call Whitehead the philosopher of ecological civilization.  I do so because his thought called for what we are now naming “ecological civilization” even before the global crisis adds enormous urgency to this move.  Consider the following.

An ecological civilization is one in which human beings are fully aware of themselves as part of the natural world with close kinship to the other creatures who constitute that world.  That requires a conceptuality that fully overcomes dualism.  Whitehead provides that.

An ecological civilization is one that promotes intrinsic value in human life and throughout nature.  This reverses the exclusion of such value from the natural world characteristic of modern Western thought.  It emphatically opposes the exclusion of intrinsic value from human life that has resulted from the inclusion of human beings in a valueless nature.  It also rejects the value-free approach to education.  Whitehead’s philosophy meets all of these needs.

Whitehead actually provides more in these respects than we can assimilate in the context of our global crisis.  His theory of value tells us at what all of our actions, and education, and policies should aim.  This aim is spelled out in terms of truth, beauty, peace, and adventure.  This makes clear that aiming at increased market activity is a total mistake, but his picture of what our aim should be is so complex that we require great simplification to make it a practical goal.

Practically we will well to begin by reorienting ourselves from aiming at increasing market activity to seeking the increase of human happiness.  New developments in positive psychology make a shift in that direction more practical.  But what is measured as “happiness” may fall short of truth and is likely to fail to encompass the full reaches of adventure.  There is much work yet to be done as we celebrate the initial steps toward ecological civilization.

Sandra is the President of Flagstaff College, and former chair of the Department of Sustainable Development, Appalachian State University.

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