Lubarsky: What We Can Hope For

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“Ecological Civilization” by Tucker Nichols for Pando Populus.  Artwork copyright (c) 2015 by the artist.

What Can We Hope For?

By Sandra Lubarsky

Sandra Lubarsky presented this section plenary address for the SEIZING AN ALTERNATIVE conference, Section V: Ecological Civilization (June 5, 2015). (For a copy of the text with PowerPoint slides, please click here.)  

Welcome to this plenary session. I’m very glad to be here, honored to give this presentation, and delighted to welcome all of you here. I want to give particular thanks to Charlene Tshirhart and Angela Donelly who have been the organizers for this conference section. I know they’ve been working very hard for many months to get us to this point. Thank you! I also want to thank Dr. Meijun Fan who has made it possible for this presentation to be translated into Chinese.

The topic of this plenary is “What can we hope for?” and it is another way of framing the theme of this conference which is dedicated to finding—and seizing–strategies that give reason for hope–and also generate hope.

I am, however, compelled to begin this presentation on hope by situating my thoughts within the sober context of our climate crisis.

This slide [slide] says all that needs to be said in this regard, if you keep in mind all the reverberations that follow from an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

There are now more than 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Though we’ve seen this measure appear before, it was for a few hours or days. But for the whole month of March of this year, the average global concentration of CO2 has been 400 ppm for a month. The head scientist of NOAA, is quoted as saying: “Reaching 400 parts per million as a global average is a significant milestone.”

That milestone is part of what has been described as a “planetary-scale critical transition,” never before witnessed by human civilization. In the face of this kind of terrifying projection, anticipating the crossing of biophysical boundaries not meant to be crossed, what are we to hope for? We are headed into a territory we have never known, with little knowledge and no GPS. The more appropriate question seems to be: “What should we fear?” The question that comes more easily to mind is: “What can we despair about?”

So let us start with some gallows humor, in the form of the advice of a Jew during the Holocaust: “Save your despair for when you really need it.”

Gallows humor is by definition grim and ironic, mocking the immediate facts of a dire reality. You think THIS is bad? But it’s not merely ironic. It’s also a cheeky, insolent reminder of the tendency to despair too soon. The immediate situation is bad, even terrible, but the world might yet be different. To despair too soon is counterproductive. When do you really need despair? The implicit answer is not as long as there is a flicker of hope. “Save your despair for when you really need it.”

Still, it’s hard to know what we know about the state of the world and be hopeful. I awoke the other day to two messages in my email: one was an article reporting that 93% of seed varieties have been lost in the last 80 years and the other was from The Greater Good Science Center with advice on “How To Learn to Love Your Stress.” To know what we know is to live between hope and despair, trying not to be immobilized by either.

The literary critic, Raymond Williams, wrote: “[To] be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

In her important new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein makes the case that the climate crisis can become a catalyst for social and economic transformation. If treated as “a “true planetary emergency,” she believe that climate change could “become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.” Klein devotes the last part of her book to examples of hope-in-action, to what she calls “Blockadia”—efforts of people across the world to preserve the integrity of their land communities by blocking the work of extractive industries. While I was writing this presentation, the “sHell No!” Paddle in Seattle protest, a Blockadia action, was underway in the Port of Seattle. The image was iconic: thousands of small boats, kayaks, and tribal canoes filling the waterway, blocking massive drilling rigs from entering the port in order to ultimately block Artic drilling further north.

Klein distinguishes between “optimism” and hope—and it’s an important distinction, one that I’m sure you’ve heard before. She’s not at all optimistic that we’ll be able to keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 2-degrees Celsius. Nor is she confident that there is wisdom or will enough to prevent technophiles from dangerously toying with natural systems or politicians from supercharged neoliberal policies crafted on behalf of their campaign funders.

And yet, even so, she’s been accused of being “madd-en-ing-ly” optimistic by no less a personage than the environmental journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, author of (among other things) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kolbert accuses Klein of “telling a fable she hopes will do some good.” And Kolbert’s cynicism cannot be dismissed out of hand. There is simply no cause to be confident about the future when the last northern white rhino male has to be guarded 24 hours a day or he and his entire species will be murdered for the price of his horn. There is no cause for confidence in the capacity of humans to respond effectively and compassionately to the 52 island nations now at risk of being swept away by rising sea levels.

John Oliver, the satirist and social critic, says—and I’ve toned down his comment a bit–“We’ve proven that we cannot be trusted with the future tense; we’ve been repeatedly asked, ‘Don’t you want to leave a better earth to your grandchildren?—and we’ve all collectively responded, “eh… screw ‘em.”

But Klein’s response is equally deserving of attention. She says:

I have yet to meet anyone professionally focused on the science of our warming planet who does not wrestle with despair, myself included. Yet surely the decision about whether to maintain some hope in the face of an existential crisis that is still technically preventable is not just a matter of cold calculation. It’s also a question of ethics. If there is any chance of turning the tide, and if taking action could actually lead to all kinds of ancillary benefits, then it seems to me that those of us with public platforms have a responsibility to share that good news, alongside all the painful truths.

So let us consider hope:  

My colleague’s aunt lives on the 26th floor of a building in Calcutta. Her aunt has a bad hip and there’s only one lift in the building. The earthquake that hit Nepal so hard also made buildings in Calcutta sway and left large cracks in the concrete. “So what will your aunt do?” I asked my friend. “Will she move?” “No, no,” she answered.  “Definitely not. There is nothing to be done. That is Calcutta.” Her aunt is resigned to dying in the building should a strong enough quake hit her neighborhood again. Her hope is that despite the terrestrial geography, despite non-existent zoning codes, despite insufficient building codes, and despite the limitations of her own body, she hopes she will not meet her death on the 26th floor of her apartment building. She is fatalistic about the future. Hers is a wistful hope, a yearning restrained by the graceful acceptance that “this is Calcutta.” If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

In reaction to passive forms of hope, Derrick Jensen, a leading environmental activist and writer, urges us to move “beyond hope.” He writes, “Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue…and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it…. When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. . . We do whatever it takes.” For Jensen, hope immobilizes action; to be hopeful is to be helpless.

Jensen’s reaction to hope as an excuse for irresponsibility is warranted. There is a kind of hope that leads to passivity. But it’s not just hope that can cripple initiative. Pessimism and despair are equally liable to constrain action. And so are extreme forms of optimism.

There is nothing simple about hope. Take, for example, the radical and alarming hope of those who propose geo-engineering as a solution to climate change. Theirs is a brew of total pessimism about human nature and our ability to overcome our carbon addiction, and total optimism in technology and our ability to manage entire earth systems. Hope and its varieties are based on assumptions about what we’re capable of doing and about what is important and possible. Those assumptions are the outcome of often-unstated philosophical assumptions.

I think it’s telling that when John Cobb formulated this plenary session, he didn’t ask the question, “Is hope possible?” Instead, he asked us to consider, “What can we hope for?” That question assumes that hope is possible, is feasible, despite the very grave circumstances that are the reason for this conference. As John wrote in a pre-conference essay, “Our inaugural conference is based on the hope that hope will help.”

The reason why hope is feasible for someone like John Cobb is because it is part of a metaphysics that makes it so. That metaphysics is process thought. Process thought offers a way of understanding reality that makes radical hope possible. By “radical hope” I mean hope that is sustained not simply by sheer force of personal conviction or by willful ignorance of reality or because of a privileged immunity from reality’s worst contingencies. Radical hope is secured—in its roots—by a metaphysics that affirms: change and possibility, agency and power, novelty and creativity, and value and importance.

These are philosophical concepts that secure hope as something real, not to be dismissed, in spite of what we know about the depletion of topsoil, the death of coral reefs, the oil spill in Santa Barbara, and on and on. Amidst this proliferation of tragedies, it is not still naïve to ask the question, “What can we hope for?” because there is a process-relational metaphysics in which certain things are possible, including hope– even in a time of mass extinctions, even in a time of ecocide.

So let me spend a few minutes sketching the metaphysics of hope provided by process philosophy (and forgive me, all of you who are already familiar with this).

First, the word “process” in process philosophy. “Process” describes the fundamental activity of the world. Everything is always in process, always undergoing some degree of change.

Often this change is hardly perceptible and so we experience a general stability of conditions. But change is the rule, and in this case, there are no exceptions; change is, as Whitehead says, “in the essence of the universe.” Reality is a process of dynamic “becoming,” not static “being.”

But though change is guaranteed, positive change is not. Unlike campaign rhetoric of recent years, change does not presuppose progress. Positive change is a possibility but change can also be detrimental. Still, the fact that the world is in a constant state of change provides a foothold for hope because it means that the status quo is ephemeral.

Whitehead’s explanation for the process of change is brilliant and complex. I am going to reduce that brilliance and complexity to a very quick look at three principle reasons why change happens: possibility, agency, and value.

Possibility: The idea of process requires the notion of potentiality. In a world that is in process–that is characterized by change–possibilities must abound; otherwise, there is only repetition. But we know that novel ideas and new sensibilities do come into the world. Whitehead offers the example of the idea of freedom and individual self-determination, tracing the history of slavery as an unchallenged, taken-for-granted practice in Plato’s time to a deplorable practice in the 21st century. Change happens—often slowly, often in unplanned cooperation with chance—it took millennia before human servitude was broadly recognized as an atrocity– but novelty builds on novelty, new insights replace old ways, and new patterns of behavior reinforce change. The future is conditioned by the past but it is not determined by it. Though there are strong patterns of repetition, there is not sheer repetition. This is because the facts of the world are supplemented by possibilities that are inherent in the world, waiting to be actualized. As Whitehead writes:

“…a great idea in the background of dim consciousness is like a phantom ocean beating upon the shores of human life in successive waves of specialization. A whole succession of such waves are as dreams slowly doing their work of sapping the base of some cliff of habit: but the seventh wave is a revolution.” (AI 19)

Agency: To be realized, possibilities must be incorporated into the lives of experiencing beings. Whitehead affirms Plato’s claim that to be is to have active agency. “The definition of being is simply power.” Here “power” means dynamism—the ability to actively participate in the fundamental process that shapes reality. Rather than being an inanimate cog in a machine, each entity shapes its own existence to some degree, determining what weight will be given to the past and introducing its own, unique aim into its final form. Each entity is an original event, a novel coalescence of factors. Human life is our most familiar illustration of what this means, but all entities are, to some degree, self-directed. Each of us has the capacity to reject destructive patterns and construct life-affirming ones. Each of us has some degree of freedom, some degree of creativity–and that’s why, in its denial of this truth, slavery is so horrendous. To exercise our creativity is not always easy and success is not guaranteed. The given-ness of the world is formidable. The past has a strong grip on the present and often it seems that meaningful change is not possible. But the capacity is there. And that capacity is immanent in the natural order, as much a part of the metaphysical landscape as transpiration is a part of the water cycle. This agency, this power to participate in life actively and creatively and not simply to replicate fixed behaviors and beliefs is a pivot for hope, the kind of hope that David Orr, a leading environmentalist, describes as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

Third, value: When we say that we hope things will be different, we imply that they ought to be different and we reveal hope’s ethical dimension. Hope’s deepest grounding is in a metaphysics that affirms value as inherent in the structure of reality. Process philosophy provides such a metaphysical system. Indeed, according to process philosophy, value is “inherent in actuality itself.” (RM 100) Whitehead writes, “Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience.” (MT 116) The whole process of becoming is directed toward the grasping of value in others, the incorporation of it within oneself, and the furtherance of value in creative ways. And the process of each actuality and of life in general is directed toward attaining value, increasing value, and enjoying value. Above all, what is valued is “the simple craving to enjoy freely the vividness of life.” (AI 272)

I love that phrase: “to enjoy freely the vividness of life.” Surely, this is what we hope for, in the most general sense: to freely and fully engage with life.

There is much more that can be said about how a process metaphysics gives grounds for hope. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, for example, lend their support to the experience of life’s vividness. How worth is secured in each actuality occupies most of Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality. But for now, I hope my point is clear: that process philosophy secures the idea of hope metaphysically. Without this kind of mooring, hope floats like driftwood, lightweight and eroding. Instead of being a stimulus for engagement, it becomes nothing more than wishful thinking. With metaphysical support, hope is possible not only as the consequence of individual passion, not solely dependent on whether people have the capacity to beckon and sustain it, but as the outcome of a worldview, illuminated by possibility, agency, novelty, and worth.

And so, at last, some reflections on what we can hope for.

Years ago, Donella Meadows, author of the now-classic book, The Limits to Growth, led a series of workshops focused on how to end hunger. Expert agronomists, economists, ecologists, and development specialists came to the workshops. Meadows began the first workshop by asking the question, “What is your vision of a world without hunger?” She asked people to describe, “not the world they thought they could achieve, or the world they were willing to settle for, but the world they truly wanted.”

People refused to answer her question; some called it “stupid and dangerous.” Someone said, “We don’t need to talk about what the end of hunger will be like, we need to talk about how to get there.” Someone else told her to “stop being unrealistic.” She pressed them, anyway. Eventually, people began to let their defenses down. She writes, “One person said, with emotion, that he couldn’t stand the pain of thinking about the world he really wanted, when he was so aware of the world’s present state.” And finally one person voiced what Meadows describes as coming “closer to the truth than any of our other rationalizations.” “’I have a vision,’ this person said, “but it would make me feel childish and vulnerable to say it out loud.”

“Why is it,” asked Meadows,

that we can share our cynicism, complaints, and frustrations without hesitation with perfect strangers, but we can’t share our dreams? How did we arrive at a culture that constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries? . . . When were we taught, and by whom, to suppress our visions?

I think it’s fair to say that modern education is partly to blame, having promoted objectivity as its primary value, critical thinking as its primary method, and career placement as its primary aim. But visions and hopes are fueled by values, by what we judge to be important and hold to be of worth. If we don’t have a vision, if we aren’t honest about our real desires, and if we aren’t willing to share them publicly, we end us with half-baked policies and strategies for implementation. As British environmental writer George Monbiot said, we need a vision “that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.”

In answer to John Cobb’s 1971 question, it may be too late to avoid ecological and social catastrophe. After all, the Club of Rome was right—there are ecological limits to economic and population growth. On the other hand, “What can we hope for?” is a question about vision, about what we value and how we will direct our energies. Meadows wrote her essay, “Envisioning a Sustainable World,” in 1994, slightly more than 20 years after her report to the Club of Rome. To call for vision is to call for possibility and agency within a framework of values. It is, in other words, a practice of hope.

I have asked the chairs of the tracks in our Section on “Ecological Civilization” to reflect on the question, “What Can We Hope For?” from their perspectives. They’re going to speak in a few minutes. I’ll close this presentation with a few of my own reflections:

Reading of hard landings that will be the end of civilization and soft landings that are nonetheless sobering, I find myself in a kind of intoxicated dialectic, reeling between hope and despair. The Palestinian peace activist, Ali Abu Awwad, speaks of “painful hope,” and I think that’s a good term for describing the kind of hope that combines vision with activism—and his is a vision I deeply support.

My vision is informed by Whitehead’s insight that all beings aim toward “… the simple craving to enjoy freely the vividness of life…”

Most of us, rich and poor, in fat world countries and lean ones , don’t enjoy the vividness of life to the degree that we might, burdened in the one case with too many material goods and too little time, and, in the other case, with too few of life’s necessities and too much insecurity.

To speak of the “vividness of life” is to speak in aesthetic terms and I would be remiss if I didn’t speak about beauty as vision and hope. To do so—to speak about beauty–in our modern world is to court dismissal—to hear the voice of that participant in Donella Meadows’ workshop who said, “Stop being ridiculous.” But our continued trivialization of the value of beauty is evidence of the unremitting grip of the modern worldview on us. Philosophical and economic materialism required the marginalizing of beauty. Just so, a reintroduction of beauty as a public value will serve to break the exclusive control of economics as the determiner of worth. If we are to move toward a paradigm that supports life and that is ecologically sound, I believe we must commit to beauty as a central value and organizing principle.

For Whitehead, “the simple craving to enjoy freely the vividness of life” is an aesthetic aim and involves an aesthetic process. The production of art is one expression of this drive but Whitehead is talking about the production of LIFE. To hope for beauty is to hope for a world alive with a great diversity of life—both biologically diverse and culturally diverse–the consequence of endless creativity. And it is to hope for the coordination of life form to life form so that each individual life is able to enjoy the details of its life and to be supported by and contribute to larger and larger structures of relations.

Right now, we have made many parts of the world ugly—dreadful places (the etymological root of the word, “ugly.”)

On the one hand, we have out-sized corporations in which the whole does not support the parts—depriving them of their individual intensities. And, in regard to our human relations with the natural world, we have a part—human civilization, especially capitalist civilization–asserting itself as the whole and destroying both the many parts and the processes on which it depends.

In our drive to promote human life, we have denied the worth of other life forms. Beauty–understood as the name for the value associated with aliveness– calls us to a different relation with the natural world and each other. It is this different relation on which we need to build our hope.

Naomi Klein and writer-activist Rebecca Solnit are vocal about the need for a coalescence of activist movements. It’s all the same conversation, says Klein. That’s why her book on climate change is also a book about capitalism. Climate activism is transition activism and both are justice activism. To create a movement of movements is an aesthetic project: the value and vitality of each individual effort—each mobilization for justice, each boycott or occupation, each legal objection—is affirmed both in its singularity and in its importance for the whole effort to shape the common good. Each effort is one exquisite detail in the emergence of a larger composition whose significance and worth reinforces the value of the individual efforts on which it depends. Whitehead’s primary example of beauty is the Cathedral at Chartres with its nine portals, lined with statues.

“There are those statues, each with its individual beauty, and all lending themselves to the beauty of the whole.”

So it might be with a movement of movements, achieving a dynamic mutuality between individual efforts and the great restructuring to which they contribute.

The contributions of individuality to the whole—and of the whole to the constitutions of each individual—this is the dynamic at the core of Whitehead’s philosophy. How it might best be achieved involves, I think, localism and local scale, the rebuilding of community life where individuals understand themselves as individuals-in-community and regard themselves as members of a place, in relationship with the land community. In short, it involves restructuring our social lives in ways that strengthen our sense of belonging and our obligations to those with whom we live and to the places where we live. These are the possibilities that I believe will renew our individual agency and restore a sense of worth to our relations with each other.

Let me close with this anecdote, recounted by Rebecca Solnit. It is the story of a woman who was involved in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960’s, Women Strike for Peace. This movement actually succeeded in ending above-ground nuclear testing. In her reflections, the woman spoke about “how –foolish– and futile– she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House.”

But years later, she learned that Dr. Benjamin Spock–the well-known antiwar activist who became a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement–became active in the anti-nuclear movement because he had seen “a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House.” That, he said, was his turning point.

Solnit writes, “It’s always too soon to calculate effect.” This story, this lesson, is for us, gathered at this conference. Perhaps, five years–or ten or twenty years–from now, people will remember this gathering in Claremont,

in the middle of that drought in California, just after the oil spill north of Santa Barbara, and they will think about all those people who chose to make their hope active, to seize alternatives to the destructive practices of late modernity—people from all over the U.S., that great delegation from China, and others from far and wide, and they will say: “that was my turning point, our turning point, the reason why we persist in our hope that we can change the world.”

I now want to invite up the track organizers in the session on “Ecological Civilization” to give their own reflections on what we can hope for:

Jeanne Nakamura, “The Psychology of Wellbeing and its Ecological Implications”
Marilyn Hempel, “Population and Women”
Brianne Donaldson, “Seizing an Alternative: the Future of Meat without Animals”
Dean Freudenberger, “Agroecology as Foundational for Ecological Civilization”
Barbara Muraca, “Birth-pangs of Ecological Civilization” ( and Fubin Yang?)
China and Ecological Civilization (Xiaoting Liu and Tao Yang, chairs)