Why We Don’t Give Up Hope

gaialibereAs I was driving into downtown Toronto this morning I listened to the dreary, clichÈd responses from politicians to the recent upsurge in drug-related gang shootings in the Toronto area. The answer, said the progressives, is to stop the flow of guns from the US. Yeah, as if that’s going to happen. The answer, said the conservatives, is much steeper prison sentences for all violent crimes (and presumably building more staggeringly-expensive prisons to hold them). Creative, eh? And, ironically, the conservative leader with this moronic idea claimed “even if it deters just one criminal act” it will be worth it, and it will provide solace to the families of victims and increase the feeling of security in “troubled” (by which he meant black) neighbourhoods. Even if it doesn’t work.

In other news, it turns out that the heavy oil spill in an Alberta lake from last week’s train derailment not only devastated the life in the lake and nearby land, but also contaminated the groundwater and contained a deadly carcinogen that was not reported to cleanup authorities. Alberta’s Big Oil-dominated government’s environmental record is poor, probably the worst in Canada, but since they can blame this spill on the feds, this is unlikely to change. I heard this just as I drove around the carcass of a dead kitten on the road, crushed and ignored by the rush hour traffic. There’s another heat and smog advisory here, the 35th this summer, and authorities are asking people to conserve, yet 35% of women working in office buildings surveyed last month claim that the summer temperature inside their offices is so cold they have to bring sweaters and sometimes even use space heaters under their desks. A university professor was interviewed about a plan to build a wind turbine that could reduce the energy needs of one university campus — by 2%. But the one big wind turbine in downtown Toronto wasn’t working at all this morning.

I changed the station and learned that Bush has signed the zero-conservation energy bill, paving the way for drilling in the ANWR and including a massive drilling and nuke-building subsidy program for Big Energy that, at most, will increase US reserves by a six-month supply, while dismantling more environment, land development and pollution controls across the country. He’s on vacation for a month, where he recently entertained his pal, Colombian president Uribe, and promised him more aid to fight drugs (and leftists) despite evidence from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that most of the money has actually been going to Uribe’s brutal military and paramilitary forces and that the ‘drug war’ has been a devastating, utter and abject failure.

The editorial on the station cheered us with the news that global corporations are now so dependent on corporate welfare, subsidies, corporate tax refunds, tax rate reductions, handouts, immunity from litigation and other distortions of the ‘free’ market that any sudden move to end the free ride would bankrupt hundreds of multinational corporations and plunge the world into a monstrous depression. These corporations, the economist editorialist said, are as addicted to the money stolen from low- and middle-income taxpayers as those taxpayers are addicted to the oil and other products those taxes are subsidizing. Perfect co-dependency.

I began to ask myself why, when there is every indication that the world is careening out of control, that no one is in charge, that even if we were to suddenly wake up and realize what we were doing there is no one and no group powerful enough to fix it (not even the US government, which is so indebted to other nations it is quickly going bankrupt, and which is so clueless, uncoordinated and incompetent it couldn’t act coherently even if it could afford to), why are we still so hopeful? Why do we still get up every day with such expectations for our future and that of our children?

What is it about human nature, and about nature in general, that makes us go on, so hopefully, even when we, or our loved ones, or our planet is diagnosed with a terminal disease? Even when we live our whole lives in slavery, confinement, fear, subjugation, impoverishment and desperation? Even in extreme and horrific circumstances, like death camps, genocides, brutal and constant physical, sexual or psychological abuse, torture, unbearable pain, tiny, stench-filled cages and institutions where the only exit is on a slab?

I am fond of saying that the answer is It’s the only life we know. And I think that’s true, except it doesn’t explain why those who have known or glimpsed better, who have studied and learned and seen a better way, who can imagine another, more joyous life but have no reasonable expectation of achieving it, also go on, hoping against hope, that it will get better, that somehow joy will find a way.

The explanation for this is more Darwinian: It is a failure of our genetic makeup rather than a failure of knowledge. When life evolved on this planet, the extent of misery and depravity that our species could inflict on other species, and on itself, could not be conceived. Over hundreds of millennia nature has evolved ways to cope with and mitigate pain: An animal caught by a predator gets a brief shot of a natural pain-killer which, it is believed, makes imminent death painless, almost peaceful (perhaps the same euphoric experience that near-death survivors have reported). Animals suffering serious natural injury will often go into shock, and die quickly, unconsciously. The memory of the dead goes quickly in nature, as predators and microbes and natural forces return the creature gracefully back to the Earth.

But in civilization death and suffering are not so graceful. Nature has not had time, not nearly, to develop effective, natural ways to ease the pain and misery that we upstart humans have wrought on each other and on so many other creatures. Our ability to create these horrors is too new, and has ‘evolved’ too quickly.

So instead, we hope. That is all we can do. That is nature’s lifelong, life-affirming instruction to us all until she tells us, gracefully, when it is time to give up hope of a joyful life, and let go, in peace. That instruction has been in our DNA for three million years, a gift from the creatures from which we came, and civilization’s thirty thousand years is not enough time to create new instructions for us and for all our victims. She is trying, with new diseases and serendipitous outbursts (volcanoes, meteors, ice ages) to cuff us in her motherly way to behave, to bring us into line, to stop us from torturing our sisters and brothers. But we are not good learners, we no longer know how to pay attention to her lessons.

So we hope. That is who we are. That is the stuff we are made of. We await further instruction. We carry on.

The sky is clearing, the night has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world to offer up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but
To carry on
    (- Steven Stills)
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8 Responses to Why We Don’t Give Up Hope

  1. Ben Milner says:

    I see your point that things are bad and maybe hope is all thats left, but every positive action that replaces an environmentally damaging one is a step away from disaster. It may not save us but what if you biked to Toronto instead of driving? the carbon emissions saved may stop global temperatures rising by 0.0000001 degrees which may mean that a small lichen survives global warming when it otherwise wouldn’t. That Lichen could then, over millions of years, evolve into a whole new form of life.(hows that for hope!)Silly example I know but my point is that hope is still valid when there are good people who are making an effort to do what they can (like yourself) under their own personal circumstances. There are many of them about.I have been reading your articles regularly now for more than six months and I have to say that they are always brilliant, especially the environmental ones. Thanks for doing what you do. It has a big impact on many people around the world.

  2. I believe Thomas Jefferson once suggested we have a revolution every 20 years or so in the US. By my count, we’re about 210 years overdue for one, so the next revolution should have the effect of 100, in full, to catch up.Or, for a more succinct approach, do away with either money or religion (or both) and see what happens.

  3. Mother nature is a great teacher, but “we are not good learners”. We are lost without our connection to the earth and nature. And those of us who know this, need to increase our teaching from nature. Dave, your July 27 “Message From A Mushroom” is a perfect example this.On my blog July 6, I wrote about “The Importance of Truthful Stories” ~ “Native American storytellers have always related ancient wisdom through their stories…”I believe that by continuing to modify the ways we can teach, it will become easier for more people to comprehend the message all by themselves.And, Dave, a childrens book about the mushrooms message is not a bad idea. Adults read these books, too! :) In 1998, “A Worm’s Story” by Gary Larson (creator of The Far Side) was published by Harper Perennial and became a New York Times Bestseller!

  4. zach says:

    Drama Queen.

  5. Indigo says:

    Hope should never be lost, but idealism is not hope. We must recognize that we face some major challenges and it is not a given that we are going to survive our current approach to “civilization.” It could go either way. Hope is the only thing that provides any chance we will survive. Otherwise it is a given that we will not, because who will do the hard work ahead without hope? We must aim for what we want, and not be devastated by setbacks, but rather renewed. The worse things get, the more likely a critical mass of people ready for a revolutionary response will emerge. Maybe we need to run out of oil before we will stop devasting the air by burning it. Maybe we need it to hurt a bit more before…. I don’t consider that to necessarily be a bad thing, just a painful lesson.

  6. Michelle P. says:

    Great post Dave. I really enjoy your site!Now to comment: :) As far as I know, (animals can

  7. Zach says:

    To Indigo, the definition of hope is: “To expect and desire.” That is not a a very buddhist attitude. The 2nd noble truth is after all ‘There is the origin of suffering, which is attachment to desire.’ I think hope is a failure to accept reality as it is, no one is going to survive, ultimately, this is the truth of our impermantent existance.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Ben: Thanks. If I biked to Toronto (60km each way) I would probably be run down by a car within a month. The roads are not set up for it. But I go to Toronto as rarely as possible, on average only one day a week, so I’m trying. But I would hope even if it was hopeless. I’m only human.Patty: Thanks for the idea. Though even with good stories we are still poor, slow learners. We learn best by doing, by trying things out.Indigo: Pain certainly is a good teacher and motivator. But even if we had no hope I’m not sure that would change who we are or what we do much. We have a lot less intellectual, conscious control over ourselves (most of us anyway) than we’d probably like to believe.Mitch: There is evidence that several branches of animals do have self-consciousness, memory and hence a sense of time. I think if you were to study more biology (start with Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven and Jeff Masson’s When Elephants Weep) you might acquire a humbler view of humanity’s uniqueness, and be less enamoured with anthropocentric concepts like intelligent design.

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