Here’s an essay that also urges having hope and taking action in the face of imminent catastrophe:
On the Cusp of the Coming ‘Perfect Storm’
June 27, 2019
I live through the filters of three worldviews – that of a US white male, atheist, liberal progressive; that of an adopted Ugandan for the past 36 years; and that of an anthropologist.
I have lived and worked in rural and urban Africa off and on, for extended periods, from 1980 to the present. I have led major grassroots international development assistance programs in Swaziland, Tanzania, and Ghana. I have led refugee resettlement programs in Kenya, and from there visited and worked for extended periods in cities and deep rural areas of over twenty African countries. I have seen hope and despair firsthand in the eyes of Africa’s rural impoverished; seen hope realized and lost in African cities and suburbs; listened to African refugee stories of torturous persecution; and led young Americans in their succeeding and failing efforts to restore hope in the education and rural development sectors of Africa. A summary of my work is here.
In retirement since 2007, I read voraciously, have written an ethnography on the Bamasaaba of Uganda, and write frequently on my blogs. Of all my fellow retired, freethinking professional friends here in north central Georgia, USA I have for a long time been known as the one with the most optimism and hope for Humankind’s survival and flourishing.
Not any more. My hope has gone into a marked decline since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in November 2016. And my descent has become more acute and my feelings hardened toward most of my fellow humans.
In fact, I’m at a point where I live in a state somewhere between despondency and despair each day that Trump and his regime take action to dismantle our institutions, undermine our laws, restrict our rights, and sow and grow racial, religious and class division in the US population. Plainly speaking, my level of hope is somewhere between an incapacity for the exercise of hope (despondency) and the utter abandonment of hope (despair).
I’m prodded all the time by my beloved freethinker friends, here and elsewhere, to retain hope. They repeatedly try to convince me that the capitalist-ecological course we are on can be corrected and reformed through social mobilization and technology.
But I’ve seen a fair bit of the course of Western civilization’s modernity and its spread to Africa and elsewhere beyond the West. Unquestionably, there has been great improvement in material living and the reduction of hunger, locally and globally. But the cost has been high in terms of the Earth’s life-sustainability and our local and international relations. I’ve written about these up and down sides here:
Knowledge is Power?
Suffering and Injustice Revisited
Economics – The Queen of the Social Sciences is Dead! Long Live the Queen!?
The Dark Mountain Project
How much more must I read, observe, think, feel, and work to spread hope yet not conclude that hope in the Western, and rapidly becoming global, capitalist-earth-exploitative system’s destruction is so far downstream that catastrophes and collapse are inevitable?
What exactly does it mean to have hope in what is an objective and near certain to be hopeless situation?
I asked a very dear and close friend living in Cape Town, South Africa this question in the following essay, “There’s a Problem.” He replied in so many words that there is always wiggle room right up to the end. He made me think of how baseball player sage Yogi Berra put it regarding a nine-inning game, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
This is true. And the Stoic dichotomy of control and Viktor Frankl’s thoughts on hope and meaning have helped.
My friend in South Africa suggested a 2011 university commencement address given by physicist and ecologist Amory Lovins at the University of California at Berkeley. And that has also helped.
So, at the crossroad of despair and hope I have taken the road to hope despite the arguments and evidence supporting its futility. I’ve done so because for some intuitive reason it seems better to approach the abyss of human destruction having done one’s best to avert it than to have made no effort at all.
Why? Because of the slight chance that things might just work out and Humankind will survive and flourish despite itself. Stranger, more unlikely things have happened in the evolution of the universe and during the course of life on Earth. Why should we exclude Humankind from its chance to eke by and not lend a hand in helping to create favorable conditions for such, one personal thought and act at a time?
So, today is a new day and way forward for me. What follows is my initial note to my friend followed by Lovins’s commencement address.
I hope you find something useful and hope-inspiring in both.
~ ~ ~
There’s a Problem
July 17, 2019
Ecological collapse is all but certain. Westerners think impoverished areas such as rural areas and urban slums in Africa are likely to survive the coming catastrophes for their occupants are hardened.
But if my long and deep experience of village life in rural eastern Uganda and elsewhere on the continent is a microcosm, and what I hear about the similar direction of rural life elsewhere on the continent is true, Humankind’s local-based reset, rural and urban, is not going to be idyllic to put it mildly.
It won’t simply be a going back to precolonial African village communalism and a subsistence economy. For there is a troublesome, ill-fated mixture of the traditional and modern in the minds of most Africans. A toxic brew of modernism, individualism, materialism, and Abrahamic theism.
There is no going back to traditional African ways for they are all amalgamated with and dis-eased by modernity. Many of the best educated, rural and urban, believe in, fear, and engage in witchcraft. Born-again Christians, many having university degrees, idly, smilingly sleep-walk through each day certain Jesus will provide them their all including their personal financial prosperity. They too fear and some participate in witchcraft.
Mainstream believers faithfully attend church and mosque, and pray. Traditionalists in society, peasants and profs, believers and atheists, bemoan the decline of traditional culture in the maw of modernity.
Population density, abetted by successive land subdivision inheritance into ever smaller and smaller plots, poverty, greed, alcoholism, and material and financial envy make extended family unity and all forms of local cooperation almost impossible.
Mob justice in Africa, as horrid as it is to observe as I’ve done on several occasions, is becoming less of a deterrent to many would be robbers and other increasingly violent criminals.
There’s no fix. There’s no purging of the modernity dis-ease, no redirecting this Titanic. There can be no soft landing.
We old ones, Africans and adopted Africans like me, can only wait, and enjoy what’s at hand and our loved ones close to our hearts, then die.
I have no advice for the younger ones who will be forced to live through it. Those that survive the collapse and reset will certainly have a very different notion of what it means to be human than the one we live by today.
Love, hope, social cooperation will survive, but they will be more hardened and guarded than ever before. I can only offer future generations an apology for not doing more to leave the world better, and my best wishes for their survival and flourishing. – JL
~ ~ ~
Amory Lovins Speaks at 2011 Commencement
University of California, Berkeley
May 18, 2011
‘I’m not an optimist, and I’m not a pessimist. Both are different forms of fatalism, in which you treat the future as fate not choice and you don’t take responsibility for creating the future you want. So I prefer to live in the spirit of applied hope.’
– Amory Lovins
The early bioneer Bill McLarney was stirring a vat of algae in his Costa Rica research center when a brassy North American lady strode in. What, she demanded, was he doing stirring a vat of green goo when what the world really needs is love? “There’s theoretical love,” Bill replied, “and then there’s applied love”–and kept on stirring.
Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.
Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.
Fear of specific and avoidable dangers has evolutionary value. Nobody has ancestors who weren’t mindful of saber-toothed tigers. But pervasive dread, lately promoted by some who want to keep us pickled in fear, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world, all the suffering in the universe, and asks how dare I propose solutions: isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can, “I can see why you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”
In a recent college class, one young woman bemoaned so many global problems that she said she’d lost all hope and couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a world. But discussion quickly revealed to us both that she hadn’t lost hope at all; she knew exactly where she’d left it.
The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it–tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” Hope becomes possible, practical–even profitable–when advanced resource efficiency turns scarcity into plenitude.
David Whyte’s poem “Loaves and Fishes” captures that goal thus:
This is not the age of information.
This is not the age of information.
Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves and fishes.
People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand. So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gatta put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”
This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you–relax and keep on going.”
So in this tranquil but unwavering spirit of applied hope, let me tell you a story.
In the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray DDT. They did; mosquitoes died; malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. House roofs started falling down on people’s heads, because the DDT also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government gave people sheet-metal roofs, but the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs kept people awake. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats. Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied. Soon the World Health Organization was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague, which it would itself have created, and had to call in RAF Singapore to conduct Operation Cat Drop–parachuting a great many live cats into Borneo.
This story–our guiding parable at Rocky Mountain Institute–shows that if you don’t understand how things are connected, often the cause of problems is solutions. Most of today’s problems are like that. But we can harness hidden connections so the cause of solutions is solutions: we solve, or better still avoid, not just one problem but many, without making new ones, before someone has to go parachuting more cats. So join me in envisioning where these linked, multiplying solutions can lead if you apply and extend what you’ve learned and take responsibility for creating the world you want. Details of this business-led future will be described this autumn in a book my team and I are now finishing, called Reinventing Fire.
Imagine a world, a few short generations hence, where spacious, peppy, ultrasafe, 125- to 260-mpg cars whisper through revitalized cities and towns, convivial suburbs, and fertile, prosperous countryside, burning no oil and emitting pure drinking water–or nothing; where sprawl is no longer mandated or subsidized, so stronger families eat better food on front porches and kids free of obesity, diabetes, and asthma play in thriving neighborhoods; where new buildings and plugged-in parked cars produce enough surplus energy to power the now-efficient old buildings; and where buildings make people healthier, happier, and more productive, creating delight when entered, serenity when occupied, and regret when departed.
Imagine a world where oil and coal and nuclear energy have all been phased out, all vanquished by the competitors whose lower costs and risks have already enabled them to capture most of the world’s market for new electrical services–energy efficiency, distributed renewables, combined-heat-and-power–and optionally by small amounts of advanced biofuels that use no cropland and move carbon from air to tilth; where resilient, right-sized energy systems make major failures impossible, not inevitable; where the collapse of oil’s demand and price has defunded enemies, undermined dictatorship and corruption, and doused the Mideast tinderbox; where our advanced economy is no longer fueled at all by the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo and dinosaur droppings; where energy policy is no longer a gloomy multiple-choice test–do you prefer to die from (a) climate change, (b) oil wars, or (c) nuclear holocaust? We choose (d) none of the above.
Imagine, therefore, a world where carbon emissions have long been steadily declining–at a handsome profit, because saving fuel costs less than buying fuel; where global climate has stabilized and repair has begun; and where this planetary near-death experience has finally made antisocial and unacceptable the arrogance that let cleverness imperil the whole human prospect by outrunning wisdom.
Imagine a world where the successful industries, rather than wasting 99.98% of their materials, follow Ray C. Anderson’s lead: they take nothing, waste nothing, and do no harm; where the cost of waste is driving unnatural capitalism extinct; where service providers and their customers prosper by doing more and better with less for longer, so products become ever more efficient to make and to use; where integrative engineering and biomimicry create abundance by design; and where elegant frugality turns scarcities and conflicts about energy, water, land, and minerals into enough, for all, for ever.
Imagine a world where the war against the Earth is over; where we’ve stopped treating soil like dirt; where forests are expanding, farms emulate natural ecosystems, rivers run clean, oceans are starting to recover, fish and wildlife are returning, and a stabilizing, radically resource-efficient human population needs ever less of the world’s land and metabolism, leaving more for all the relatives who give us life.
Imagine a world where we don’t just know more–we also know better; where overspecialization and reductionism have gone from thrillingly fashionable to unaffordably foolish; where Darwin finally beat Descartes; where vision across boundaries triumphs, simply because it works better and costs less.
Imagine a world secure, free from fear of privation or attack: where conflict prevention is as normal as fire prevention; where conflicts not avoided are peacefully resolved through strengthened international laws, norms, and institutions; where threatened aggression is reliably deterred or defeated by nonprovocative defense that makes others feel and be more secure, not less; where all people can be nourished, healthy, and educated; and where all know Dr. King’s truth that “Peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.”
Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope.
This is the astonishing world we are all gradually creating together. It’s being built before our eyes by many of you and a myriad other world-weavers. Brains, as Gifford and Libba Pinchot note, are evenly distributed, one per person. Thus most of the world’s brains are in the South, half are in the heads of women, and most are in the heads of poor people. As an emerging global nervous system and millions of new civil-society organizations start to knit together that collective intelligence–the most powerful thing we know in the Universe–innovation and collaboration are starting to overcome stagnation and squabbles. The search for intelligent life on Earth continues, but as we all strive to become much higher primates, some promising specimens are turning up just in time: each of you here today.
In their many ways, they’re mobilizing society’s most potent forces–businesses in mindful markets and citizens in vibrant civil society–to do what is necessary at this pivotal moment, the most important moment since we walked out of Africa: the moment when humanity has exactly enough time, starting now.
Each of you can choose to be one of those unusual people who–with humor and courage, chutzpah and humility, eager enthusiasm and relentless patience who are composing their lives and combining their efforts to make it so.
Here we are. And now imagine the power of all of us together to make it so.
– Amory Lovins