Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Different Kinds of Hope

There is more than one kind of hope.

First off, there is  the no-hope kind of hope, believing nothing can change a situation. The plug has been pulled, and all that's left is to watch the water swirl down the drain. And indeed there are times when events are so large and already in play that there's little one can do. If a tsunami threatens, you run as far and as high as you can, but you aren’t going to move your house or stop the water. It’s too late for that. On a drier day, if your house catches fire, you can try to put it out, but at a certain point it’s best just to get out and watch it burn. Stay alive to rebuild another day.  If you have a terminal illness you can undergo various costly procedures that have little chance of working, or, with as much equanimity as you can muster,  you can focus on the quality of life of the time you have left. So there are situations when no hope (the acceptance phase in Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief) is the right choice. Some might call it pessimism, some might call it realism. It can be seen as giving in to despair or just sheer logic and pragmatism. Sometimes, though, "no hope" is used as an excuse when something actually could've been done to remedy a situation. Sometimes "there's no hope" is short-hand for "I just don't want to inconvenience myself in any way."

Then there is passive hope. The belief that, in spite of everything, things will work out for the best. That somehow, without effort on our part, our problems will be solved. And indeed, sometimes the universe does seem to work in mysterious ways. One of my favorite themes running through Shakespeare in Love:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery. 

A caricature of passivity, Henslowe goes with the flow even though it makes him anxious and he nearly gets his ear cut off.  And, lo and behold, his philosophy proves sound!  Things work out with very little intervention on his part.  Happy endings abound, or at least the show goes on.

 The last kind of hope is active hope. It requires action in the face of uncertainty. We hope that our children will grow up happy and healthy. We can’t guarantee it, but we take as much action towards that goal as we can, and then optimistically hope for the best. 

The universe appears to like those crazy optimists.  Studies show that while pessimists have a much more accurate view of circumstances, optimists have better outcomes in life.  This is because by believing a situation is rosier then it actually is, optimists try. They don’t give up, they don’t admit defeat before they’ve even begun. So because they try, they succeed more often than pessimists whose more realistic understanding of a situation leads them not to try at all.

But these studies only hold true for active optimists, not passive ones.

Consider this scenario:  you have a patch of ground in your yard and you would like it to produce fresh vegetables for you. A pessimist might say that there isn't enough sun, the soil is too compacted, the probability of pests too great to make a garden worth the effort. An active optimist would loosen the soil, add the compost and fertilizer, trim back some overhead branches to let in more light, plant the seeds, and see what happens. Maybe the pessimist is right, maybe the garden will not produce, but the active optimist is willing to put in the effort and take his or her chances. A passive optimist would wish a garden to just show up in the patch of ground. Who knows—a bird could drop seeds from overhead, a neighbor could just up and plant some stuff, perhaps seeds might fall from a plane. Maybe a random person passing by will feel the urge to sow something in the dirt. It could happen.

Passive hope has its literary and cultural precedents. In The Three Musketeers, Athos decides there’s no way he can come up with the money to equip himself for the next battle campaign so decides he might as well sit in his room and wait for the equipment to come to him. And, remarkably, it does, thanks to his active, generous (and it turns out, lucky) friend, d’Artagnan. And in one of my favorite Dr. Who episodes, Warrior’s Gate, as the characters search frantically for a way to avoid imminent collapse into a singularity, one of the characters advises the Doctor to do nothing. (This is largely because that character has taken matters in hand in a way the Doctor does not yet understand.) As disaster approaches the Doctor finally recognizes that sometimes doing nothing is appropriate, “if it’s the right sort of nothing.”

There is indeed a time and a place for the Zen minimalism of doing the right sort of nothing. Most of the time, however, the Doctor and Athos are lively shapers of their fate. In fact, they only refrain from action the rare times when it is wiser to let other characters do the work. Though in Shakespeare in Love it’s a mystery to Henslowe how the play inevitably does go on, we see that the other characters struggle mightily to write a great play, cast it, rehearse it, scheme, organize, deal with reversals, push and strive to make the play a success.  

As Kipling observed, 
"Gardens are not made 
by singing ‘oh how beautiful’ 
and sitting in the shade.“ 

Most of the time someone must prepare the soil, plant some seeds and tend them with a certain amount of care. Most of the time if a community doesn’t manage its sewage and sanitation effectively, it is prone to outbreaks of disease. Most of the time if you use your chimney year after year without cleaning it, it will fill with soot and catch on fire. Some things one can trust to God or the universe to take care of, but other things are such a basic matter of cause and effect that God and the universe expect us human beings to stop being stupid and lazy and take care of them ourselves.

So where is this essay leading?  In the last 150 years, with the advent of the unprecedented energy provided by fossil fuels, human population has exploded.  We’ve made clever use of this energy to feed unprecedented numbers of people and raise standards of living for some to the levels of kings and queens of yore. In doing so we’ve spewed enough carbon, methane and other gases in the atmosphere that we are on track to transform our planet into a scorching hell. Why we lack urgency about this matter is because when it comes to carbon emissions, there is a time lag between cause and effect. This summer we are feeling the effects of carbon emitted fifty years ago. Unless we quickly get into the business of absorbing carbon rather than emitting it, the carbon we spew into our atmosphere this summer will be felt by our progeny fifty years hence.

Human Population

If we don't put the brakes on our collective carbon emissions, the earth’s temperature will rise 7 degrees F (4 degrees C) within our children’s lifetimes. This will be the hottest the earth has been in 30 million years. Half of all species presently living will go extinct, arable land will dwindle drastically, starvation and/or flooding will create hundreds of millions of refugees, and hundreds of millions will die from disease and/or starvation. This rise in temperature of 7 degrees F will likely trigger further feedback loops that will raise temperatures even further:  to an 11 degree F rise within our grandchildren’s lifetimes, and to a 22 degree F rise by the year 2300.  Ultimately, this will mean billions of humans dying with the earth so hot, survivors will be driven to live underground or in scattered, isolated areas still cool enough for human existence. If this is not a human extinction event, then it will be very close to it.

The future we are now creating for our children and grandchildren is bleak. Rapid climate change will bring about devastation and destruction on a scale worse than any war, any drought, or any plague humans have ever endured. The suffering and loss of life will be far worse than anything Hitler or Stalin ever dreamed of. Climate change on this scale is not just a possibility. If temperatures rise high enough to melt the methane frozen in the ocean and the arctic permafrost, it is a certainty. And methane has already begun to bubble up from the Arctic Ocean in plumes never before seen.

We can do nothing, of course, and hope for the best. Maybe an ice age will shortly set in and the earth will cool by itself. Maybe kindly aliens will arrive from outer space and save us. Maybe someone, somewhere will come up with some technology that will fix everything just fine. Surely if things were really bad our politicians would act responsibly and lead us down a sensible path. Why inconvenience ourselves, why spend money on energy sources that don’t destabilize the atmosphere, why change our lifestyles to reduce the amount of energy we consume, why go to the trouble of figuring out how to live in balance with our planet when there is a tiny chance some other force will step in and do the work for us?

This is passive hope, often known as wishful thinking.  We are Sleeping Beauty dreaming that someday our prince will come and solve all our problems. No need to fight dragons or witches.  No unpleasantness, no effort, no responsibility. Just deep, deep unconsciousness.
On the other hand, if we have no hope, if we believe humans are too selfish, greedy and short-sighted to change, that extinction is our species’ fate, then we will do nothing as well. Indeed, I wrote a blog post about the futility of spitting in the wind. In Beaufort 1849, Jasper attempts to persuade antebellum Beaufort to avoid its terrible fate. Finally he recognizes that regardless of what he might say or do the townsfolk are dead set on hurtling themselves towards secession and oblivion. He goes from active hope to no hope, although by letting go of his hope for the South, he is able to have hope for himself. But the Civil War, although a terrible tragedy that caused a great deal of death and suffering, didn’t mean the end of life on Earth for most people or whole species. The devastation was localized, reversible, and the people who suffered largely (though certainly not entirely) held at least some responsibility for the problem. (There are arguments to be made that before the war the North profited almost as much as the South from Southern slavery; it was only because the South wanted to extend its economic system into the West that the North put its foot down.)

This is not the case now. The earth may indeed heal itself after all this, but it will take millions of years. The people who will suffer the most are ones not yet born, and the plant and animal species that will die off will hardly be responsible for their extinction. In addition, while Jasper could leave the South, as far as I know we can’t leave our planet. We have nowhere to go. Even if the odds of fixing our predicament are low, to not even try, to give up while there is still a chance of avoiding catastrophe is senseless and immoral. We have a responsibility to step up to the plate and do our best to prevent suffering rather than inflict it. To save who and what we can. This is active hope.

We have a chance now, a chance that grows slimmer each year. Time is slipping through our fingers.

If it’s hard to understand how our continued emissions of methane, CO2 and other gases has endangered the stability of our climate, watch this TEDx talk, Climate Change is Simple, below. This is not fear-mongering, Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling. This is Jasper telling antebellum Beaufort their entire way of life is going to end if they continue on the path they’re on.

No hope, passive hope, active hope. The first two take no effort but are unlikely to end in anything but tragedy. The third takes effort, investment, and a willingness to change, with no guarantees that the effort won't be for naught.  Which one will we choose?

(A future post will cover how to reduce one’s carbon footprint by ten percent a year for the next five years, both the money-is-no-object way and the keep-within-a-reasonable-budget way.)

Climate Change is Simple: