Saturday, July 31, 2010


I was amused by some of the responses to the Skywatch Friday post, about how easy it is to be distracted by the sky whilst driving. In fact, I almost had two separate accidents on two different days simply because I was overwhelmed by immensely beautiful goings on above me: big billowy cumulus clouds, wispy cirrus feathers, gorgeous colors and rays of sun highlighting brief bits of prairie. All this was almost enough to take me away from the world. In more ways than one. Of course, then I read the newspaper and my euphoria quite quickly evaporated.

Those of us who aren't prayin' folk are sometimes asked how we can keep going on in tough times if things are as bleak as the news makes them seem.

I mean, only this week the Population Reference Bureau forecast 9 billion inhabitants on this small, endangered planet, by 2050 (7 billion by next year). Couple with this the prospect of there being not nearly enough young people to help take care of the old (the birthrate is falling, despite the projected population increase, so that the old will vastly outnumber the young), and the prognosis is grim.

And then there's the Gulf. After 100 days, the Deepwater Horizon well has been capped, and the "kill" is to begin next week. The font of oil has been stanched, at least for the moment, but stay tuned in China, Michigan, the Red Sea--oh, and Louisiana again: Barataria Bay, where a boat hit an oil well and caused a new leak of oil and gas into an extremely sensitive area already compromised by the BP spill. The New York Times recently ran a good slide show on the Environmental Impact of Oil Spills, in case anybody's been hiding in a cave for the last three months. If that makes you want to get out the checkbook and fund something, try Stop the Drill at Oceana.

The "slow" economy figures in all this, of course, but the whole picture presents such a damned if you do, damned if you don't conundrum that I'm not sure how anybody can get out of bed these days.

I mean, think of the pickle: We stop spending ourselves silly, and the economy stops growing fast enough to create jobs, which adds to the recessional outlook. We stop drilling and killing wildlife, and more jobs are lost. The ultimate quandary in the Gulf is instructive: vast numbers of people along the coast make their living from oil (drilling, refining, exploring, supporting)--but they're all now suffering the consequences of the country's insatiable oil-thirst, which threatens the livelihood of other inhabitants, who depend on fishing, shrimping, and tourism.

Sometimes, homo sapiens sapiens seems an absurd name for our species. We're hardly wise. If we were, we'd think things through, not see constant growth and accumulation of "wealth" as worthy goals, and think far enough ahead that we don't arrive at crises of our own making. All those people shouting about the deficit we're leaving our grandchildren would do well to think about how much they've contributed to the real legacy: a crowded, polluted, hot planet--and the consequences thereof. Forget about the money. Think about the quality of life. Forget about satisfying wants, and think about what it will take simply to satisfy basic needs.

As conscious as I am of all this, however, I do not contemplate throwing myself off a cliff in the Grand Canyon or other colorful and poetic means of ending myself. Instead, I get up every morning, have a good cup of coffee, and go about the work of educating young designers--in hopes that they'll somehow, someday figure it all out.

Family members have asked me how I can possibly exist without having faith that some god (well, actually, a particular one) will somehow take things in hand--if only we can believe enough, or pray hard enough, or trust in his wisdom to sort things out (it's always a he). How can I go about my daily tasks with no sense of ultimate purpose?

The simple answer is hope. I hope that we will become smart enough and generous enough over the next few years to see that constant, unrelenting growth does not provide a path toward a sustainable future for our children. I hope that we will become better assessors of new technologies so that we don't keep feeding greedy corporations that exploit poor workers in third-world countries, who mine dangerous minerals to construct the newest, fastest, sexiest digital machines. I hope we slow down, anchor ourselves in our environments, and begin to really see and experience the world we're poised to lose within a couple of generations. I hope we stop playing with our children's education and start teaching them what they need to know in order to survive in a depleted world.

After Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, one of the books that helped to raise our consciousness about what we're doing to the planet, he wrote another, less celebrated work: Hope, Human and Wild, in which he describes several communities that live in ways that offer promise for a different kind of future. He tries to "imagine a future vastly different from the present, one where people consume much less and restrain themselves much more. Where 'public' is no longer a curse word, and 'growth' increasingly is" (1). He contrasts hope with mere "wishing" that things will get better on their own. "Real hope," he says, "implies real willingness to change" (3).

I wrote More News From Nowhere as a descriptive act--a speculation about (as William Morris put it) "how we might live." But McKibben's book focuses on actual communities living actual lives: Curibita in Brazil, and Kerala in India, where people are actually doing, rather than just talking.

To this list, one could add Gaviotas in Colombia, although the population is quite small. But check out the Sustainable Cities website for larger efforts. And for an even bigger lift, search Google for "sustainable cities" and more pages on efforts around the world.

If I have any faith at all, it's that the human brain is wired for survival; that the instincts we've developed over the last couple of hundred thousand years will kick in and we'll realize that if we don't ramp down we're out of the game. To me the ultimate act of despair would be to go on as if nothing has happened.

The United States seems to be mired in American exceptionalism these days, comfortable in our cocoon of assumptions about who we are and what we're entitled to. I'm not sure how many oil spills or other disasters it'll take before we wake up and notice what we're doing to ourselves--let alone what we're doing to the rest of the world by exporting our excesses.

Still, I hope. I do what I think I can, although certainly not all that I probably could. As long as efforts go on somewhere to address the problems, I'll keep hoping and keep doing--even if, at this point in my life "doing" has more to do with driving a fuel-efficient car and going without air conditioning than with real political action. And if y'all who pray want to go on doing so, I'm pretty sure it's not going to hurt.

Image credit: this today's Wikimedia Commons's "photograph of the day," Hazy Blue Hour in Grand Canyon, by Michael Gäbler (take a look at some of his other contributions at the link). I went to the Commons to find an evocative photo of our home planet, and this came up. I thought it provided a good reason to hope that we manage not to screw it all up.


Anonymous said...

As usual great post :)

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
Anne Lamott

Hope... is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for who so hopes has within him the gift of miracles.
Samuel Smiles

Coffeeveggie addict. said...

nice blog....thank you for dropping by at my blog hope to see you again...

Light and Voices said...

Lovely, simply lovely photograph.
Joyce M

Owlfarmer said...

Joyce, be sure to follow the link under "image credits" to see the source. The guy who took this photo has also made other lovely ones available through Wikimedia Commons.