Optimism and Hope in a Hotter Time
More heat waves and droughts.
David W. Orr
We like optimistic people. They are fun, often funny, and very often capable of doing amazing things otherwise thought to be impossible. Were I stranded on a life raft in the middle of the ocean and could have either an optimist or a pessimist as companion, Id want an optimist, providing he did not have a liking for human flesh.
Optimism, however, is often rather like a Yankee fan believing that the team can win the game when its the bottom of the ninth, theyre up by a run, with two outs, a two-strike count against a .200 hitter, and Mariano Rivera in his prime is on the mound. The optimist is optimistic for good reason. Red Sox fans, on the other hand, believe in salvation by small percentages and hope for a hit to get the runner home from second and tie the game. Optimism is recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people actively defy or change the odds. Optimism leans back, puts its feet up and wears a confident look, knowing that the deck is stacked.
I know of no good reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future, but I know lots of reasons to be hopeful. How can one be optimistic, for example, about global warming?
First, it isnt a warming, but rather a total destabilization of the planet brought on by the behavior of one species: us. Whoever called this warming must have worked for the advertising industry or the Siberian Bureau of Economic Development.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changethe thousand-plus scientists who study climate and whose livelihoods depend on authenticity, facts, logic and repeatability of experimentsput it differently: A hotter world means rising odds of
More and larger storms.
More tropical diseases in formerly temperate areas.
Sea levels rising much faster than once expected.
Losing many things nature once did for us.
Lots of things will becoming rare, such as Vermont maple syrup.
More and nastier bugs.
Food shortages due to drought, heat and more and nastier bugs.
More death from climate-driven weather.
Refugees fleeing floods, rising seas, drought and expanding deserts.
International conflicts over energy, food and water.
And, eventually, runaway climate change to some new stable state most likely without humans.
Some of these changes are inevitable, given the volume of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases weve already put into the atmosphere. There is a lag of several decades between the emission of greenhouse gases and the weather headlines, and still another lag until we experience their full economic and political effects. The sum total of the opinions of climate experts goes like this:
Weve already warmed the planet by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
We are committed to another degree of warming.
Its too late to avoid trauma.
But might not be too late to avoid global catastrophe including runaway climate change.
There are no magic bullets.
It is truly a global emergency.
The fourth item above is anyones guess, since the level of heat-trapping gases is higher than it has been in the past 650,000 years and quite likely for a great deal longer. We are playing a global version of Russian roulette, and no one knows for certain what the safe thresholds of various heat-trapping gases might be.
Scientific certainty about the pace of climate change over the past three decades has a brief shelf life, but the pattern is clear. As scientists learn more, its mostly worse than they previously thought. Ocean acidification went from being a problem a century or two hence to being a crisis in a matter of decades. Melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets went from being possible hundreds of years hence to a matter of decades in one case and a century or two in the other. The threshold of perceived safety went down from perhaps 560 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to perhaps 450 ppm. And so forth.
Optimism in these circumstances is like whistling as one walks past the graveyard at midnight. There is no good case to be made for it, but the sound of whistling sure beats the sound of the rustling in the bushes beside the fence. It doesnt change the probabilities one iota, nor does it much influence lurking goblins. Nonetheless, we like optimism and optimistic people. They soothe, reassure and sometimes motivate us to accomplish a great deal more than we otherwise might. But sometimes optimism misleads, and on occasion badly so. This is where hope enters.
Hope requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions. It requires a level of honesty, self-awareness and sobriety that is difficult to summon and sustain. I know a great many smart people and many very good people, but I know few people who can handle hard truth gracefully without despairing. We seize on anything that distracts us from the unpleasant. Its rather like in A Few Good Men when beleaguered Marine Corps officer Jack Nicholson tells defense attorney Tom Cruise: You cant handle the truth! T. S. Eliot less dramatically noted the same tendency in Four Quartets: Burnt Norton: Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
Authentic hope, in other words, is made of sterner stuff than optimism. It must be rooted in the truth as best we can see it, knowing that our vision is always partial. Hope requires the courage to reach farther, dig deeper, confront our limits and those of nature, work harder and dream dreams. Optimism doesnt require much effort, since youre likely to win anyway. Hope must hustle, scheme, make deals and strategize.
How do we find authentic hope in the face of climate change, the biological holocaust now under way, the spread of global poverty, seemingly unsolvable human conflicts, terrorism and the void of adequate world leadership?
Ive been thinking about the difference between optimism and hope since being admonished recently to give a positive talk at a gathering of ranchers, natural resource professionals and students. Presumably the audience was incapable of coping with the bad news expected from me. I gave the talk that I intended, a mixture of good and bad news. The audience survived, but the experience caused me to think more about what we say and what we can say to good effect about the kind of news that readers of this journal reckon with daily.
The view that the public can only handle happy news rests on a chain of reasoning that goes like this:
We face problems that are solvable, not dilemmas that can be avoided with foresight but are not solvable, and certainly not losses that are permanent.
People cant handle much truth.
So resolution of different values, and significant improvement of human behavior otherwise necessary, are impossible.
Greed and self-interest are in the drivers seat and always will be.
So the consumer economy is here to stay.
But consumers sometimes want greener gadgets.
Capitalism can supply these at a goodly profit and itself be greened a bit, but not improved otherwise.
So matters of distribution, poverty and political power are nonstarters.
Therefore, the focus should be on problems solvable at a profit by technology and policy changes.
Significant improvement of politics, policy and governance are unlikely and probably irrelevant, because better design and market adjustments can substitute for governmental regulation and thereby eliminate most of the sources of political controversyrather like Karl Marxs prediction of the withering away of the state.
Disguised as optimism, this approach is, in fact, pessimistic and condescending about our capacity to face the truth and act creatively, courageously and even nobly in dire circumstances. So we do not talk about limits to growth, unsolvable problems, moral failings, unequal distribution of wealth within and between generations, emerging dangers, impossibilities, technology gone awry or necessary sacrifices. Realism requires us to portray climate change as an opportunity to make a great deal of money, which it may be for some, but without saying that it might not be for most, or mentioning its connections to other problems, or the possibility that the Four Horsemen are gaining on us. We are not supposed to talk about coming changes in our lifestyles, a telling and empty word implying fashion, not necessity or conviction.
Instead, solving climate change is reduced to a series of wedges supposed to eliminate so many gigatons of carbon without any serious changes in how we live. There is no wedge called suck it up, because that is considered too much to ask of people who have been consuming way too much, too carelessly, for too long. The American way of life is thought to be sacrosanct. In the face of a global emergency, brought on in no small part by the profligate American way of life, few are willing to say otherwise.
So we are told to buy hybrid cars, but not asked to walk, travel by bikes or go less often, even at the end of the era of cheap oil. We are asked to buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, but not to turn off our electronic stuff or not buy it in the first place. We are admonished to buy green, but seldom asked to buy less, repair what we already have or just make do. We are encouraged to build green buildings that are used for maybe 10 hours a day for five days a week, but we are not told that we cannot build our way out of the mess weve made, or to repair existing buildings. We are not told that the consumer way of life will have to be rethought and redesigned to exist within the limits of natural systems and better fitted to our human limitations. And so, as Peter Montague once put it, we continue to walk north on a southbound train.
And maybe, told that its hindquarters are caught in a ringer, the public would panic, or would despair from doing what could save us from the worst outcomes possible. This is an old view of human nature epitomized in the work of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and founder of modern public relations. Public order, he thought, had to be engineered by manipulating people to be dependent and dependable consumers. People who think too much or know too much were in his view a hazard to social stability.
Maybe this is true and maybe gradualism is the right strategy. Perhaps the crises of climate, equity, security and economic sustainability will yield to the cumulative effects of many small changes without any sacrifice at all. Maybe changes now under way are enough to save us. Maybe small changes will increase the willingness to make larger changes in the future. And state-level initiatives in California, Florida and the Northeast are changing the politics of climate. Wind and solar energy are growing more than 40 percent per year, taking us toward a different regime. Maybe a carbon cap and trade bill will be enough. Maybe we can win the game of climate roulette at a profit and never have to confront the nastier realities of global capitalism and inequity, or confront the ecological and human violence that weve unleashed in the world.
But I wouldnt bet the earth on it.
For one, the big numbers give us no margin for safety and none for delay in reducing carbon dioxide levels before we risk triggering runaway change. Climate, as Wallace Broecker once put it, is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks. So call it prudence, precaution, insurance, common sense or what you will, but this should be regarded as an emergency like no other. Having spent any margin of error we might have had 30 years ago, we now have to respond fast and effectively or else.
Thats what the drab language of the fourth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is saying. What is being proposed, I think, is still too little, too latenecessary but not nearly sufficient. And it is being sold as realism by people who have convinced themselves that to be credible they must understate the problem.
Second, climate roulette is part of a larger equation of violence, inequity and imperialism, of exploitation of nature and people, even across generations. In other words, heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are a symptom of something a lot bigger. To deal with the causes of climate change we must look deep for what took us to the brink of destroying the human prospect and much of the planet. It did not happen accidentally but is, rather, the logical working out of long-standing assumptions, philosophy, worldview and unfair power relations.
The wars, gulags, ethnic cleansings, militarism and destruction of forests, wildlife and oceans throughout the 20th century were earlier symptoms of the problem. Weve been playing fast and loose with life for some time, and must discuss the changes needed to conduct public business fairly and decently over the long haul.
What do I propose? Simply this: that those of us concerned about climate change, environmental quality and equity treat the public as intelligent adults who can understand the truth and act creatively and courageously in the face of necessity. Act like a doctor talking to a patient with a potentially terminal disease.
There are many good precedents for telling the truth. Abraham Lincoln did not pander, condescend, evade or reduce moral and political issues to economics, jobs and happy talk. Rather, he described slavery as a moral disaster for slaves and slave owners alike. Winston Churchill in the dark days of the London blitzkrieg in 1940 did not talk about defeating Nazism at a profit and the joys of urban renewal. Instead he offered the British people only blood, toil, tears and sweat.
And they responded with heart, courage, stamina and sacrifice. At the individual level, faced with a life-threatening illness, people more often than not respond heroically. Every day, soldiers, parents, citizens and strangers do brave and improbable things in the full knowledge of the price they will pay.
Telling truth means that the people must be summoned to a level of extraordinary greatness appropriate to an extraordinarily dangerous time. People, otherwise occupied with trivial celebrity foibles, must be asked to again be citizens, to know more, think more, take responsibility, participate publicly, and, yea, suck it up. They will have to see the connections between what they drive and the wars we fight, the stuff they buy and crazy weather, the politicians they elect and the spread of poverty and violence. They must be taught to see connections between climate, environmental quality, security, energy use, equity and prosperity. As quaint and naive as all this might sound, people have done it before, and it has worked.
Telling the truth means that we will have to speak clearly about what led us to the brink of disaster. If we fail to deal with causes, no Band-Aid will save us for long. The problems can in one way or another be traced to the irresponsible exercise of power that has excluded the rights of the poor, the disenfranchised, and every generation after our own. This is in no small way because of political money aiding and abetting theft of the public commons, including the airwaves, where deliberate misinformation is a growing industry. Freedom of speech, as Lincoln said in 1860, does not include the right to mislead others, who have less access to history and less leisure to study it. But the rights of capital over the media now trump honesty and fair public dialogue, and will continue to do so until the public reasserts its legitimate control.
Telling the truth means summoning people to a higher vision than that of the affluent consumer society. Consider the well studied but little noted gap between the stagnant or falling trend line of happiness in the last half-century and that of rising gross domestic product. That gap ought to have reinforced the ancient message that, beyond some point, more is not better. If we fail to see a vision of a livable, decent future beyond the consumer society, we will never summon the courage, imagination or wit to get there.
So, what does a carbon-neutral, increasingly sustainable society look like? My picture is communities with these things:
Locally owned businesses.
Windmills and solar collectors.
Locally owned farms and better food.
Summer baseball leagues.
Neighborhood book clubs.
Vibrant and robust downtowns with sidewalk cafes, great pubs serving microbrews, and more kids playing outdoors.
Fewer freeways, shopping malls, sprawl, television.
No more wars for oil or anything else.
Nirvana? No! Humans have a remarkable capacity to screw up good things, but we can still create a future a great deal better than what is now in prospect. And what we must do to avert the worst effects of climate change are mostly the same things we would do to build sustainable communities and economies, and to improve environmental quality and prospects for our children.
Finally, I am an educator and earn my keep by perpetuating the quaint belief that if people only knew more, they would act better. Some of what they need to know is new, but most of it is old, very old. On my list of things people ought to know:
The laws of thermodynamics, which tell us that economic growth only increases the pace of disorder, the transition from low entropy to high entropy.
The basic sciences of biology and ecologyhow the world works as a physical system.
The fundamentals of carrying capacity, which apply to yeast cells in a wine vat, lemmings and humans alike.
But they ought to know, too, about human fallibility, gullibility and the inescapable problem of ignorance. So I propose that schools, colleges and universities require their students to read Marlowes Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and Melvilles Moby Dick. I would hope that they would learn to distinguish things that we can do from those that we should not.
Hope, authentic hope, can be found only in our capacity to discern the truth about our situation and ourselves and summon the fortitude to act accordingly. In time the truth will set us free from illusion, greed, ill will and self-imposed destruction.
From "Land Report", Spring 2008, pp 19-23, The Land Institute, Salina KS.
David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics. He is also a James Marsh Professor at large at the University of Vermont. Born in Des Moines, Iowa and raised in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, he holds a B.A. from Westminster College (1965), a M.A. from Michigan State University (1966), and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania (1973). He and his wife have two sons and three grandchildren.
He is the author of five books:
Design on the Edge: The Making of a High Performance Building (MIT Press, 2006); The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment (Island Press, 2004);
The Nature of Design (Oxford, 2002); Earth in Mind (Island, 1994/2004);
Ecological Literacy (SUNY, 1992) and co-editor of The Global Predicament (North Carolina, 1979);
The Campus and Environmental Responsibility (Jossey-Bass, 1992).
He has published 150 articles in scientific journals, social science publications, and popular magazines.
He is best known for his pioneering work on environmental literacy in higher education and his recent work in ecological design. He raised funds for and spearheaded the effort to design and build a $7.2 million Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College, a building described by the New York Times as the most remarkable of a new generation of college buildings and by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of thirty milestone buildings of the 20th century.
Variation on the Theme: An Invited Response
Russian oil reserves and Russian national ambitions.
I was intrigued and absorbed by David Orrs examination of optimism versus hope. He skillfully draws us into an enjoyable opportunity to argue about the shifting meanings of American English. Orr favors hope. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up, Orr writes. I suppose so. But hope is also a verb in pajamas, gazing longingly out the window for somebody to come over and rescue it. Hopeful lives near wistful. Personally, I like being optimistic. Optimismwhich Orr describes as the recognition that the odds are in your favoralso connotes a certain plucky chin-up-ness that defies those odds. Optimism is an historical duty, Bernard Lown once said.
Whatever. Really, its just potaytoe versus potahtoe, another occasion for fun with our hypermutable vernacular. The really tough challenge Orr poses is found a little deeper into his piece: how to talk to our nonspecialist fellow citizens. Orr was prompted to think about appropriate language after being admonished recently to give a positive talk. Who among public speakers has not been urged to avoid gloom? Who doesnt try to strike a balance between the dismal facts of global change and a desire to engage the audience? As Orr wisely observes, it is hardand morally dubiousto elaborate on the total destabilization of the planet and then pitch 10 Easy Things You Can Do at Home. Telling truth means that the people must be summoned to a level of extraordinary greatness appropriate to an extraordinarily dangerous time, Orr writes. They will have to see the connections between what they drive and the wars we fight, the stuff they buy and crazy weather, the politicians they elect and the spread of poverty and violence. He concludes:
Authentic hope can be found only in our capacity to discern the truth about our situation and ourseleves and summon the fortitude to act accordingly. In time the truth will set us free from illusion, greed, and ill-will and self-imposed destruction.
I would be happy if the laws of this republic were written by David Orr and people who see the world as he sees it. I admire their values, and could depend on their characters. Their public policies would be generous and farsighted.
But I am wary of the truth in general. And I do not believe that an appreciation of a particular set of facts about the relationships between consumer behavior and climate change ratifies the more astonishing assertion that burning oil and coal implies more violence, inequity and imperialism than relying on human and animal muscle power. Thats not what I read in human history. I would say that the Petroleum Age has just made the scale of everything bigger: more poverty but more wealth, more disease for some and greater longevity and less suffering for others, more brutality and more erudition, greater eruptions of violence and more regimes of peace and security. It is difficultto say the leastto persuade the billion bourgeois grandchildren of landless peasants that their family history is embedded in the darker narrative of the ecological and human violence that weve unleashed in the world. Sure, maybe so, but its been enjoyable. And way more comfortable.
In a way, I am more simpleminded about our human dilemma. I believe that the ecological and social damage wrought by the emission of greenhouse gases will be contained and mitigated when the prices of carbon fuels are considerably more expensivesay four times more expensivethan they are today. Many argue that such a rise is already well under way, and that a fourfold increase in the price of a barrel of oil, adjusted for inflation, will be reached within two decades. I believe that projection grievously underestimates:
The ingenuity of petroleum geologists and engineers.
The stimulating effect of higher prices on exploration and development.
I think humans will burn petroleum at high levels for many years to come, and that the conservation of oil in Country X will allow Country Y to burn more, thanks to an already-integrated global market. And dont forget those centuries worth of coal seams and tar sands.
I am for speaking truth to power. Moral suasion can work. I want David Orr on the hustings, ceaselessly. But nothing matters nearly so much as prices and costs. Those of us whose lives have profited from the Age of Petroleum can best serve our descendents and their planet by speeding the rate of carbon price increases through changes in fiscal public policy. Carbon tax, anyone?
Conn Nugent is Chairman, the Land Institute; executive director, the J.M. Kaplan Fund; managing partner, the Liberty Tree Alliance; environmental program director, the Nathan Cummings Foundation; executive director, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.