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Blog item: Beyond Hope

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10 comments, last: Aug-13-2009   Add a comment   Author: GuestWriter (Jul-30-2009)    Play a Video
Category: Philosophical & Quality of Life

Doors opened; photograph by Stephen WilkesBy Derrick Jensen

THE MOST COMMON WORDS I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We're screwed. Most of these environmentalists are fighting desperately, using whatever tools they have—or rather whatever legal tools they have, which means whatever tools those in power grant them the right to use, which means whatever tools will be ultimately ineffective—to try to protect some piece of ground, to try to stop the manufacture or release of poisons, to try to stop civilized humans from tormenting some group of plants or animals. Sometimes they're reduced to trying to protect just one tree.

Here's how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: "As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they're gone in twenty, they'll be gone forever."

But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We're losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don't care.

Frankly, I don't have much hope. But I think that's a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.

To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women's shelters in the '50s and '60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they're getting worse. Rapidly.

But it isn't only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?

We've all been taught that hope in some future condition—like hope in some future heaven—is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I'm sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind's sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one's misfortune.

The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying "Hope and fear chase each other's tails," not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn't believe—or maybe you would—how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here's the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.

I'm not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don't hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn't crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they've assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they've stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn't drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don't like how they're being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to "hope" at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we're in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

PEOPLE SOMETIMES ASK ME, "If things are so bad, why don't you just kill yourself?" The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really screwed, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really screwed. Life is still really good.

Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.

Another question people sometimes ask me is, "If things are so bad, why don't you just party?" Well, the first answer is that I don't really like to party. The second is that I'm already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.

I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I've learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction—the use of any excuse to justify inaction—reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.

At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn't matter, he said, and it's egotistical to think it does.

I told him I disagreed.

Doesn't activism make you feel good? he asked.

Of course, I said, but that's not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world.


Because I'm in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don't determine whether or not you make the effort. You don't simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn't cause me to protect those I love, it's not love.

A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn't kill you. It didn't even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there's a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you're dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell—you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase—not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.

When you give up on hope—when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive—you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?

But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.

And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.

In case you're wondering, that's a very good thing.

Related reading:
  Copenhagen? More Like Hopenhagen (Dec-14-2009)
  Tearing Down the Master's House: An Interview w... (Aug-23-2009)
  Hide or Seek? (May-24-2009)
  From Despair to Hope (Nov-15-2008)
  Melissa Gragg and Jason Miller interview Derrick... (Nov-14-2008)
  Derrick Jensen & The Collapse of Civilization (Sep-8-2008)
  "If monetary value is attached to something it wi..." (Aug-15-2008)

Click one tag to see readings related specifically to that tag; click "Tags" to see all related readings
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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Aug-13-2009)   Web site
Maybe there is a place for those who practice direct, personal action in their lives, and also for those who try to create a new approach through talk and exploring new ideas.

As the old commercial said, "Stop, you're both right!" There is also room for improving one's action, and one's analysis, and I don't agree with some of what Derrick is saying. But I do believe more people have to become skeptical of the status quo, or we will continue to have bad electoral results, and the USA, for one, will continue to have expensive and relatively ineffective healthcare as pre-programmed hordes use strong-arm tactics to protect corporate interests.
Comment by: jayfitz (Jay Fitz) (Aug-12-2009)   Web site

I don't find this sort of take very hopeful at all. I know it all sounds very "proactive" and all that but I'd be much more interested in hearing about and seeing what the Author has achieved in providing security for his beloved coho--that is, rather than writing books and running on the talk circuit. I don't ask this in a meanspirited attitude at all--rather, I'd actually enjoy seeing just what's been achieved.If something, great. There's some tough talk there and I'd like to see the result. Unfortunately real examples of individuals working for a better future are very very rare and take a back seat, for some reason, to essays. Very "way of the whining warrior" sorts of essays, often. I find this makes me suspicious. I hope unfairly.

The web site provided has many fine examples of personal direct action from many individuals. Perhaps we could agree that focusing on practice is more constructive than conjecture.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Aug-5-2009)   

I disagree that e-tourism does any good. It just relieves a little guilt while the planet burns from the jobs people do to earn the money to take those trips or buy the videos.
Imagine how much better off the planet would be if people stopped spending money on the things they don't need. Yes, it's nice to know things, but what moderation is there to it? When does one realize that all of that 'progress' is just a means to funnel resources out of the ground and into the pockets of a central bank/government/corporation?
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Aug-4-2009)   Web site

Environmental tourism can be pretty damaging to the environment, for sure. I've heard it said, however, that certain activities that burn huge amounts of fossil fuel have done good: flying a BBC crew around the world to make the 'Living Planet' documentary, for example; or sending men into space to photograph the earth. Without that picture of the earth from space it would, perhaps, be far more difficult to see how small and fragile our home planet is.

As for the suicide, it can't be long before the first environmentalist kills themselves for the cause. Perhaps it's happened already.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Aug-4-2009)   

So, let's all jump on a Jumbo jet or a space shuttle and go out 'appreciating' nature like the rich folk do!! That will make the human supertanker even MORE important to those species we run over or burn up.

Ha! Just kidding. Maybe you should revisit the environmentally friendly suicide plan and think about starting a following. "Many hands make light work!" ;-)
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Aug-3-2009)   Web site

Hmm. My hope stems from knowing there are people in the world like Derrick Jensen who are fighting hard to protect the planet. Giving me hope may not have been his intention in writing the article, but it had that affect on me. The danger would come if I (and others) then sat back and let Derrick do it all on his own. Without us he cannot succeed.

As for the supertanker, I suppose I was talking about this great project we might call 'society' or 'modernity' or 'civilisation'. Whatever name we give it, it is headed for the rocks. In the next century or so, humankind may make itself extinct and take several other species with it (polar bears, whales, many species of fish, corals, tigers, rhinos).

For the rest of life on earth, the end of humanity may be a good thing. The best thing I could do for the environment may be to commit suicide: that would surely minimise my carbon footprint. But I still think there are positive ways I can contribute. And, though this may seem like anthropocentric arrogance, I also think that nature is only wonderful and beautiful because we humans think it is wonderful and beautiful. To other animals a sunset is just the end of the day, a rose is just a source of nectar, the king of the jungle is just an existential threat, and a cuddly bunny rabbit is just a ready meal. Without us, the natural world is like a painting in a cupboard: unappreciated.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Aug-3-2009)   Web site

Since Derrick suggested abandoning hope, and WH emphasizes hope, I am guessing that there is some humor or irony in the reply. Perhaps WH will elaborate?
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Aug-3-2009)   

By spinning that wheel, WH, you defeat some of the point of Derrick's words. I appreciate the sentiment, though, don't get me wrong. I just think that this supertanker needs to sink and grow a coral reef. Turning it acknowledges that it should still be floating and that gives people justification to do whatever it takes to keep it afloat. The 'tanker' is really our mistaken idea that humans have more rights than any other life form simply because we granted those rights to ourselves without asking the trees or fish or flowers what they thought about the plan.

The only right granted to all living things is the right to TRY to live. By granting ourselves a 'right to live', we take away the right to try that other living things need. Not to mention that we are hypocritical in our 'right to life' arguments most of the time, anyway. We want to say we don't do cruel things to babies so that corporations can do cruel things to them when they are big enough to work. As Dennis Leary said about animal rights: "We only want to save the CUTE ones."

Truth is, we know we can't afford to save everyone, so we come up with reasons (after the fact :-) why we took life or resources from a particular part of nature and used it for ourselves to keep OUR tanker afloat.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jul-30-2009)   Web site

Yes, spin the wheel, Wavehunter....
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Jul-30-2009)   Web site

I probably shouldn't say this, but reading Derrick Jensen's energetic and passionate piece gives me renewed hope that we might, just might, be able to turn this supertanker around in time.

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