So many people are busy worrying about the future of art or society, they have no time to preserve what is. Utopia is in the moment. Not in some future time, some other place, but in the here and now, or else it is nowhere.
From my camp on the edge of a high desert plateau I watch the play of sunlight and cloud shadows over the long view before me. In the far blue distance, above the canyons, I recognize the outlines of landforms I know to be about a hundred miles away. Ominous storm cells line the horizon in all directions. Thunder is booming every few seconds. The air is fragrant with the scents of wet soil and conifer sap after a recent rain.
Around me is a sparse forest of predominantly aspen and ponderosa pine trees. The understory is a patchwork of shrubs now lined with fallen golden leaves. The steep slopes across from me, dropping into deep canyons, are patterned in various hues of yellow, red, and green—seemingly, an idyllic autumnal scene. Except that it is not autumn. It is July.
The golden leaves covering the ground were shed by abundant manzanita bushes dying en masse for miles around me. The crimson trees on the far slopes are dead and dying conifers, in some areas outnumbering their living brethren. Scientific models predict that most, perhaps all, of these trees will be gone from these parts by the end of this century.
Off the top of my head, I can name at least three formerly perennial creeks within twenty miles of me that have not run in two or more years now. I’ve lost count of how many once-reliable water pockets in the desert below me, where in years past I used to swim and refill my bottles on long hikes, are now dry sandy pits. Some have already lost the ring of green sedges, grasses, reeds, and flowering paintbrush that used to thrive around them. Some are filled with the accumulated excrement of cows drawn to them in hope of finding forage there. Many have perished before finding food elsewhere, evidenced by the presence of desiccating carcasses and bleached bones in the vicinity of former water sources.
I spend more than half my days in settings such as this. Seeing this landscape up close, touching it, smelling it, watching it and the life it supports changing with the hours and seasons, day after day, year after year, the realities of the changing climate are obvious and vivid to me, inescapable, undeniable.
Beyond the dry language of research papers and beyond the constant warnings of climate scientists, when faced with such visceral evidence it is hard sometimes not to despair when thinking about what is yet to come. “But what we call our despair,” wrote George Eliot, “is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”
Hope, I admit, is a difficult concept for me. To hope, after all, is to wish for something other than what I have, to be dissatisfied with my present condition and experience, to wish and to believe—ostensibly by some plausible rationale—that the future may be an improvement upon the present. But I know of no such convincing rationale. I know where the climate trends, oblivious to my wishes and hopes, are pointing to. Also, I can’t say that I know what an improvement in my condition may be, so I can try to hope for it. I have always loved my solitary experiences in this desert. I wish they remain as I have known them, for as long as I am able to partake in them. I’ve never found any other mode of living I considered better, or even a sufficient substitute.
By a fortuitous combination of effort, grit, restlessness, an abnormal psychology, and heaping doses of plain dumb luck, I managed to make a life for myself in which I am largely free to explore this beautiful country, to live for days at a time in its remote and wild districts, to form complex and lasting relationships with its geography, weather, and native lives, sometimes to photograph it. I can’t imagine a better life for a reclusive nature-loving social misfit like me. “My wish,” as Claude Monet wrote to Frédéric Bazille, “is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.” I have my wish. Of what use is hope to me?
As Europe was still recovering from the thousand-year slumber of the Middle Ages (during which very little progress in thought, art, and personal freedoms has occurred); after the great artistic and intellectual awakening of the Renaissance and after the Scientific Revolution, philosopher Immanuel Kant contemplated the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment—an age he hoped will be marked by prosperity and freedom, by the formation of human societies guided by science and reason and by a code of ethics rooted in dutiful respect for the welfare of all—a “kingdom of ends.” In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant wrote, “All interest of my reason . . . is united in the following questions: 1) What can I know? 2) What should I do? 3) What may I hope?” Giving further meaning to what he meant by hope, Kant clarified, “all hope concerns happiness.”
Although I am not in complete agreement with Kant’s answers to these questions, I find the questions and the order he posed them profound. Kant’s first question relates merely to acquiring knowledge by means of science and rational analysis. His second question is the foundation of his ethics—his morality—and can be considered to mean: given what I know, how should I act?
Ethical living, according to Kant, means striving constantly to learn what is true, then to use this knowledge, not to acquire happiness but to live and to treat others with such dignity as to be worthy of happiness.
Kant’s third question, building on the previous two, can thus be considered as this: given what I know, and if I act ethically based on what I know, may I expect to be happy?
To believe in things that are not in evidence may be considered spirituality. But to disbelieve in things that are in evidence, is folly. As Kant himself put it (somewhat ironically, although I suspect he did not intend it to be): “It was the duty of philosophy to destroy the illusions which had their origin in misconceptions, whatever darling hopes and valued expectations may be ruined by its explanations.”
In line with Kant’s three questions, I ask myself this: given what I know of the great forces in play, the unfolding and well-explained trends, bearing witness to the cataclysmic changes occurring around me and knowing what their dire consequences will be to so many things I love, what should I do? My inner philosopher, true to the annoying habit of skeptics to answer questions with questions, immediately responds: what can I do?
I know what Kant’s answer would have been. Kant’s ethics are what philosophers refer to as deontological—guided by their intent and by their compliance with some sense of duty, rather than by their foreseeable consequences. I disagree with Kant. At least in matters relevant to my current dilemma, I am a consequentialist: one who judges the value of actions by their consequences.
Continuing to Kant’s third question, knowing that whatever I may do will for the most part have little or no effect, what may I hope? I know that in my case, if I dare hope for anything that may improve my condition, that thing is not happiness. It may be contentment, understanding, meaning, acceptance—making peace with the inevitability of it all, with the knowledge that change is the nature of existence, with reminding myself of the minuscule part I get to play in the grand story of everything, with the decay, suffering, and destruction I can’t help. The best I can hope for is to face it all without fear or regret.
I believe, as Seneca put it, “That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’ every morning he arises he receives a bonus.” I have lived. I still live.
“Amor fati!” admonished Friedrich Nietzsche: love your fate. I do. Sometimes. Most times. I certainly strive to.
“Hope,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.” It is perhaps most salutary now for those of my kind—happiness-challenged overthinkers, lovers of all things wild, mournful witnesses to struggles, suffering, and decline, to the greed and indifference of my fellow humans—to come to terms with the inevitable: it is supper time.
Let us live, love, experience as much as we can, while we can, as kindly and as compassionately as we can, in the most dignified fashion we can. “The end,” wrote Robert Henri, “will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.”