Note to Self on the Matter of Hope

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.

—Alfred Stieglitz

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.”

On the Edge

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28 thoughts on “Note to Self on the Matter of Hope

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  1. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, a very good read for considering how we relate or could relate to the natural world.

  2. So as I sit perched on the summit of a 12,000 foot high peak, with not a soul around, immersed in wildness, what the hell more could I hope for? If this is as good as it gets, well, that’s good enough for me!

    1. When I sat in the shadow of My Yale, looking at Three Apostles, flowers flowing over the alpine slope, I noticed they were sparse, they are crunchy to the touch because they were dying from the heat, the number of insects very low compared to past years. It is slowly dying. I feel its pain, meaning I feel empathy for it. It is a living being to me. My relationship personal. So I hope that next year is better. I hope humans can eventually reconnect with nature and value it again. It may be good enough for me, but it’s not good enough for my grandchildren.

      1. Thank you, Michael. The thought occurred to me that I share a fate with the community of life in this desert: we are all now under threat of habitat loss.

  3. I, to my friend, while traveling the Colorado recently from source to the south, and contemplating the changes we viewed; “I suspect we’ve seen the last of the best there ever was.”

    1. Alas, a common theme in recent conversations with fellow “dirtbags.” We have been very fortunate to have had what we’ve had.

      1. Culture has become a self referential system. It used to be nature referential. One goal of photography can be expression that is nature referential. If this reconnects people to nature in someway, so much the better. It might be our only chance at survival.

      2. Perhaps, Michael. In honesty, though, I don’t think we have the time nor the will to affect the magnitude of cultural change that will be needed.

      3. Perhaps, but nature is about to force us all to pay attention. It will be like a screaming child demanding attention. It will be toilets that don’t flush, failed crops, floods and mudslides, fire and rain, and ultimately war. I guess this is my less than hopeful side.

      4. “Thus, because we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease epidemics, and collapses of societies. While all of those grim phenomena have been endemic to humanity throughout our history, their frequency increases with environmental degradation, population pressure, and the resulting poverty and political instability.”

        —Jared Diamond

      5. Well said. My belief is once culture leaves nature symbolically, it gains power and natural culture dies out. Then it has to compete to survive, and thus no going back, unless it all collapses together.

  4. Guy, another fantastic beautiful essay, thank you so much. That was fascinating about Kant. I like what Bill Bryson says about us/our situation – “It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”

    At the end of the day, as you have so eloquently written before, we are but a tiny brief moment in what we call the Universe. Ethan Siegal over at The Big Think has a wonderful and humbling essay this week on How Our Universe Ends. The timescales are simply not graspable, his article is mind bending.

    One a lighter note :-). I once had boss (I was in technology) who was very crusty but savvy and wise, and one of the things he said about hope has stuck with me – “Hope is not a strategy, every time I rely on hope I get screwed”. So, I have tried to take that approach in day to day living – relying not on hope but just accepting life as it unfolds.

    Thanks again,
    Paul

  5. Hope… to me … akin to faith … a way of attempting to dilute one’s current worries or trials – perhaps avoid facing them altogether. Of course some may point to the futility of worry if there is no action.
    Our sad history of borrowing against the future is coming due. And as Wendell Berry states, the memory is longer, and justice is harsher than we could imagine.

  6. Thank you for sharing your views, thoughts and feelings. I have shared this view about HOPE for a long time. Contentment with my own world seems selfish but that is what I have come to accept as my reality. To be kind, to be kind, to be kind……..and accept.

  7. As always Guy your thoughts are full of emotions and feelings, rich in culture. What we are experiencing, especially in recent times (it almost seems that the passage of time towards the end has had a great acceleration) is really sad and exhausting, and the death of nature seems to walk in parallel with the death of the collective human soul. Here in Europe and in Italy the glaciers are melting as collective empathy is melting, the woods burn as every form of morality burns. I’m probably a bit of a catastrophist, but momentarily I don’t see any hopes and ways of escape, which is why I keep taking refuge in art and study, I need not to think. Power has taken over everything, even over nature that is slowly killing, and has tainted society with immoralism, and unfortunately the human being is no longer able to fight this power because he has become a victim and executioner. Maybe you could take a cue from what the Enlightenment did, it would be a great thing.
    A hug of hope Guy, and never stop!

  8. I think there is a way of relating to the world, nature in particular, that predates Plato, that we should explore. I came to this via philosophy, Critical Realism in particular. In this system, which is very concerned with ontology, the domain of the real are laws. The domain of the actual are events. The domain of the empirical are experience. Reality is layered, physics, biology, psychology, etc. I would add emergence and say the real emerges from the actual, and the world is actual at root, emerged and evolved bottom up. Then comes a key distinction of open vs closed systems. Closed systems are like the solar system or a car. All analyzable and controlled. Open systems have laws, but so many are in play it is unanalyzable, say a social system. And the wild. We live in mostly closed systems. We evolved in open systems. Survival in open systems requires a very different mindset. Is it possible that we can’t be truly happy without spending time in natural open systems and developing the mindset it demands? What is this mindset? Can it be described, or is it preliterate? Can we use the language of images to learn and express it!

  9. I’ve been out of touch for so long, but I’m glad I stopped in on this post. You can still write about my feelings better than I can conceptualize them. Thanks for keeping at it!

  10. Apparently Zen Buddhism teaches that we are reborn from one memory to another. This means I can hope for radical change in my experience of the world – for instance, to be happy despite all the disasters around me.

    But it is difficult to maintain happiness amid so much negativity. I recall dimly that choosing to be happy takes courage. May we be courageous.

  11. I share your despair. I also believe that we must use our voice, our minds, and our heart to drive change and salvation. To rage against the dying of the light. This is all the more critical when it seems that there is no hope at all. This Earth is a miracle that we are part of, and despite the horrific odds, it is worth the effort to try to save it.

  12. “There is within each of us a modulation, an inner exaltation, which lifts us above the buffetings with which events assail us. Likewise, it lifts us above dependence upon the gifts of events for our joy. Hence, our dependence on events is not absolute; it is qualified by our spiritual freedom. Therefore, when we speak of resignation it is not sadness to which we refer, but the triumph of our will-to-live over whatever happens to us. And to become ourselves, to be spiritually alive, we must have passed beyond this point of resignation.” – Albert Schweitzer

  13. Beautiful. The metaphysical side of Self, I would say. For better or for worse I can identify with a lot of what you’ve said.

  14. I do not know the desert except for a few days in the High Atlas mountains. I live in a very lush area in the mountains in southern Germany. Yes, climate is changing. But to what extent it is due to human activity is still unknown to us, I believe. I came to distrust the narratives, now, after more than two years of unjustifiable horror stories in this orchestrated world of sickness and constant danger, more than ever. I think it is very wise to live as you do. You stay away from it all. Maybe not so much in thought during your day, but certainly in many moments and hours when you stroll through your lands. We are mighty creators and we have more power than we admit. That is my hope that we come to terms with our nature and let it unfold and be used for the benefit of all including ourselves and our happiness. Our global systems are failing and will not sustain us. But nature will not be in danger, nor will we all be. We are safe, no matter what may come. In that sense it is my choice to view others with kindness, forgiveness and charity. We err, but we always can choose again. Live will be forgiving if we are I think.

  15. Thank you for your honest words. Its such a joy to read someone else’s reality, especially when it aligns with ones own thoughts and feelings about many of life’s challenges.

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