Today I’m going to talk about hope. How do find hope in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency, and given the tremendous resistance human beings have to the changes necessary to address it? I discuss three different kinds of hope – ordinary hope, active hope, and faith in humanity – and how at least two out of three of these kinds of hope remain accessible to us no matter what happens.
Bearing Witness to the Losses of the El Molo
First, let me begin with a short Bearing Witness practice. (I explained Bearing Witness in Episode 3).
Let us Bear Witness to the suffering of the El Molo people of Kenya. According to an article in the Guardian from February 1st (2022), they are thought to have originated in present-day Ethiopia, but they migrated and settled on the shores of a vast lake, Lake Turkana, in present-day Kenya, around 1,000 BC.
The El Molo have always lived primarily by fishing and have their own culture and language. Their homes are elegant, sturdy circular structures with walls and roofs made of tight bundles of grass. Throughout the community you find graveyards where the El Molo pay reverence to their ancestors and lost loved ones. You also find traditional shrines called gantes, where people make offerings to pray for things like rain or protection.
Over the last decade, because of increased rainfall due in large part to global warming, Lake Turkana has expanded by more than 10%. The lake waters encroach on the El Molo land, covering graveyards and forcing people to move away from land they have occupied for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Two years ago, an entire El Molo village was surrounded by water and made into an island; the people who remain in the village have to rely on boats to get to the mainland. Infrastructure that provided fresh drinking water has been submerged and lost, so people have to drink saline lake water which often carries disease. Traditional fishing methods have become less effective because the fish retreat to the deeper lake waters, far out where it is dangerous for the El Molo to take their boats. One village elder, Lenapir, says, “Our language is dead, our culture is going and our homes are being swallowed by the water.”
Let us Bear Witness to the plight of the El Molo, who deal with impacts of the climate crisis every single day. They look out at the waters which now cover the graves of loved ones, and the locations of former villages. Living just feet from the edge of Lake Turkana, as they have done all their lives, as their ancestors have done as long as anyone can remember, they know the waters will continue to rise. Where will they go? Perhaps they will be able to withdraw gradually, but sooner or later they will run up against land occupied by others. In the meantime, the El Molo watch their way of life, their community, their people, disintegrating because of environmental changes so extreme and fast, they can’t adapt quickly enough.
Let us bear witness to the suffering of the El Molo people in order to face the truth and open our hearts. Suffering beings, you are not alone. As we go about our daily lives, part of us remains aware of you. May conditions change to alleviate your suffering and bring you health and happiness. May all of us awaken to our interdependence and care for one another and for all life.
On to today’s topic: Hope. As I see it, there are three kinds of hope. Of course, that’s an oversimplification, and a year from now I may think there are two or four kinds of hope, but maybe you’ll find my three-kinds-of-hope framing helpful.
First, there’s ordinary hope. Ordinary hope is based in a sense that a particular outcome is possible or likely. When it comes to the climate and ecological crisis, you may feel hope that the governments of the world will recognize our emergency and mobilize quickly. You may feel hope that our economies are becoming more environmentally friendly because of increased emphasis on sustainability, and the wider use of electric cars and renewable energy sources. You may feel hope that a particular piece of legislation will pass, or that innovations in sustainable food productions will catch on.
Ultimately, when it comes to the climate and ecological crisis, all ordinary hopes are attached to a deeper – but still ordinary – hope that humanity will manage to get its act together and avert a global apocalyptic scenario. (We can’t hope to avert the climate and ecological crisis because it’s already here.) We hope that our children and grandchildren will be able live out their lives in relative peace and prosperity, enjoying all the things we ourselves have enjoyed, instead of struggling in a chaotic and dangerous world.
Ordinary hope is great, and if you feel it, I’m not here to rain on your parade. People all over the world are doing amazing and innovative things to transform our relationship to the natural world, and it can be helpful to feed your ordinary hope by seeking out sources of information other than mainstream media, which tends to focus either on doom or denial. One great source of ordinary hope is the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Paul Hawken. It’s full of clear and exciting explanations of real projects and technologies that offer solutions to our environmental crisis.
The thing is, ordinary hope is conditional hope, meaning it depends on conditions, on how things turn out. Occasionally we have a “win,” but a lot of times we’re disappointed. It can be hard to sustain ordinary hope. And for some of us, ordinary hope is hard to come by from the outset. In summary, then, ordinary hope is fine if you have access to it. If you find your conditional hope flagging, though, don’t worry – there are two other kinds of hope that can sustain you.
A second kind of hope is Active Hope, a term coined (as far as I know) by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. Macy and Johnstone say:
“Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for. Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have… Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus our intention and let it be our guide.”
When I decided to get involved in climate activism, I spent time exploring what I could do that would have the greatest chances of success, the greatest potential bang for my buck. Activism requires time and energy at the very least, and usually also requires patience, learning, compromise, and sacrifice. I didn’t want my efforts to be wasted. After a while, though, I felt despair. Frankly, none of the activism paths in front of me looked very hopeful. They all had pros and cons, and even when they claimed success, their efforts seemed like very tiny drops in a very big bucket. Ordinarily that rate of progress might be okay, but we’re in a climate and ecological emergency!
At some point, aided in part by Macy and Johnstone’s concept of Active Hope, I realized my determination to do something to save life on our planet had to be grounded in something deeper than ordinary hope about what I might be able to achieve, or whether success (averting climate catastrophe) was even possible. I realized my determination could based in my fierce, undying love for life itself, and that I would do whatever I could to save even a small piece of it. If my whole lifetime’s worth of activist energy helped preserve or alleviate the suffering of even one living thing, it would be worth it. Even if we’re doomed, I’m going to go down fighting. Those of us fighting together will hold hands as the flames close in around us, and it will have all been worth it.
My Active Hope may sound dramatic, but it’s not. It’s really just a subtle shift in my outlook, a way to view my relationship to the world that helps sustain me when ordinary hope starts to run out. To be clear, Active Hope is perfectly compatible with trying to be as effective and impactful as you can be when you’re taking action in the world. It’s just that, when – inevitably – things don’t turn out as well as you’d hoped, you remember your deeper motivation and don’t get too discouraged.
You may think Active Hope is only for “activists.” In a sense, it is – but only if you define “activist” in the very broadest sense. You may or may not want to call yourself an activist because you associate that word with particular groups or activities you don’t participate in (at least not yet), but Macy and Johnstone basically define “activist” as anyone living with Active Hope. There are infinitely many ways you can bring about, act for, or express what you hope to see in the world. Being generous, treating people with respect and kindness, standing up for justice, making sustainable consumer choices, and voting your conscience are just a few ways to enact your Active Hope.
Faith in Humanity
There’s an even deeper kind of hope than Active Hope, I think, although maybe it’s just a different kind of hope. I call this “Faith in Humanity.”
If we consider faith in humanity through ordinary lenses, I think it’s pretty up in the air whether you can conclude humanity is good or not. We’ve created lots of beauty and amazing things, we’re capable of demonstrating intelligence, love, compassion, and generosity. But does all of that balance out our tendencies toward violence, xenophobia, and greed? Ironically – or perhaps it’s just what you might expect – human beings are capable of being very selfless and noble as individuals, but most of us would probably agree that humanity as a whole has had a negative impact on the living things of the earth.
Even if we manage to redeem human society by fixing injustice and criminal levels of economic inequality, we’ll have already used up much of the earth’s non-renewable resources, polluted her from pole to pole, and killed off most of the life forms around us. Now our actions threaten life on earth as we know it. Sure, even if we go through a period of planetary mass extinction, in a million years or so there will be life on earth again, in some form. The whole process has happened before. But we don’t condone murder today because a baby is going to be born tomorrow.
Okay, enough about how humans suck. I didn’t bring it up in order to depress or convince you. Instead, I wanted to point out that our Faith in Humanity can’t be based in ordinary, pro-versus-con thinking. If we piled up the positive things about humanity on one side of a scale, and the negative things on the other, I would be pleasantly surprised to see the scale tip toward the positive even slightly. But even that’s not necessary in order to have the kind of Faith in Humanity I’m talking about.
The word “humanity” has two definitions. The first is “the human race” or “human beings collectively.” The second is “humaneness” or “benevolence.” Synonyms include compassion, empathy, friendship, generosity, goodwill, kindness, and altruism.[i] In other words, the best qualities of human beings. What does it mean to have faith in the best qualities of human beings?
Faith in Humanity is something we experience viscerally and personally. It’s not some philosophical conclusion, or an intellectual ideal, or idealistic wishful thinking. We experience Faith in Humanity when we encounter real humanity and feel its purity and power. When we perform, or are the beneficiary of, or even witness an act of completely altruistic kindness or generosity. When we enjoy creative expressions like art, music, poetry, literature, or film, and recognize the nobility of people even in the midst of their faults. When we stand for justice and life, setting aside concern for ourselves, because it’s the right thing to do. When we see stark and angry divisions between people melt away into a shockingly intimate experience of common humanity.
At such times, we realize the best qualities of human beings are not defiled by humanity’s sins. We realize that as long as there is one shred of humanity left, there is hope.
[ii] Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. Novato California: New World Library, 2012.