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Hope and the Reset Button

This past summer I had the opportunity to share some time in the Sonoran desert with scientist and engineering colleagues.
This past summer I had the opportunity to share some time in the Sonoran desert with scientist and engineering colleagues. One afternoon foray into the Chiricahua National Monument found me in the company two talented friends, Benjamin and Nicholas. Benjamin had so much energy that he practically bounced down the trail. Nicholas and I are keeping pace and talking about shared interests in conservation. Benjamin, keeping track of the conversation, asks if he can ask me a philosophy question. Of course he can. “So let’s say I had a button, right?” he begins. I can already see where this is going. “If you could push that button and kill every human on the planet, would you?” “I totally would,” he interjects without waiting for a response. “The world would be way better off.” To environmental philosophers like myself, and to many conservationists too, this line of thought is familiar. I find that many people are often drawn to such genocidal throwings-up-of-hands – a extreme giving up of hope – in the face of a constant barrage of information about environmental disasters and degradation, animal suffering and species collapse, and human health and wellbeing implications of it all. Lisa Kretz, in her 2013 “Hope in Environmental Philosophy,” provides a depressingly robust description of environmental harms and threats (928) in defense of her own call against hopelessness. It seems, too, that the more time one spends thinking seriously about the environment and the human relationships to and within it, the more likely one is to reach a state of exasperated pessimism. Benjamin’s line of thinking, in our case, stemmed directly from his thinking seriously about the negative impacts of human populations and individuals on the environmental in the context of climate change.

Truly, it is easy to reach the conclusion that the world is a place of unyielding sorrow. It is easy to take the view that, for each small happiness and every personal triumph or success, there is a boundless host of uncertainties, doubts, fears, pains, and sorrows waiting to follow close behind. It certainly seems that some take comfort in donning blinders that draw attention only to the occasionally offered oat bucket of happiness while masking the inevitability of the slaughterhouse in which they are served. The new job (hooray!), the published article (congratulations!), the birth of the new baby (way to go!); the rekindled friendship, the fiery romance, the thoughtful note, the kind word or loving touch, the budding flower, the sunrise over a new day, the sound of a cool breeze coming after a hard heat: these are the oats that sustain the hopeful. But like happiness, oats, digested and effused or unnoticed in the corners of the bucket either turn sour or dry up, depending on their environment. On this view, our happinesses are surrounded on all sides by inevitable sufferings and unstoppable decay.

But, of course, the deeply pessimistic attitude I have expressed here can be offset, some say, by the most powerful tool at our individual human disposal: the power of choice. I may choose to don blinders, to see only the good in people and to remember only the moments of happiness. Yes, there is a particular healthy positivity to such an orientation to the world. I can indeed ‘choose happiness.’ My cup can be constantly half-full, my lemonade ready-to-hand, and my frown persistently turned upside down. And I can continue to do this day after day in the face of pain after pain, by simply having hope. Of course, this is too simple. The hopeful position is constantly weighed out against the daunting realities of lived experience, forcing each hopeful person to have hope as a constant process of renewal.

In the Greek tradition that is her origin, Hope (Elpis) is a fairy, a sprite, a nymph: a mystical tease who offers mere glimpses seen from the corner of tear-stained eyes of that which is constantly and inevitably of our reach. There are no arguments to be made in her favor, no justifications to be offered as to her existence, no data to be salvaged from the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” (as Williams James called it in 1890 (see his Principles of Psychology 462)) that is the natural world to explain her. Hope is a myth, in the sense that she is placed before us a priori, locked in the same box prison she once shared with Pandora’s pains.[1] Faith in hope is all that is required to keep her glimmering teases alive.

Of course this talk of hope brings up countless questions. What is hope? What role does it play in our thought and in our action? How should we consider it? What role ought it play in our thoughts and actions? In the context of environmental thought, is hope the force that allows the conservationist to act, or is it a distraction that distorts the public’s view of the realities of human impacts on land and its biodiversity?

Yet despite the host of questions that surround it, hope seems to continue to play a significant role in the narratives around significant ethical issues or the so-called “grand challenges” faced by humanity, from human health threats to climate change. In bioethics, for instance, the giving of hope to patients by physicians has been regularly critiqued for its easy slippage into paternalism, or the failure to respect a patient’s autonomy.[2] Similarly, although less frequently in environmental philosophy, hope has been taken up as a potential benefit for environmental action despite the prevalence of environmental despair.[3] As a concept, hope’s boundaries are amorphous and its role unclear. Expending some energy in thinking through answers to hope’s questions can help the concept take shape and play a role in debates like these.

So this past summer, when Benjamin asked me if I would push the button, my response was carefully moderate. And, although I couldn’t yet see it in these terms, it was directly related to hope. On the one hand human beings have imposed severe constraints on ecological stability. The Guardian just reported that the world has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last 40 years, due almost wholly to unsustainable hunting and land management practices (Carrington, Sept 29 2014), for example. On the other hand, we humans have the remarkable and (presumably) unique capacity of valuing morally. We can decide that some thing or someone ought to be considered, morally, and we can decide to act on that consideration. Whether we think that such value is discovered or granted, the ability to value is, to me, one of the bare bones criteria of hope for conservation. Without that capacity, if our choices and desires were merely driven by selfish concerns and physical need, the overwhelming surge of humanity against and through the natural world would indeed be merely the environmental plague imagined by Benjamin. This capacity to value, morally, opens us up to reflective reconsideration of what sorts of things are morally valuable, and what sorts of capacities or characteristics we should cherish. There is an inherent hopefulness in such a capacity – a glimmer of Elpis through the grey clouds of environmental degradation and past the overwhelming opposition from the human masses. And, to the extent that we are affectively able, it is up to each one of us to choose to take up the actions and attitudes of conservation. So my response to Benjamin’s question asked him in return, “What sort of person do you want to be?” He didn’t respond right away thinking, as he was, about the alternatives. I have hope for his answer.




[1] Further, the Greek term ελπις only means hope in sofar as hope is a specialization of ‘expectation’ which in turn is a specialization of ‘supposition’ (70). Hope, in the ancient Greek context, denotes the expectation of evil. (ibid). Willem Jacob Verdenius. 1985. A Commentary on Hesiod: Works and Days, Vv. 1-382.

[2] see Ruddick, William. 1999. “Hope and Deception.” Bioethics 13, no. 3-4: 343-357 and Eliott, J. 2005. “What have we done with hope? A brief history.” In Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Hope: 3–45. Ed. J. Eliott. Hauppauge: Nova Science Publishers Inc.

[3] Kretz, Lisa. 2013. “Hope in Environmental Philosophy.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26: 924-944.