About Hope

“I feel a lot better, since I gave up hope.”

It was a throwaway line in a novel I read somewhere, but it has become my mantra. Let me explain.

Our society honors hope. Our president celebrates the audacity of hope. And the hope that sustains one against long odds, in the quest for a far-off goal, can be a good thing. But inappropriate hope is not a good thing.

A young man may wish he had a date with Angelina Jolie, and there’s nothing wrong with that — imagining what your friends would say, how your fellow workers would change their attitudes, what it would be like sitting across the table from a goddess. But let that daydream turn to hope — burning, constant, all-consuming hope — and pretty soon our audacious young man is a stalker hanging around her house and following her to the mall. That is inappropriate hope, and he’ll feel (and do) a lot better when he gives it up.

We (and by we, I mean we who live in industrialized society) are enjoying a life of luxury unprecedented in history. All but the poorest among us enjoy access to food, water, shelter, energy, transportation and entertainment undreamed of by yesterday’s kings, shahs, czars and presidents.  We who enjoy the life hope it continues. Those who do not yet have the life — the rising masses of China and India, for example — hope to have it very soon.

But the massive industrialization on which this luxury rests has a delayed, cumulative cost about to be collected.  The economies of scale sought and achieved so assiduously over the decades have a dark twin — concentration of risk. The bigger the factory, farm or city, the denser the population, the more susceptible it is to disaster. If the factory only runs on oil and the oil runs out; if the farm only grows wheat and a wheat disease runs rampant; if an earthquake hits the city; what might have been a minor setback for a smaller, sustainable and diverse enterprise is fatal to the overgrown dinosaur.

Do you doubt the accumulation of these risks? A quick tour of the points I made in detail in my book Brace for Impact:

  • For every ton of food or fiber produced by industrial agriculture in the United States, an average of seven tons of topsoil has been lost to wind and water. This is not the arithmetic of hope.
  • Over-fertilization of farm fields and lawns, along with inadequate treatment of sewage, has poisoned our waterways and created huge dead zones in all out estuaries.
  • Confinement, force-feeding and mistreatment of food animals has sickened the animals, contaminated the food and created superbugs and toxins that endanger the human population.
  • Peak oil — the moment of maximum possible extraction of oil, followed by an inevitable and irreversible decline, is here. No agency of our government, no leader of our people, has admitted it or has begun work to avert the certain disaster that is about to begin.
  • Our aquifers — the only water safe from the pollution mentioned above — are being exploited for agriculture and development without concern for their limits. The Ogallala Aquifer, for example, that underlies the north-central United States, is fossil water deposited by glaciers that is replenished by rain at a rate of fractions of an inch per year. We are extracting it at rates of many feet per year.

In the face of these rising, vast and ominous threats we as a country have  no awareness, no discussion and no plan. In other words, no hope.

And yet there is this. While it is not now possible to save everybody, to save the society from collapse, it is not only possible but relatively simple to save any one of us, or any family or community or clan of us, that chooses right now to live sustainably. We know how to produce our own food, clothing, shelter and energy without degrading the web of life that sustains us and all creatures. All it requires is work. And giving up the life of luxury.

We stand on the deck of the Titanic, watching the bow going down, hearing the water rushing in. We have asked the crew what they’re going to do about it and they have promised us a full refund of the price of our ticket. We have seen on the afterdeck some lifeboat kits, small craft that could be assembled and launched in a short time by anyone willing to do the work.

Most of us, however, will wander back in to the all-you-can-eat buffet (better hurry, the floor is tilting rather crazily), pour another drink, rearrange some deck chairs and turn on the television. And hope things turn out all right.

That is called natural selection. And that is why I feel so much better now that I have given up hope.

— The Editor

14 Responses to About Hope

  1. Bruce Moyer says:

    My friend, Becky and I have been having some of these same discussions with friends and acquaintances around our new home in Nelson Co. We are getting the impression that everyone wants to go to Heaven but on one wants to die. In other words, other people need to clean up their acts. I don’t want to encourage government intervention but there are other ways to fertilize besides the use of chemicals but it requires accepting a new paradigm. For example, homeowners and golf courses can stop using chemicals on their lawns and fairways. A company in Harrisonburg had to shut down their poultry re-processing business because they couldn’t sell their product even though it did a great job and was eco-friendly. What can one do!

    • tomlewis says:

      The thing we can do — the thing we have to do, it seems to me, to get through what’s coming — is to “clean up” our own acts, by growing more of our own food, buying more of it from people who grow it “cleanly” and by reducing our reliance on the industrial framework that is collapsing all around us. Industrialists, scientists and politicians aren’t going to solve this problem for us, they created this problem for us. Good luck in Nelson County. Grow more potatoes.

  2. wendy says:

    I had this very conversation with my sister tonight and I agree one had better consider plan B. It is exactly as you describe, you must prepare and teach yourself how to rely on yourself not the government. When they pan the shelves in Japan and they are empty and the food chain has been compromised then what? How about when there is a solar flare and the electricla grid goes down for months or maybe years how will you survive? You better have an answer to that question or you Die. That simple.

  3. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Tom – While I’d agree that giving up false hopes of Angelina / it’ll be alright / getting rich enough for peace of mind / et cetera – is a necessary start,
    maintaining productive morale for useful campaigning seems to me to require going further, and eschewing hope as a motivator for action.

    It was during a five month hunt for a well beloved hound that I learned of the need to do without hope – I was having dreams of vivisection – and having dispensed with the lousy roller-coaster ride of hopes and fears the search effort became far more coherent – (and was eventually successful). In this light I’d suggest that the best and most valuable of soldiers are those who will fight on regardless of the odds, because they are motivated not by hope but by knowledge that the fight is just and is utterly necessary.

    Against the threats we now face there are no longer painless solutions to be had, and, short of achieving unprecedented global co-operation in controlling GHG pollution and its time-lagged consequences and feedbacks, there is very little prospect of the climate stability necessary even for subsistence farming in the coming decades. (I should maybe add that I write as a hill farmer who first campaigned on climate back in the ’80s).

    Therefore I’d ask you to consider challenging the increasingly popular delusion that ‘bracing for impact’ means a withdrawal from national and global campaigning – for either we develop lifeboats while also campaigning successfully for the requisite ‘treaty of the atmospheric commons’ or we’ll fail outright as our lifeboats get swamped by untenable weathers.

    With my congratulations on your exceptional site,
    and with my regards,


    • Tom Lewis says:

      You make the most cogent and powerful argument for continuing engagement that I have ever heard. My first thought was, I don’t agree with that; my second was, I must, because I work on this site, which is a campaign, every day. What you provide is a strong reason to continue, on those days when it seems pointless. Thank you

    • Hey Lewis,
      It was great to read your comment on a website that my mother reads all the time. I get pretty down about everything she says. I am an action person by nature though and a family physician. It’s probably an over the top request… but I was wondering if it would be possible to talk to you… I would be grateful to talk to someone who has an action/positive bent on all this. I am in the process of writing a book on what I am seeing in medicine in relation to the environment. I’m not sure how we would go about exchanging e-mails. If you are interested in an almost mentorship role… I would be keen

  4. Nice position. Hope is a delusion. Relying on hope is dangerous.

    “We HOPE that future generations will invent a way to sequester CO2”
    “We HOPE that our children can figure out how to survive.”

    Hope is a narcotic that gets us through our carbon addiction.

  5. Terry Lewis says:

    My model for unadulterated humanness (no pun intended) is children. I experience children as being much more in the present than we adults (most of the time), and children don’t seem at all preoccupied with “hopium.” Of course, different people mean different things by “hope;” what I don’t want us stuck in is “hope” that is really inaction based on feelilngs of hopelessness and powerlessness.

  6. Elizabeth Kaup says:

    I am so confused by ‘hope’… I think there is a semantic problem here. If ‘hope’ means giving oneself permission to look away from the awful truth and do nothing; ‘hoping’ that someone else will make the effort, then it is indeed destructive.

    But looking at the truth and taking action, in the ‘hope’ that it will be beneficial, in some unknown way or shape, however implausible or small, is the only way to live, I think. Indeed, to not proceed this way, with this definition of ‘hope’, is to proceed to suicide.

    A ‘hope’ that absolves oneself of responsibility, and a ‘hope’ that moves one to enlightened action are two different things. Both are a response to our greatest enemy, Fear, and I think we need two different words, or, at least some clarifying adjectives. Otherwise, paralysis and suicide are the only rational courses of action.

    I think that ‘hopium’ and ‘despairion’ are both products of the human hubris that got us into this mess. But, I could be wrong .. unlike so many, I cannot tell the future.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      It is not hope itself that I resist, but hope for the wrong things. Hoping to save the life of an elderly, ill, suffering person, at all costs, is a hope I would not share. Hoping to save the entire consuming, money-worshiping, destructive population of the world is for me not appropriate. But hoping that you and I can find a way to survive whatever is coming, to live in a better relationship with the web of life? Count me in.

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