Will We Listen This Time?

The tree I grew up calling "mine." One of my many reasons for hope.

After years of heated argument and millions spent to convince the American public that the melting of ice, loss of native species, and increasing number of degrees hit by red mercury in thermometers across the globe, we have finally reached a consensus: global warming is happening. We are the cause. However, though this conclusion has been inevitable for months (at least) it seems to keep disappearing in the headlines.

Yesterday, buried on the sixteenth page of the front section of the New York Times, I came across an article titled “Scientists Stress Urgency of Limiting Emissions” (NY Times 5/13/11). On Thursday the U.S. scientific establishment offered a dire warning: “not only is global warming real, but the effects are already becoming serious and the need has become ‘pressing’ for a strong national policy to limit emissions of heat-trapping gases” (NY Times). This warning was given in a report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. I wonder if it will change anything.

As a student who sits in classrooms surrounded by enthusiastic peers, progressive discussion, and quick tongued ideas for change that ricochet between walls and heads like pinballs, I like to believe that we will restructure so many of the broken systems that this country has created and clung to throughout our lifetimes. And yet, I read this article that tells me that efforts to adopt a climate change policy in Washington have stalled and that taxes on emissions are a necessary form of triage to save the planet, and I find it hard to hope. I start to think that our obsession with money, status, and control will ultimately destroy us. I think of red tape and selfishness and the fate of the generations to come. I have a sinking feeling that I will wonder and worry about all of these things but never do anything to rewrite them.

And then I remember Campus Ecology. I remember the faces of my classmates sitting in a circle on weathered benches–turning their faces toward the sun and defining what it means “to hope.” I remember how we sat and scribbled on 3×5 bright white notecards as we wrote down seven things that made us hopeful. Pen suspended between my fingers, I found myself thinking about the second graders I tutor, the beauty and preservation of our campus’s natural lands, the inspiring teaching and experiences of my professor Jim Farrell, and the time I’ve taken throughout the past two years to sit, observe, and connect. All of these things give me hope.

In an article we recently read for Campus Ecology, author Derrick Jensen spoke with strong words about moving “Beyond Hope.” Presenting hope as a form of powerlessness that assumes change is beyond individual control, Jensen concluded his controversial essay by stating; “When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power” (Jensen).  Though I realize that “hoping” is often mistaken for “wishing,” (as Jim pointed out in our class on the grass) I don’t think that turning away from hope is the answer to a more peaceful and just world. I believe that we need to embrace hope in order to gain the courage to move beyond it. Change begins with hope. I am reminded of a passage in Scott Russell Sanders’ beautiful book Hunting for Hope–a series of sentences underlined, highlighted, and starred. Uplifting and inspiring, Sanders states;

” My search for hope has convinced me that we can change our ways of seeing and thinking and living. We can begin living responsibly and alertly right where we are, right now, no matter how troubled we say the human prospect. If we set out to solve the world’s problems, we are likely to feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, if we set out to act on our deepest concerns and convictions we may do some good. We can begin making changes in our own lives without waiting for such changes to become popular, without knowing whether they will have any large-scale effect, but merely because we believe they are right” (Sanders, 186).

It’s a long quotation, but one I can’t bear to cut down. In one paragraph, Sanders sums up what I have struggled with for a semester. I have pondered  how possible it is to really make a difference in a world of so many broken systems and unanswerable questions. I have grappled with how I can begin to show how much I care without a platform to speak from. I have worried about my capacity to change anything as one person out of billions who cannot pretend to completely understand the vast complexities of politics or environmentalism or education. Sanders reassures me that I don’t need to be an expert to mean something to the planet. My responsibility as a citizen and sympathetic human being is to always follow through with what I believe is right. It might not ever have a significant and far-reaching effect, but it is a start. I think of Al Gore’s phrase in “An Inconvenient Truth;” “When you pray, move your feet.” We need to continue to hope, and to use this hope in each of our individual lives as we venture through the everyday. We need to act–on the small and large scale.

Maybe this time, when the newspaper tells us again that the world we inhabit is crying out for help, we will take the time to listen and react. Whether this means writing to local congressmen, having conversations with our children and neighbors about sustainability, or going on a camping trip to experience and love a piece of the beauty that is rapidly in growing danger of fading away, the gesture is significant. We must live in hope.

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