A essay on hope by Karen Lee,
Resident of Arlington, Vermont
Written August, 2008
I used to fight the good fight. As a longtime volunteer environmental activist I am mentally and emotionally beleaguered, besieged, despondent, and full of cynicism. I have personally witnessed people at their worst -- greedy, selfish, short-sighted, and cruel. For many years now I have accepted with detached defeatism the inevitability of the failure of humankind to be successful stewards of our planet. We’re even worse at being caretakers of each other. Because I am not a spiritual person, finding solace in the faith of a benevolent super-being was not an option for me. I respect the religious faith of others and am happy for people that find comfort in their beliefs, but I consider my secular attitude as scientifically enlightened. I lightheartedly refer to myself as a member of the Church of Carl Sagan. I am in awe of the cosmos and have reverence for the beauty found in the random order of nature. So, seeking my own emotional peace, and to help me come to terms with the continual wrongdoings of mankind, I began long ago to evaluate our species from a cosmic perspective.
It has been ironically comforting for me to perceive Homo sapiens akin to a meteor or comet that has been hurtling toward earth on a cataclysmic course since our evolution. Our innate ability to ruthlessly destroy other species and dominate every natural ecosystem has led to our prolific success while coincidentally insuring the doom of the contemporary earth’s biosphere. From an evolutionary point of view, it is only natural that such a highly intelligent, adaptable creature as man would evolve, and it is only inevitable that the earth’s ecosystems would be altered by this lately evolved, ultimate predator.
Why do we think that today’s (or yesterday’s) climate, ecosystems, flora, and fauna are so precious? The earth has existed through many dramatically different changes of climate. The effects of evolution resulted in biological diversity compatible with each unique climatic condition. It is another in a long list of egocentric anthropogenic opinions to state that our modern earth is particularly special and, therefore, worth saving in its current (recent past) condition. The terminal fate of today’s (yesterday’s) ecosystems was determined a few hundred thousand years ago when mitochondrial Eve was born in the Rift Valley of Africa. Global climate change caused by the actions of Homo sapiens was inevitable and unavoidable. In the words of folk singer Jimmy Buffett, “Planets come and planets go. Apocalypso.”
Or so I thought. Resolved and full of gloom for our children’s future and the plight of the present earth, I was comfortably detached in 2003 when China built the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, displacing indigenous human cultures and natural ecosystems. As the coral reefs of tropical oceans continued to bleach and die, as rainforests were burned, and as hundreds of species daily were permanently exterminated by human actions, I looked away dispassionately. When the Bush Administration denied the facts of global warming and kept the United States from participating in the Kyoto Treaty, I was unsurprised and unaffected. Self-indulgent gluttons continued to rape and pillage the earth, while despots, tyrants, and religious zealots murdered each other in senseless wars and vicious acts of genocide. I knew that these insane acts were the manifestations of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Inter-and intra-species competition for and exploitation of finite resources were the enactments of predictable and predetermined natural functions.
While respectful and with admiration for their work, I pitied the heroic efforts of Al Gore and other advocates for reversal of climate change. I thought, “Those poor, deluded souls. They should know it’s too little, and we’re too late.” When the Arctic seaway opening to shipping in the summer of 2008, I was shocked by the blatant evidence that global warming truly is upon us and that we will experience dramatic effects of climate change during our lifetimes. I’m certain that some of the spark of momentary motivation came from an urgent sense of self preservation, but I almost became re-energized and almost rediscovered an activist’s passion. Almost. Before I jumped back into the fray of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with my environmental friends, I took a deep breath and stepped back. I realized that ice melting due to global warming is only inevitable…ultimately natural, right? I decided, once again, to get over it and returned to my protective bubble of despair.
Although I had given up, and was officially retired as an environmental activist, I was mildly interested in U.S. politics, just to keep up the impression of having social graces, of course. (There’s no point to it all, naturally.) I was a supporter of Hillary Clinton for president and was unhappy when her bid for the Democratic nomination failed. I had respect for Barack Obama, but did not believe that our society was ready for him, or that he was prepared to be the most powerful leader of the human race. You see, I’m from the South. I know the bigotry that is still pervasive in the hearts and minds of millions of brainwashed and ignorant Americans living in the Deep South, the West, Mid-West, and in the corners of every region of the United States. I thought it possible that Americans just might vote for a woman, but Americans would not elect a person of color, and certainly not one with a name like Barack Obama.
I am terrified and elated to admit that I think I might have been wrong. Since I stopped listening to Hillary, I started listening to Barack. I watched in amazement as tens of thousands of people of all ethnicities were captivated and inspired by his speeches; speeches that were full of intelligence, insight, leadership. Words that made sense and unabashedly addressed the weaknesses of the human condition while preaching a message of – dare I write the terrifying word – HOPE.
In the past, I have heard several intelligent, wise, educated speakers say the right words. But, never in my life had I witnessed those words spoken in a manner that had such a dramatic impact on so many people, as did the words spoken by Barack Obama. I was intrigued as people were moved from complacency to enthusiasm; “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” according to CNN commentators. I began to wonder about the real possibilities of change.
Is it possible that we humans can redirect our destiny? Can we outsmart the irresistible forces of evolution and overcome our genetic urges to take, kill, abuse, and destroy? Can we evolve again and change our apocalyptic meteoric course to become Homo intelligencia and ultimately survive as the wisest, kindest, and truly “fittest” species on earth? Is it possible that one human, speaking clearly and sanely, can stir the enthusiasm of millions of disillusioned and disenfranchised people? Can we, then, inspire and educate others so that we all learn to live in peace together and in peace with our planet? Can we effectively communicate with Rush Limbaugh’s devotees who are drunk on his toxic flavored Kool-Aid? Can we reach their closed minds and help them see the human race’s urgent need for change?
I am reluctant to emerge from my comfort zone of avoidance and despondent resignation, but a more powerful emotion than reluctance is growing within me. The sensation is strange to me in my adult life. It is terrifying, almost physically painful. It is the feeling of hope. I am overwhelmed by the possibility of a healthy future for my grandchildren. I am cautious, full of trepidation, but I admit I do have hope.
Can we really do this?