The 21st of December. The ground outside is frozen and bare. The cold cuts sharp, with no snow to soften its edge. The husks of last summer's flowers and grasses stand, immobile and inert. In a little more than an hour, at 12:28 pm Atlantic time, winter will officially begin. Ahead lie three months of variable cold, treacherous driving, bitter winds, snows that will drift up and obstruct the driveway and block the front and back doors of my house. The ocean inlet I see out my window, across the road, may freeze over, sealed beneath thick pans of ice. It is the killing time, the long silence we must, as a northern people, endure every year.
In two hours' time, my part of the earth will start tilting back towards the sun. Tomorrow's light will last slightly longer than today's. In thirteen weeks, there will be crocuses on the front lawn.
The thought of crocuses, however, has no tangible substance at this moment, and little power to comfort. We who live in the shadow of winter have learned to push away thoughts of summer. For the winter half of the year, we cannot really grasp the concept of long, warm days. Walking down an icy sidewalk, I may know objectively that, six months earlier, this path was bordered by flowers, but it has no present reality to me. One might as well speak of dinosaurs that once walked this patch of ground. That was then. This is now.
The reality is, it often does not help one survive the winter to be reminded of spring. To remember crocuses is to make the present situation more difficult to bear. It is cruel, perhaps; at the very least, it is in bad taste.
Hope hurts. Resignation is easier to bear.
A few days ago, I was at a social gathering at my university. My partner and I were taking our leave, saying that we had a bus to catch. Oh, but there are taxi chits, someone says. The university provides them, prudently, to relieve those who have drunk alcohol of the temptation to drive their vehicles home. However, I am content to take public transit.
This is hardly a noble sacrifice. We have bus passes, so we are not out of pocket. The bus from here to my home is generally at least as convenient as a taxi, and usually more so. Cabbies can take a long time to find their way to the campus, which is buried in an otherwise residential neighbourhood outside the main downtown. Sometimes taxis never show up at all, while one waits in the cold. The buses run on regular schedules; the automated transit line tells me that there is one leaving in ten minutes, just time for us to retrieve our coats and walk to the bus stop. The route is a direct one: even if a taxi left at the same moment, it might not arrive any faster. Wesley, as it turns out, will know the bus driver (as he often does), and that will be an occasion for pleasantries. The bus will be warm and brightly lit; it will drop us close to my front door.
I could say all this, but it would take time (and my bus is waiting); the person pressing the taxi option would still not understand. Like most people here, they take for granted that the taxi is more pleasant and convenient, even though it may well be neither.
To keep it simple, I cut to the crux of the matter. The bus trip has a much smaller carbon footprint. I note this, in words as few and as modest as I can summon, doing my best to mute any possible overtones of moral superiority.
The other person mumbles something like "Good for you." Then, more forcefully and rather cheerfully, words to the effect that my environmentalism is a lost cause and that the human race has already dug its own grave: the planet is doomed. Merry Christmas.
The planet may well be doomed—although neither they nor I, nor anyone else, really knows. Climate scientists do know, pretty definitely, that we have passed a tipping point and that, at the very least, we are in the early stages of a very difficult time, one of mass extinctions and severe environmental distress. But no one really knows if these are the end days, or the bottleneck through which our species must pass to achieve a state more fully deserving of being called human civilisation.
If you consider the latter possibility to be pie-in-the-sky, consider what would have seemed a "realistic" assessment of the world's prospects from the perspective of, say, 1938. Fascism on the rise around the globe; Stalinism at its most brutally repressive in the Soviet Union; Western democracies in economic ruin; weak and indecisive in their resistance to totalitarianism. The following few years would be among the worst in human history, delivering the Holocaust, the destruction of much of Europe, mass suffering in China, and the advent of nuclear warfare.
Who might have believed you, in 1938, if you had predicted that, twenty-five years thence, much of Europe would be peacefully joined in what would become the European Union, the Soviet Union would be experiencing a cultural thaw and an official process of de-Stalinisation, most of the colonised world would have achieved political independence from its colonisers, an unprecedented economic boom would have dramatically improved the living standards and material security of much of the world, and the disparity between rich and poor would have been reduced to its lowest level in recorded history?
Not that I wish to suggest that the world of the early 1960s was a paradise on earth—but it certainly looked a hell of a lot better than what anyone in 1938 had any reason to expect to see a quarter of a century later. My point here is simply that we really do not know what the future holds. Writing off all hope, on the assumption that we know exactly where this is going, is not realism. It is an arrogant assumption.
If someone told me that they or their spouse, or one of their children, was facing a potentially fatal illness, not many people would consider it an appropriate response for me to say, "Well, you/they are going to die. You may as well face it." It still astonishes me when people do not think twice about asserting, in the face of environmental concern, that all hope is lost. The assumption seems to be that, while we may care deeply for our immediate friends and family, we can reasonably be expected to be indifferent to, and have no great emotional investment in, the fate of our children's children, or the planet they will be living (or dying) on.
In the recent conversation about buses and taxis, what struck me was how readily, even eagerly, the other person rejected any possibility of positive action. As if that were somehow good news: a way of dismissing concern, as if it were less painful to condemn our children, our culture, our planet—the most beautiful thing we know of in the entire universe—to an imminent and miserable end, than to entertain the thought that our present actions might have meaningful ethical consequences.
That response—call it fatalism, pessimism, realism—seems to be the default setting of many I encounter. These are not callous, uncaring individuals: many are compassionate people, who consider themselves committed to social justice. Many have children whom they dearly love; sometimes grandchildren, or the prospect of same. Yet I hear them repeating certain phrases that abruptly cut off discussions about, and thus consideration of, what we are to do, in the present moment of peril. "I won't live to see it" is one of them. The human race won't live to see it, is another: our benighted race will go extinct and the planet will recover and go about its business without us, healing over the scars of our presence. "We're doomed," is it in a nutshell, usually delivered—and this I find very curious—with a neat finality that suggests, not distress, but satisfaction. There: that's settled. Now we can go on poisoning the world until our number comes up.
Fatalism, resignation, realism. These have almost a reassuring sound, compared with what they really signify: despair. Resignation suggests coming to a place of rest, of letting go of false hopes. Despair, on the other hand, is a free fall into fathomless sorrow.
As an atheist pagan, I do not often find myself in agreement with Catholic doctrine, but I am in sympathy with it on one point: that the one unforgivable sin is despair.
I am not talking about depression. Depression is a malady that afflicts many of us; there is no comfort in it, and no one would knowingly choose it. If you are depressed, then you have my deepest sympathy, and my hopes that you receive the support you need to recover.
I am not talking about depression, but about despair as a chosen stance in relation to the world, however disguised it may be as "realism."
Notably, this comfortable despair seems to be more characteristic of life in the "advanced" societies of the global North than it is of people who really have more proximate cause for despair. "Nothing can be done. We have no real power." is the litany of people cradled in privilege and surrounded by material comforts. The people in Libya making the harrowing decision to attempt a crossing of the Mediterranean in over-crowded boats are acting on the basis of an indomitable hope, that, if not their own lives, then those of their children, might somehow be redeemed from the crushing forces of neoliberal capitalism, colonialism, racism; that an escape can be effected. Such people cannot afford despair.
Our culture, beneath its seductive surface of technological wizardry, its ever expanding universe of digital distraction, its ballooning (if ever more unequally distributed) material wealth, is a profoundly pessimistic one. A torrent of on-line gaming and 3d movies and cat videos ensures that we will not sit still for even one moment, long enough to gaze into the black hole at the centre of the party: the black hole of despair.
If you are relatively materially secure, relatively functional, and able to smile and proceed calmly with your life, while saying complacently that there is no hope, then I agree with the church on this point: you are damned. And I'll be damned if I am going to put up with that shit.
As I have argued above, despair is not necessarily warranted. Either hope or despair may be supported by selective use of the available evidence. Neither is proven, nor disproven, definitively. However bad things may be, the possibility of positive change remains—if we do not dismissively foreclose that possibility, by not even allowing ourselves to consider what that possibility might look like—and what achieving it might demand of us.
The question is not which position—hope or despair—is supported by objective evidence. The question is which position is worthy of caring human beings; of a truly and fully human life.
Despair is not a foregone conclusion. So what is so attractive about despair—for those of us who can afford it? It's called letting ourselves off the hook.
The alternative to despair is not a comfortable one. To choose hope is to commit ourselves to questioning every action we take, and considering its consequences for the biosphere and for our fellow human beings, including those not yet born.
I am not suggesting that our choices are always clear or easily determined. I drove a car to reach the place where I began writing this essay. It will have cost the planet about 20 litres of gas, and the ensuing carbon dioxide, for me to have come here and then returned to my apartment in the city. I find myself turning this problem over in my head every time I get behind the wheel, considering what options I have to shift the field of my choices. I am not claiming that my choices are superior to yours. I am saying that we are all obliged to consider our choices, whether they are easy or not, and to consider them in the understanding that solutions to our collective problems just might be possible, if we are prepared to do the work.
Hope hurts. It is much less comfortable than despair.
For all we know, there may be a way out of this terrible corner we have painted ourselves into; it will not be an easy way, and it will take all of our strength, intelligence and moral courage. To put the problem aside as unsolvable is not an ethical option.
Those of us with well heated houses will soon find ourselves wrapped in a snug blanket of snow, and perhaps a smug resignation to the comforts of winter. We are condemned, however, to the possibility of spring.
in the relentless cold
one hand ungloved
at a time
to pluck frost-ripe
nested in the moss
some frozen hard
some bubbles barely
this is what
the land has
to teach me
these tart sweet sudden