The trail to the Eagle Cap in Eastern Oregon. Photo by the author.

Finding Hope — The Choices of an Ecologist

I recently gave an invited lecture in the introductory course for Sustainability Studies at the University of Florida. My host, the director of the program, asked me to give a straight science talk on climate change. Trained at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Smithsonian, I have over 40 years of experience as a field ecologist and I spent my active days in the field studying the carbon budgets of tropical plants. For the last 20 years, I have been intensely interested in climate change. So qualified, I brought to these beginning students a critical and current review of what we know, what we think we know, and why it matters. I usually end my talks with a quiet exhortation to invest in our human communities because this is where the impacts of climate change are felt most acutely. During the Q&A, a student informed me that he felt hopeless and wanted to know how I deal with despair about the future.

My response was far more high minded than I actually felt and it was intended to inspire and provide perspective. Yes, the news is grim, I said, and because of political and culturally based tribalism, it looks like we will not take action in time to avert catastrophic impacts during this century. Acknowledging the gravity of the data, I informed the class that we do not have the privilege of feeling uniquely hopeless. I pointed out that since we trudged out of Africa several tens of thousands of years ago there have been countless times when we were collectively hopeless and demise was an apparent certainty. I cited examples from the Holocaust and the Dark Ages. As a species, we have persevered and, by some measures, prospered.

I find ironic amusement in my true believer friends who say, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” to which I retort, “until She does and then you’re dead.” To be sure, perhaps we have arrived at that point in which the universe without prejudice or judgement is giving us more than we can handle.

I don’t think that humans will go extinct anytime this century or perhaps even beyond. But, the evidence is overwhelming that our current emissions trajectory is not consistent with the survival of civilization much beyond 2100. Pockets of humanity, perhaps the ultra-rich, will build refugia for themselves and those who serve them in latitudes that can support functional agriculture. After many of my public talks I am asked where a family or individual might immigrate to avoid the worst of climate change. My answer is that there is no rock on this planet that you can hide under, although the truth is that climate change will play out with very different impacts in different regions. Some places may in fact be better than others, at least for awhile. Then I quote the activist Bill McKibben who says that you should move anyplace there is a strong community. I leave it to them to define what is meant by strong.

Aldo Leopold famously said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” In his day, most of the wounds were invisible to laymen (his word), but now many of those wounds are front page headlines. Examples from recent months include wildfires in California, super typhoons in the Pacific, extreme rains and flooding in India, extreme red tide in the Gulf and then on the Atlantic side of Florida, and the ecological collapse of Florida’s freshwater ecosystems. Other examples from the past decade are too numerous to list, and it is clear that we are approaching what I have called the ecological event horizon, or point of no return for the biosphere.

Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (SR15), the US Global Change Research Program (Fourth Assessment), the US Geological Survey (pdf), and many thousands of scientific papers confirm the dire nature of our situation. Yet, the president of the United States says simply, “I don’t believe it,” and continues to aggressively promote policies that will ensure climate disruption and widespread ecosystem destruction.

I struggle with hopelessness about our future as a civilization and the coming misery for my daughter, Sachi, and my son, Andrew. The world that they have inherited is profoundly damaged relative to the one that I was born into. This is not to say that Earth was a safe bet for humanity in 1953. There were plenty of warning signs on the horizon during the 20th century. The Charney Report (National Research Council) on global warming was delivered to president Carter in 1979, but it could have been written yesterday, or for that matter, in 1969.

The absence of despair can happen when I get out of my own way and focus on the work itself and my engagement with students and colleagues. Echoing Thomas Merton, who extolled the value of work irrespective of results, Wendell Berry noted, “we don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have the right to ask is — What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”.

Yet, in abject selfish obsession, I sometimes find myself in despair and consumed with The Fuckits. What could it possibly matter if I simply stand down, buy a huge gas sucking RV, and generally entertain myself before age, or more likely cancer, usher me off the stage? Surely, my work has mattered little, I tell myself, and it has always been an uphill struggle with limited tangible rewards.

Of course, this is egocentric rubbish. It is a high privilege of civilization to be paid to be an intellectual, as I have been. Although rarely comparable to other professions, the limited salary of scholars must be viewed with such respect. (No, we are not in it for money.) As scholars, we should revel in the amazing diversity and history of the academy. Yet, driven by financial and political exigencies, most universities have elected to serve markets and functionally abandon the overarching mission of higher education, which is the maintenance and renewal of civilization.

I have found that assuming a spiritual walk can ease a sense of hopelessness. Whenever possible, I seek spiritual renewal by going someplace where I see, feel, or hear the natural order of the universe. Simply gazing at the Milky Way on a starlit night (I recommend a Dark Sky Reserve) or walking through a stand of ancient trees helps me find a sense of optimism about the future of life on Earth. For me, there is no reasonable doubt that we are one of vast multitudes of living things in our universe. Life on this planet will recover from us, just not on any meaningful human timescale. It is this sense of Deep Time, both past and future, that allows me a limited surcease and acceptance of the consequences of our actions.

It is disingenuous to blame my hopelessness solely on my work as an ecologist and the condition of our planet. The roots of my despair run deeper than my intellectual understanding of humanity’s prospects for the future. Having grown up in the Midwest during the halcyon years of the anomalous and unsustainable economic boom following WWII, I have carried with me two unexamined assumptions that I have in common with many of my generation. It is the violation of these assumptions that many find manifestly unfair to our striving species.

The first and most tenacious of these is the belief that humans are exceptional and therefore privileged among the countless species that have struggled, survived, and died. Through dogma and violence, religions have lovingly curated such garbage for over two millennia. This attitude is pervasive and is at the heart of the calamitous duality of perception that we are separate from nature. Things will not turn out badly for us because, well, we are special and our deity will protect us. The second is the notion that every generation will experience progress and a better life than the one before. It is virtually certain that those days are over.

Frustration and despair have also come from my struggle to find meaning where there is none. As an offspring of the American tribe of white entitled property owners I left my home town in 1971 with the belief that the most important thing in my life was My Career. I proceeded to obsessively devote the next 30 years to hammering out a career as a scientist, which I fancied to be far more important than, say, the study of Shakespeare, or fostering meaningful family relationships. Today I am thankful to be married to a working poet whose work likely has more positive impact than anything I have done or ever will do.

I was driven less by the desire to discover and understand, and more by the desire to be whole. Yep, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. The metrics of being a scientist — papers published, grants acquired (with indirect costs to be harvested by my employers), getting tenure, training students — were the things that hid and justified the big-picture irrelevance of my research program. As I believe is common for many driven individuals, I never felt good enough and was often plagued by self-doubt. At Penn, I was a poster child for the imposter syndrome.

My siblings and I are first generation college graduates in my family. We were expected to excel in academics and sports. Success meant competing and winning at whatever might be the goal du jour. My parents were depression era kids and saving and making money were revered. While this was fairly normal in the American household of the 50’s and 60’s, the degree to which I applied myself and the isolation that it engendered were sometimes extreme. Values such as teamwork, collaboration, compassion, and empathy were not part of my portfolio for success. I believe that I share this dysfunction with millions of career-driven people. Elon Musk has proudly stated that “you can’t change the world working less than 80 hours a week.” This is toxic nonsense.

Such a mindset belies the reality that we are obligate social primates and we need each other. Collectively we are arguably the most dangerous and destructive animal on Earth, but individually we are an easy lunch. To deny the reality that we live in the shelter of each other is to deny a fundamental fact of our existence as a species. It should be obvious that our only way out of this mess is through collaboration. Although altruism can be reciprocal, it is certainly mostly innate. I will often drop a fiver into the cup of a homeless person not because I think they will return the gift someday, but because I have an innate affective response to their neediness.

Paradoxical to this hard-wired sociality, the culture of capitalism is driven by self-interest. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economic choice is the reality of today’s consumer society. Although this abomination may be a principle of the free market, it is demonstrably wasteful, inefficient, cruel, and fosters The Tragedy of The Commons. Since the end of WWII, the US has led the charge for free markets and provided the basis for a global economic juggernaut that has little concern with a future beyond five years. Immediate consumption remains the most important measure for constructing our measures of wellbeing. This tragically short-term view leaves us without many of the social and policy tools necessary for the large-scale change that is now urgent. Big business reigns supreme and through a legal perversity corporations have the status of people.

In 2002 my attitude about the meaning of my work changed through painful self-examination. Traveling to a field site in Eastern Amazonia, a student in our car remarked that it is essential that our work be relevant to halting the destruction of the forest, which was evident with every passing mile. For the first time, I admitted to myself that my vaunted research career was far removed from the pressing ecological issues of our time. Later, I collected my students and we had a serious discussion about the meaning of our work. It was then that I decided to devote the remainder of my professional life to serving a purpose bigger than myself.

Today, a guiding principle for framing my attitude and my search for meaning is that I have an ethical obligation to my kids and generations not yet born to do all in my power to leave them a livable planet. I also believe that I have a similar obligation to the nonhuman life on Earth. These beliefs have no independent objective meaning or justification. They are simply the beliefs that sustain me. The call to service, like altruism toward individuals, is innate and I accept it as necessary for maintaining a sense of purpose.

Having such a purpose is essential, but only partially effective at banishing despair. I will periodically experience despair so long as the vestiges of earlier beliefs continue to fester in my being and I live in a culture that values money over the preservation of living things. Belief that the human condition can be improved and that our lives can serve a higher purpose is hard to hang onto in light of the mindlessness of despicable political leaders and the unrelenting march of grim news about our planet.

So, the honest answer to the student’s question about hopelessness is that I have some degree of hopelessness most of the time. I manage this in part by reaching out to others and sharing my fears with them. My obligate sociality is the most powerful tool that I have for fostering any faith in a better future. My community is where I must make my stand. I am fond of saying that my science can help a student determine what to do when they get out of bed, but my poet partner, Michele, can help them find a reason to get up in the first place.

Hope? My simple heartfelt hope is that I can make the passage of the coming years without angry obsession or bitterness about what is being lost and what might have been. I confess that I find this difficult because many of the losses are permanent, but I must remind myself that there are no absolute villains in this story. Without forethought, our species discovered a concentrated source of energy and used it to build a magnificent and deeply flawed civilization. Fossil fuels just are. They have no intrinsic moral significance. It is when I am able to view the history of humanity through such an objective lens that I can have some measures of humility and compassion.

The author measuring photosynthesis in a rainforest canopy in Panama.