Only One Way to Head:
At the end of 2019 my partner and I went camping in Kinglake forest outside of Melbourne, Australia, the site of the deadly 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. We’d planned for six days … we got two. Dangerously hot weather forced us to abandon the forest for the relative safety of the city. A couple of weeks later the catastrophic bush fires of 2019–20 hit, destroying over 20% of Australia’s forests, some that had never before burnt. Thirty-three human beings tragically died. Over three billion non-human beings also died or were displaced (… pause … on that number for a moment). Some of these forest systems are now irrevocably changed.
Although I knew this was what to expect in a heating world, it shook me. As the forests are forced to change, I also realised that we will also change.
We now live in a new era of escalating risk from unpredictable climatic events and massive disruption. But the worst part is the failure to recognise what the UN Secretary General appropriately called a ‘Code Red for Humanity’. There is nothing ambiguous about this. It is not just a value, belief or an idea; it is the dangerous material undermining of our ability to survive on our planet.
What this means for each of us, our neighbourhood, community, city, or country is more difficult to predict. How technological innovation, democratic development or creative social and cultural responses alter this future is still far from clear. Futures are never closed; they are being produced every day, which is why, beyond the scientifically known impacts of climate heating, we live in the face of increasingly levels of uncertainty.
How ought we think about all this? Ought we be optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or despairing? If we are to be hopeful, in what is our hope grounded?
In 2019 I attended the launch of environmental writer Bill McKibben’s new book. I have seen McKibben on a few occasions and he is usually a beacon of possibility. But on this occasion he seemed uncharacteristically subdued, understandable, considering the book’s title was Falter: Has the Human Game Played Itself Out?
One dominant, if now faltering story in Western Culture is of ongoing progress, of things getting better and better. What happens when the future does not match the stories we tell ourselves?
Philosopher Jonathan Lear asks this question in his book, Radical Hope - Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. These questions are not new, as Lear recognises, and have been part of the embodied experience of virtually all colonised peoples. Now, in the face of the planetary crisis, they are, increasingly, globally relevant.
The particular story Lear tells is of Chief Plenty Coups, leader of the Crow Nation (Apsáalooke) during a time of profound disruption to Crow life and identity. A visionary leader, Plenty Coups was born in 1848 in Montana. He was named Alaxchiiaahush, meaning Many Achievements, translated in English as ‘coup’, or act of bravery.
By the time Plenty Coups was born, it was becoming clear that life for the nomadic and warrior Crow nation was under threat. The large numbers of white settlers, the loss of lands and the devastating impact of introduced diseases all pointed to a very different future for the Crow. But what that future was, no-one knew or could imagine.
Before his death in 1932, Chief Plenty Coups told his story to Frank Linderman. A trapper, hunter and cowboy, Linderman moved to Montana in 1885 and came to know the Crow intimately. When recounting his story, Plenty Coups stopped at the point when the buffalo disappeared: ‘After this’ he said, ‘nothing happened’.¹
This is where Plenty Coups ends his story, even though he lived for many more years and led his nation to, arguably, one of the best outcomes achieved by Native American Nations at the time. Yet, it seems, history ended once the buffalo went away.
Lear spends considerable time exploring this statement and what it could mean. He argues that central to the Crow story was the need to hunt buffalo and defend themselves and their territory. While they had no illusions about the dangers posed by white people, the Sioux were their most dangerous enemy. This shifting and complicated history can’t be told here, though is well worth reading. But as Lear explains:
‘ To survive as a nomadic tribe, they had to be good hunters, but they also had to be good at protecting themselves against rival tribes. Fighting battles, defending one’s territory, preparing to go to war — all this permeated the Crow way of life’.²
Defending one’s territory was a matter of life and death. When a warrior faced his enemy and planted his ‘coup stick’ in the ground, he was in effect saying, ‘beyond this point penetration by a non-crow enemy is impossible’. He was risking ‘all his future possibilities’ to protect this space. It is perhaps difficult, if not impossible, for contemporary readers to fully grasp the implications of this. By the 1850s, the once formidable Crow, weakened by devastating attacks by the Sioux and the impact of new diseases, were fighting ‘to prevent utter devastation at the hands of the Sioux’.³
The act of planting the ‘coup stick’ in the ground, then, foreclosed other futures. They would plant their coup sticks, and defend their land, or they would fail. There was no other way of thinking about this. This was built into the fabric of Crow belief and culture; ‘These are all the possibilities there are’.⁴
What happens when everything was organised around hunting and war, but now hunting and war were no longer possible? How does one think of the future when there are now no concepts by which the future makes sense? Lear suggests this may have been what Plenty Coups meant when he said that after the buffalo disappeared, nothing happened.
A Disappearing Future
This provides a powerful reflection for our times. How do we make sense of the future when the very concepts by which we create it are faltering? Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has argued that climate change is ‘unthinkable’. It is not just that we do not wish to think about it, but that we do not know how to think about something that is rewriting our future. Most people have never seriously considered that the life they know and love may not have a future. If our current life has no future, what future do we have?
The truth is that we don’t know. We are not yet in that future.
Plenty Coups is celebrated as a leader for a reason. He understood the future would end for the Crow, but also held an intuition that there was a new future to be created. When he was nine years old (some sources say eleven), he went to the mountain to receive a vision. The first night he failed, so in a long-standing practice sacrificing flesh and blood to receive a dream, he cut off a piece of a finger. The second night his vision came: It told of uncountable buffalo spreading out across the land and then:
‘all were gone, all! There was not one in sight anywhere … [Then] came these bulls and cows and calves past counting … strange animals from another world ….’⁵
The elders listened to young Plenty Coups’ dream, concluding:
‘The white man will take and hold this country and their Spotted-buffalo will cover the plains.… The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens, we may escape this and keep our lands.’⁶
They explicitly recognised that their buffalo-hunting way of life was coming to an end, and decided to ally with the white settlers against their traditional enemies. In this way they hoped to weather the oncoming storm and hold onto their lands.
They understood that change was coming and that their most important cultural narrative, planting coups, was no longer relevant.
As Lear observes:
‘If a people genuinely are at the historical limit of their way of life, there is precious little they can do to “peek over to the other side.” [In this situation] … dreaming provides an unusual resource … in … imagining a radically new future without becoming too detailed about what this future will be’.⁷
The vision told the Crow they would hold onto their lands, though they could have had no idea what that might look like in 1950 or 2020. No Crow would have envisaged that “holding onto our lands” would come to mean being confined to 2 million acres, having much of their land divided and sold to white farmers. And yet the Crow, through adroit leadership by Plenty Coups, remain on their historical lands, in contrast with many other nations who were forced to move to reservations on land not traditionally theirs.
Many of us today simply cannot imagine that our way of life may not keep working. Such denial is not universal; it is far less true for Aboriginal Australians who, like the Crow, have faced cultural devastation, and know how to survive. However, the broader culture does not have the ready cultural resources to easily grasp that our way of life may no longer be fit-for purpose.
What to do? An immediate temptation is to seek action, solutions, answers. These are of course important and some will perhaps find solace in this. But for others, pausing to reflect is even more valuable and, I suggest, can provide a source of collective resources we actually need at this point.
So, ‘Let us sit with the idea, for a moment, that we have lost’.⁸
We most certainly have lost many possible futures that were available when I was born. My children, while still living meaningful lives, see impending shadows now dominating the horizon. My grandkids will never know a healthy Great Barrier Reef. All of us now live with much more dangerous weather and heightened ecological risks. Our life options, financial, health and personal security are forever reshaped by increasingly vulnerable economic and political futures, new pandemics and diseases. Perhaps some things will get better, in some places, but much more will unravel.
We have lost the safe future we were expecting. We now face an new era, and a long emergency.
Growing up in Southern New Zealand provides me an interesting psychological resource; real climatic seasons. The longer I live, the more I lean in to these movements of the living world. As the golden hues of calm autumn days and cool nights give way to cold, dark and often wet winters, I have learnt to sit, knowing that change will come. Whether or not spring emerges as it always has, or radically changes under climate disruption is less the point than the fact that the future is always remaking itself. In each new green shoot that finds its way to the light of a longer day lives the miracle of life, a range of possibilities, even if these possibilities were hard to see in the darkness of winter.
Lear argues Plenty Coup’s dream gave him the possibilities he needed to successfully lead his people. He theorises how Plenty Coups may have thought (we do not know if he thought this, though his dream gave him the resources and the outcome is consistent with this reasoning process). So:
Our traditional way of life is ending;
We cannot face the future in the same way we have been doing;
It is not enough to wish to merely survive these changes;
We must open up our imagination to a radically different set of future possibilities, even though we cannot yet see how things might unfold;
We can still create a future worth living for, even if we cannot yet see or imagine what that could be like.
This was radical because although Plenty Coups could not see the pathway, he believed, through dreaming, creativity and human goodness, there is a meaningful future to bring into existence.
We all need hope, but the forms of hope we embrace matter. Hope needs to be sustainable. It needs to be powerful enough to carry us through the darkest nights and unthinkable years. When the conditions of life are rapidly mutating in front of our eyes, a ‘finger’s crossed’, Pollyannish hope that is little more than wishful thinking will collapse. It is what Osbourne calls the ‘cruel optimism of a post-revolutionary utopian-World-on-her-way’.⁹ In contrast, the Radical Hope Lear points towards asks a different question; not a ‘will we get what we wish/hope for’, but rather ‘how ought we live?’
The culturally deep rooted Western narrative of progress holds that we are, or can always find a way to be, in control of the world. It shapes our expectations of the future. We expect to find a vaccine, to cure cancers, to stop deforestation, to lower planetary warming through technology. Yet, for all the genuinely wonderful things our species has created, there is another set of troubles we inadvertently produce. Uncritical belief in progress renders us powerless when the lights actually go out.
The counter to blind belief in progress is humility. Back to Lear:
‘We are not all-powerful or all-knowing; our ability to create is limited; so is our ability to get what we want; our beliefs may be false; and even the concepts with which we understand the world are vulnerable.’¹⁰
This reality check on our ability to fully control helps reshape our expectations about how the future will turn out. We always live with levels of uncertainty, but living in psychic denial of this does not increase our long term well-being. For one thing, it reduces our capacity to live with courage.
Radical hope requires courage, the ‘capacity to live well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence’.¹¹ This ability enables us to sit with the grief, challenges and deep uncertainty of the future while still seeking a world that is worth living for. Given the inevitable limitations of our knowing-the-world, there are always ‘still possible worlds’, to use Donna Haraway’s insight. Recognising that our particular ideas and ways of life are ill-fitted to the world we actually now live in allows us space to create different ways of being in this world-unfolding.
This requires courage, for we will likely not see this future clearly even while we walk towards it. Denial will eventually betray us and an optimistic hope for grand solutions and inevitable progress will cruelly let us down. True courage is steadfast and not linked to optimism. It operates regardless of how we empirically or emotionally ‘calculate’ progress, where a higher score leaves us elated while a lower score depresses.
Living a courageous life is the art of living in a right balance. It does not require heroic assumptions that a magnificent future awaits, nor a fatalistic despair that all is lost. We do not know. Maybe we have lost. At least, lost a particular future we were banking on. But it is hubris to think (and worse to voice) that we have seen all that is still possible. The world is always bigger and more unknown than we can imagine and our (human) entanglement as part of the living world means we have not, yet, exhausted our possible futures. Courage, as a mode of living, helps us manage uncertainty because we no longer expect any particular outcomes in the future. We are released of that burden. Now, we can step towards this future because the ‘courageous person has the psychological resources to face the risks with dignity and to make good judgements in the light of them.’¹²
What then is left for us to do? Do whatever is within our orbit to lead a good life, to agitate for change, to repair the world, to seek justice in ways available to us, however limited or minimal they may seem. Of course, walking with courage does not negate fear. Anyone paying honest attention to the future will experience fear at some point. But, as Lear suggests, even with a troubling vision of a disappearing world, and almost no idea of how to walk into this new future, a commitment to humility and courage are ingredients for radical hope that might, just might, find a new future worth living for.
So I’ll fight, I’ll not stand back and watch us end this world that we love
So I’ll work and never look back there’s only one way to head
Only one way to head
The track and album can be heard here
¹ Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. All References from Kindle Edition (Kindle Location 31)
² Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 128)
³ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 252)
⁴ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 271)
⁵ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 697)
⁶ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 723)
⁷ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 768).
⁸ Natalie Osbourne, 2019, For still possible cities: a politics of failure for the still politically depressed. Australian Geographer 2019, Vol. 50, №2, 145–15
⁹ Osbourne, 2019
¹⁰ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 1194)
¹¹ Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 1208)
¹² Jonathan Lear (Kindle Location 1232)