1. The future has never been more uncertain, but thats not all bad news. This moment could belong to those who want to articulate something that is neither capitalist nor communist but local, durable, humane, imaginative, inclusive, and open to ongoing improvisation, rather than locked in place as a fixed ideology. The moment is ours to seize.
The focus of this book is hope in the face of pessimism. Because common parlance runs hope and optimism together, it can easily sound like a contradiction to be both pessimistic and hopeful.
Optimists and those who hope approach the future in completely different ways. Optimists see the future as the projection of present trends, confident in their calculation of probability. Those who hope do so despite the odds they face.
If bound by the calculation of odds, I am pessimistic. The odds are bleak that global warming will be turned around or even dampened.
Copenhagen has come and gone, a fiasco that left us with nothing more than an empty sign-up sheet. Government leaders could not get past their decade-old stumbling block: the industrialized nations, who have been emitting CO2 for two hundred years, insisted that the newly industrializing countries Brazil, China and India should cut back as much as they. Those countries wonder why they, still poor, should pay for the excesses of the rich. Bill McKibben, well known environmentalist and author, quotes an Indian environmentalist calling Copenhagen a modern-day Munich.
So the reasonable reaction is pessimism. But that need not mean giving up hope.
Both optimism and pessimism, based on reasonable expectations, rely on stability, on continuity with the past. The optimism/pessimism framework is thoroughly part of the modern mind-set because it relies on our ability to predict.
The predictions on which a modern person bases their optimism are the products of the relevant experts. The present crisis consists in this: the relevant experts nowadays are the climatologists; they predict that if we do not begin to reverse the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere by 2015, global warming will become irreversible. At the same time, other experts, economists for example, whom we hear from almost every day, see such problems only in the light of the presumed necessity of economic growth. Caught between these two sets of experts, many people find it difficult_to say the least_to maintain their optimism.
Nonetheless, there are many practicing optimists today.
I suggest there are two serious brands of optimism. One brand takes for granted that modern industrialized civilization has been characterized by progress, and that science will once again come to our rescue and provide us with solutions. There is much to be said for such technological optimism, especially when progress is seen to be coming not from large corporations, but from countless numbers of small, ingenious entrepreneurs who see a way to make a living by solving local problems. For instance, journalist Chris Turner gives a wide variety of examples of people figuring out ways to provide themselves, their villages and/or their customers with renewable sources of electricity water, wind and solar.
Such a viewpoint draws on the classic argument that the market will unlock the ingenuity and risk-taking of millions of people, who will figure out better and cheaper ways to satisfy mankinds need for energy. I dont wish to quarrel with anyone who takes the environmental crisis seriously; however, while this brand of optimism makes much of the legitimate drive of people in the poor South to find ways to a more comfortable and satisfying life, it begs the question of the legitimacy of consumption patterns in the industrialized North.
Clearly, technology must be part of any climate solution. Countries such as Norway and Germany have raised the price of carbon and have shown that renewable sources of energy are well within reach. However, to rely on technological innovation alone cannot be the full story. The contemporary global food system, which in industrialized countries accounts for more carbon emissions than either housing or transportation, is an example of technology going in the wrong direction. A discussion of the food system is a theme running through much of this book.
In the late 1970s, I was part of the Peoples Food Commission, which held 75 hearings across Canada and issued a report, The Land of Milk and Money. The major issue at that time was the cost squeeze that farmers were experiencing. There were concerns expressed about erosion, but still nothing broader about environmental sustainability. But the members of that commission did come to grasp that from farm to urban consumer, the production, processing, transportation and selling of food is indeed a system.
But this book is about more than food. Food is what social workers would call the presenting problem. That is, when you begin to sort out the many dilemmas and contradictions in the modern industrial food system, you find that they cant all be resolved within the frame of the food system. You have to ask additional questions about society as a whole.
If you focus solely on food, you are stuck with irresolvable dilemmas. Even though everybody needs food to live, its production and distribution have become determined by market forces, thus making food a commodity. How did that happen? You have to go back a step, and ask what kind of assumptions led us to think of food as a commodity. Commodities come from factories, so we made our farms and fisheries as much like factories as we possibly could. But how could we avoid thinking we might at some point transgress the natural limits of the soil and the ocean to provide?
A reflection on such underlying assumptions is difficult. Noticing them is as difficult as it is for a fish to notice water. These assumptions are not what we see, they are how we see the world. They give shape to our world-picture; they guide the narrative of the stories we tell ourselves about how the world goes round.
My exploration of the modern food system leads me to try to uncover and examine those basic assumptions that drive modern industrial society, especially in North America. My context is the ecological crisis: we are living way beyond our environmental means. Worse, now that climate scientists have given us such dire warnings, it becomes ever clearer that the assumptions that have led us to this crisis also keep us from acting to mitigate it. Remember Pogos famous line: We have met the enemy and he is us.
A second brand of optimism is rooted in political naivety: it assumes that a determined, democratically mandated government will intervene to restructure society and the economy and reverse global warming. But think back to the deadlock at Copenhagen. First and foremost, governments are expected to ensure the economic well-being of their own country. Certainly in the run-up to Copenhagen, the Canadian government kept insisting that it would be realistic in dealing with global warming that is, it would do nothing that would interfere with economic growth. Governments consider it their duty to tend to the economy first.
Such a stance ignores the connection between affluence and environmental footprint. As Yale historian Paul Kennedy summed up this problem, the average American baby represents twice the environmental damage of a Swedish child, three times that of an Italian, thirteen times that of a Brazilian, thirty-five times that of an Indian, and 280 (!) times that of a Chadian or Haitian because its level of consumption throughout its life will be so much greater.
So, while some citizens will organize and continue to press their government to re-arrange the market such that everyone is more likely to cut back on carbon emissions, I remain pessimistic. I agree with Bill McKibbens judgment in his recent Eaarth, where he suggests that its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I dont think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match.
But pessimism does not mean despair. Even though I am pessimistic, this book is actually about hope.
Hope has many meanings. It has a religious meaning, and among Christians the object of hope is something outside of history. Since the problem we are confronting is global warming, the hope I speak of here must find its object within the bounds of history. There are psychologists who use hope to mean that a person has sufficient personal strength that they make happen what they hope for. This understanding of hope is socially conservative, taking for granted the very social and cultural conditions that must change if we are to meet the environmental challenge.
The hope I speak of is hope in dark times. So I turn to people who have shown extreme political courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming circumstances. Martin Luther King said during one of his Montgomery sermons:
Hope has nothing to do with optimism. I am in no way optimistic about America, nor am I optimistic about the plight of the human species on the globe. There is simply not enough evidence to infer that things are going to get better. That has been the perennial state and condition of not simply black people in America, but all self-conscious human beings who are sensitive to the forms of evil around them. We can be prisoners of hope even as we call optimism into question.
Vaclav Havel, having spent decades resisting the repressive communist regime in his country, said later of hope:
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Its not just well known leaders who interpret hope in the way I do. Frances Moore Lappé traveled the world interviewing peasants resisting the global forces of the food system. She entitled her book The Edge of Hope. Her notion of hope is that it is the grim determination to keep resisting no matter what.
But simply by their actions every day, in defying all the odds against them, they experience hope. They embody it; they dont seek it, they are it. Hope is not for wimps; its for the strong-hearted who can recognize how bad things are and yet not be deterred, not be paralyzed.
I quoted Pogo earlier, that the enemy is us. The us needs unpacking. We as a public, as a group of people living within the rules and goals of a market system and a governmental system that goes with the market, do not possess the political tools to deal with the ecological crisis. That sums up my pessimism. But though writing a book about my pessimism might have a certain therapeutic value, it would be a waste of any readers time. While pessimistic, I can also hope. And the basis of my hope is us people living in neighbourhoods, working with one another, helping each other decide that it is time we took back our food citizenship and developed a provision of food that fits our vision of what the future should be, sorting out together how to re-localize our food supply. This us is committed to building a different world together.
And what is the difference between us as a public and us as a community? As a public, we rely on the authoritative experience of others, including parents, social authorities and experts to tell us what is permissible, realistic, or appropriate. As a community we can attain a different kind of experience: transformative experience. A person can be transformed; a whole society can eventually be transformed. And hope rests on such transformation.
Certainly optimism and pessimism are contradictory. But hope puts you into an entirely different relation to the future. Perhaps I can make this clear by quoting a passage from a speech given by American environmentalist Paul Hawken in May 2009.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and arent pessimistic, you dont understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you arent optimistic, you havent got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.
While eloquent, the paragraph is to me confusing: how can you be both pessimistic and optimistic? It brings to mind an image of spectators at a table tennis match, their heads jerking to the left and right, watching the ball. I would change one phrase in Hawkens words: But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you arent buoyed by hope, you havent got a pulse.
Hope, then, implies community. Neither King nor Havel, though strong, was a solitary figure. We remember each of them addressing large crowds. To be a leader implies being part of a community. If my pessimism is rooted in the seeming intractability of governmental and economic systems, my hope is rooted in the ability of people to come together and work communally to re-imagine life and society with different assumptions and goals.
Hope is used by many to describe a state of feeling. As I use it in this book, hope is not a feeling, but a commitment. To talk of hope is not to reassure but to call to action that is both committed and communal.
This book is a diary of sorts of my quest for hope, recording my experiences and discoveries along the way. Maybe more than a diary, a kind of road map. But let me be clear: it is definitely not a map or a blueprint of what I hope for. As I understand hope, what a person hopes for can often remain unclear. What I do in these pages is try to offer a form of map to where I think the grounds for hope may be found.
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