Throughout this year in our Friday morning discussions, we’ve been dancing around a delicate, sometimes embarrassing subject: Hope. I was accused more than once, and by the spring term almost weekly by at least one person, of choosing deliberately depressing readings, as if the goal had been to suppress, stifle, strangle any possible hope for hope before July. So I feel it is my opportunity and my obligation to take this one last chance to assert some space for hope.
One of the topics we discussed was climate change denial, and why there has actually been an upsurge in the numbers of Americans who do not believe that climate change is happening, or that if it is happening, that it is caused by our actions.
This increase in denial is happening as more and more evidence is presented that climate change is occurring. Which raises the question: What is wrong with us? One theorist we read, Janis Dickinson, looked at the problem from a psychological and philosophical angle. She presented evidence that climate change narratives provoke thoughts of death, which in turn trigger a response in many people that makes them behave in ways that make climate change worse. Not only do they consciously deny the problem, they also become more acquisitive, more eager to buy consumer goods, bigger and more gas-guzzling cars, as a kind of defense of their threatened self. The paradox here is that by telling the story and presenting the evidence, you create the opposite effect, and actually worsen the climate change problem.
It is tempting to say: That’s just the way things are. Some things never change. But we understand “the way things are” through language and through narratives we hear and tell. To truly believe a story in which the world’s course is fundamentally fixed or that the world is the way it is and always will be, is to leave no room for hope. It is also a fundamentally unecological way of thinking about time and how systems so apparently stable gradually and sometimes suddenly change.
Tom and Barbara Sargent, two Conway alums from the 1980s, recently visited and Tom spoke to us this spring. He is a developer, and he’s trying to work through an alternative to conventional development. Cost-benefit analyses, input-output tables, and formulas for calculating returns on investment fail to capture the unforecastable state of future evolutions. Indeed, conventional development practices have contributed to creating a world not predicted by its supporting theory—its particular narrative of how the world works. In other words, the rising tide did not raise all boats. Tom is thinking about a model of development that acknowledges community, unpredictability, uncertainty, ambiguity, not knowing for sure what’s going to happen.
As we’ve seen with climate change denial, ideas can be received in very different ways than we hope—and so the new model of development Tom talked about could easily be associated with chaos, fear, confusion, anxiety, and lead to a kind of fortressing of the mind and body. How then do we break the emotional link between stories of radical change and fear? (I don’t mean: how do we get people to not fear climate change; I mean how do we get people to be comfortable with the kinds of changes that would have to happen to avert it.) How do we talk about past, present, future without triggering thoughts of death that only generate the opposite reactions to what we’re seeking?
One thing we probably should not do is to believe that climate change denial is so foreign to us. George Orwell in “A Hanging” describes a condemned man who, walking to the gallows where he is to be hanged, steps around a puddle in the path. Orwell’s response was not to think the man foolish for this sidestep; the action in fact made the prisoner suddenly become a human being for him. What could be more human than, on the way to certain catastrophe, to be concerned about a puddle? At that moment, the whole colonial British Empire and his role in it became absurd and unbearable for Orwell. Soon, he was back in Britain, writing powerful stories, fiction and otherwise, defending the average person against the powerful.
So it’s best not to feel too much superiority here. Instead we might look to those human realms where we associate unpredictability instead with delight, pleasure, joy, and beauty.
For example, a jazz trio. The musicians play a standard, playing the familiar tune through once. Then they improvise, responding to how each musician is playing, the decisions each is making at the moment, playing within the chord progressions of the original, creating new patterns within patterns. Another example: a basketball or soccer game, the teams playing through patterns of passes, runs, shots, blocks, occasional flashes of surprising innovation and improvisation as they respond to teammates, opponents, weather, accidents. Or take the improv comedy troupe: following a few fundamental rules (like don’t say no to anyone else’s proposal), they take a few suggestions from the audience and spin out a story together on the spot.
These are all intensely social communal activities, requiring teams of performers and an audience. And as Malcolm Gladwell points out, improvisation is not about an individual simply doing whatever they want at the moment. It involves rehearsal, to prepare and practice the patterns that structure the improv, and it requires not a self-centered selfishness but generosity and attentiveness—to what has gone before, to the audience, and to what your other improvisers are doing, how they are responding to the past, the present, and to you and what you are doing. And though these are serious intellectual and artistic activities, the emotions associated with the unpredictability of the outcomes is delight and sometimes even joy.
So. The shark is swimming toward the man. The man is swimming toward the shark. The outcome, it seems, is inevitable. There are, however, grounds for hope.
One. If there is room for surprise, then there is room for hope. Or, hope exists in the space created by surprise. It’s not the only thing that fits in that space, but it’s one of them.
Two. If gradual succession and sudden disturbance make sense ecologically, then they apply to human affairs also. Bertolt Brecht said, “Because things are the way they are”—you hear that first part of the quote and you think “Oh no, another depressing story about how the world is.” But then he says—“things will not stay the way they are.” “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Space for hope.
Three. If we can figure out how to structure our narratives so they make people associate change—the change we want—with pleasure and delight, then we have the skills to build hope, our own as well as others. This is why telling a story well is a deeply political act.
So, in summary: Accept there’s no script. We’re not acting in a story whose ending is already determined. Live life as an improvisation—collective, informed, smart, generous, joyful—to break the links between radical change and fear, and to invite others into a very different story.