earthweal weekly challenge: RADICAL HOPE

Well it’s Sunday and here I am again, scratching my chinny chin chin and wondering what might possibly suffice for an earthweal prompt.

If you what I’ve been posting recently at Oran’s Well, it’s not very cheerful stuff and far from the green forest.

We are all trying to process the events in our own way — just as we have with each next installment in post-Holocene Earth — monstrous wildfires in Australia and California, astonishing rainfall events around the world, walloping hurricanes and tornadoes, etc. With every trip of the scales.

Plenty of room for astonishment and grief. But hope? That’s a thinner and more measly ingredient — an essential portion ravaged, dessicated, half-drowned, windblown and now shelled into hellscape.

Next case in point. I’ve been trying to finish Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World of the Whale — it’s a magnificent sea-book, for me on the scale Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us — but to read of how these magnificent creatures have fallen exceptionally in the crosshairs of human progress, it’s devastating. (I find it hard to finish Moby Dick for the same reason.).

Back in my youth, we worried about nuclear winter. (Decades later, such thoughts return to mind as every armchair quarterback tries to figure Putin’s more desperate moves).

Now it’s heat we’re worried about. Recently there were heat waves simultaneously at both the North and South poles — temperature 50 degrees above average — doubly strange as seasons are supposed to be opposite in the hemispheres.

Then consider that fallout in our age may be waters churning with plastic. Giggs writes that in 2015, about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste was created by people around the world, with about 80 percent of it escaping either recycling or incineration. She continues,

Seaborne plastic from the land, or fallen off boats, might eventually sink, it might be carried by the wind to be recaptured by a coastline, it might float, or else, it gets eaten. Over time, plastics in the ocean are shattered by wave friction and UV radiation, into a bleached and dainty shrapnel — tinier than krill or a limpet on a whale bone. Because most polymers remain impregnable to water and microbes, it may take hundreds of years, thousands even, for the particulate to disappear. If it ever does. One of plastic’s most pernicious qualities is that it doesn’t so much decay as divide into littler and littler pieces. Only a microscope would reveal the full extent of the plastic, though it’s a ubiquitous and global problem, occurring in every ocean, and in rivers and lakes, as well as, more diffusely, on land. Plastic is a component of dust; it granulates in the farmland soil of Shanghai and falls in rain over the Pyrenees. Plastic is in the weather. Current estimates hold that in one of the largest gyres found in subtropical Pacific waters between California and Hawaii, 94 percent of approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are microplastics. Within an area of more than six hundred thousand square miles, there are at least seventy-nine thousand tonnes of polymer debris. (217)

Two sperm whales stranded in 2008 in Northern California were observed to have these things in their stomachs:

Two hundred and thirteen (dry weight) pound of debris total, including one individual net of approximately 182 square feet. Branded cord and netting, bearing the trademarks of Indonesian fisheries. Types of net identified: bait nets, gill nets, shrimp and trawl nets, tallying 134 nets in total. Polyurethane and nylon. (225)

I don’t know about you, but plastic fallout sounds like a death knell for sea life, a doom concocted in the heating simmer of the ocean.

Where is the hope in that?

Yet it is in this very hopeless chapter that Giggs get to the heart of the question I’m asking:

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, on the subject of this book: Is there cause for optimism; is there cause for hope? How do you sit with this terrible, sad news from the ocean, day after day? So here, I want to clear some space to speak directly and plainly to those questions, as if you were sitting beside me.

There is hope.

A whale is a wonder not because it is the world’s biggest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity. A whale shows us it is impossible to care for that which lies outside our immediate sphere of action, but within our sphere of influence — we care deeply, you and I, about the whale because it is distant. Because it speaks to us of places we will not go. Because it magnifies the reach of our humanity, and reminds us of our collective ability to control ourselves, and of our part in a planetary ecology. Because a whale is a reserve of awe and humility. You might take hope from the movement around plastic pollution — the shopping bag bans, the campaigns against drinking straws — but this, to me, looks like low-hanging fruit. What I means to say is, there are many beings not proximate to ourselves that we will have cause to extend our compassion to in the decades to come: the future generations, the vulnerable people overseas, the creaturely life, and you might ask yourself, How should I care for that which I do not know, that which I have never met?

Do you care for the whale?

Could you act on behalf of the whale?

Being hopeful follows from being useful: this has been my experience, and to be useful, it matters that you identify a part of the problem that you might see change in, using the talents and resources that you possess. Hope is fellowship. Hope is in the doing. We may be the only species capable of imagining a future robbed of the wonder of encountering other species. This knowledge, in the end, gives us cause to start. (234-5)

Sometimes things come along that take our collective breath and strength and hope away — for many of us, that’s now. Yet if we take Giggs’ lead, that is precisely when hope is our strongest and most vital asset. It is now that we stay united in our support and celebration of the living world.

And since we’re staring World War III in the face, why not take a suggestion from Thomas Friedman on how to fight it on our home fronts?

In World War II, the U.S. government asked citizens to plant victory gardens to grow their own fruits and vegetables — and save canned goods for the troops. Some 20 million Americans responded by planting gardens everywhere from backyards to rooftops. Well, what victory gardens were to our war effort then, solar rooftops are to our generation’s struggle against petro-dictatorships.

If you want to lower gasoline prices today, the most surefire, climate-safe method would be to reduce the speed limit on highways to 60 miles per hour and ask every company in America that can do so to let its employees work at home and not commute every day. Those two things would immediately cut demand for gasoline and bring down the price.

Is that too much to ask to win the war against petro-dictators like Putin — a victory in which the byproduct is cleaner air, not burning tanks?

It takes a radical hope, as Jonathan Lear tells us, “directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”  (Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, 2008)

I’d say the time was ripe for hope of this kind.  For this challenge: let’s celebrate radical hope — that hope whose only basis is our faith in the wonder of life and our capacity to embrace it.



May Swenson

Bright sleep bathing breathing walking
snow ocean and fire
spinning white and flinching green
red-and-yellow-petaled sheen
color me with fresh desire

Vast sleep snow as deep
fresh the leap to green and steep flinching wave
pulsing red glowers flow on black below

In black sleep brightness keep
in colored day spin and play
fresh foam sharp snow the slime of time whirl away
Fire is air is breath and green
lakes of air I walking swim

Powers are of motion made
of color braided all desire
In red and yellow flowers bathe
in snow ocean and fire
in snowy sleep on curls of flame
on shingles of the sea I climb
Dim and gray whirl away and knotted thought and slime

Burning now spin me so with black sea
to braided be In green sleep eons leap
from gray slime past thought and time
to pith and power to bathe in the immortal hour
to breathe from another pulsing flower

Snow ocean white fire
color me with fresh desire

from Nature: Poems Old and New, 1994


Belle loves whale song.

4 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: RADICAL HOPE

  1. A wonderful challenge, Brendan, and challenge it is, right now, to muster hope. The plastic problem is a huge one. I have read reports that microplastics are being ingested by babies with their formula, and have been detected in human blood. Plastic may be one of the most pernicious inventions of all time. The whole fishing net inside a whale is horrifying. (Side note: in 2001, India began using glues made from shredded plastic waste. They weather well and need less fixing. One way to get plastic out of landfills.)


  2. The sad truth seems to be that the human mind is equipped to be rational individually, but in the collective. refuses all attempts to behave that way. My voice has been mostly mute on horrors of late, but I have gotten up a few words after reading this, very small potatoes indeed, but hope is where you find it, I guess in this case in among the ruins.


  3. Thanks Brendan for this beautiful essay – i have posted a reworking of an older poem in case i do not finish typing up this weeks response in time to link. Happy Friday to all.


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