Hoping From Ignorance

Our climate situation right now is bleak. A recent video by Guy McPherson marshals much scientific evidence that near term human extinction is extremely likely. McPherson ends the video with assorted advice on how to make the best use of the little time that remains to us. One of those pieces of advice is from Edward Abbey: “If the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about.” Indeed, if all is lost, then you may as well go on vacation. I’m sorry to disappoint doomers who want a vacation, but I have not lost all hope (despite McPherson’s science, which I find entirely convincing).

The word “hope” has taken on two very different meanings in recent years, particularly in discussions about the ongoing destruction of the ecosystem.

  • One meaning of “hope” is the belief that someone else will fix things somehow. This kind of hope is a justification for inaction. It is also a denial of our doom, and that denial interferes with a needed grieving process. The people who define “hope” this way say that hope is the enemy, and we must abolish hope, and they are very angry at anyone who is hopeful. They seem to be unaware that anyone might have a different kind of hope.
  • The other meaning of “hope” is the belief that we might be able to fix things somehow, the belief that our efforts might succeed. Of course, if we believed there were no chance whatsoever of our efforts succeeding, then there would be no point in even trying. But this kind of “hope” says there is at least a little possibility that our efforts will succeed, and so it is a reason for action. It is the reason that I continue to take action. But I would like to tell the people who define “hope” the other way, hey, your anger is not helpful to me.

I am not claiming any certainty that our efforts will succeed. Indeed, if we had that certainty, we’d have a good excuse to not try very hard; we’d get at least a partial vacation. Sorry, we’re not there either. In fact, our failure still looks most likely to me. I’m just claiming that our failure is not yet a certainty.

But how can I say that, in the face of the mountain of technical evidence that people like McPherson have compiled? Ironically, I can say that with a very simple argument that is not technical at all. In fact, I call it “arguing from ignorance.” It goes like this:

Look around you. It’s clear that we’re going to survive for at least a few more days, and probably a few more months. And we don’t know, and CAN’T know, what we may still discover in those months. We may discover some way to get us out of this fix. Probably we won’t. But we might.

I’m not talking about some physical device, such as a new super method of carbon capture and sequestration (though I’m not ruling that out as completely impossible). I’m not talking about mirrors and white paint (though I do have some hope for that). No, my biggest hope is for a sociological breakthrough.

spreading ideasIt’s rare for a good idea to spread quickly. But it could happen. It’s not prevented by some unbreakable physical law like gravity, as far as we know. And so that’s what I’m hoping for:

Maybe someone will make a new movie, or a new song, or a new leaflet or placard (I make lots of leaflets and placards), or some really clever phrase, that will inspire people and spread quickly. It will spread virally, and inspire a huge number of people, enough so that those people can change how our society is organized. Or, more likely, it won’t be just one message. It will be many people, making many different messages in many different formats, many people taking action in ways that inspire other people to take action.

And then finally people will cooperate, and Do The Right Thing, the thing or things we need. And I’m hoping that will be enough to fix our enormous problems.

I’ll repeat the main point: We don’t know, and CAN’T know, what we may still discover in the time we have left, and that’s why I still have the kind of hope that brings me to continue taking action.

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2022 July 20, version 2.02.

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