My first reaction? Nothing. Given time to reflect on my visceral take, it seems to me there are two truths about hope.
First, hope is not dichotomous. That is to say, it’s not like a light which is on or off. Hope exists on a spectrum ranging from zero to completely confident of a preferred outcome. Either consciously or subconsciously, a person processes their understanding of the world and decides where they stand on that spectrum.
Second, hope is contextual. Stated in another way, “What are the boundaries of the range of outcomes?” One’s sense of hope for career progress or relationship success or world peace are largely based on different conditions, forces, and scale. The amount of hope one feels in one context is not necessarily the same as they feel in a different context, though the subjective feeling may bleed across boundaries and affect the calculation in another.
With my context being life on Earth, I can unequivocally say that I am very hopeful for its continued evolution and success. There will be some collateral damage here in the Anthropocene and other bumps along the way with the occasional cometary impact, but life will go on.
My reason for this hope is simple: in the geologic record, there are about four billion years of the continuous presence of life on Earth. There have been several significant and even devasting extinction events in Earth’s history. But life on Earth, within the span of a few million years, has always come roaring back. Of course, the portfolio of flora and fauna is always radically changed on the other side of these events, with many species becoming extinct and new species arising. With the possible exception of some prokaryotic bacteria, no species continues forever. Humans will not be the exception to this empirical observation.
But I think when most people talk about hope their context is narrower, anthropocentric, and not measured in geologic time. Instead, it is measured in units of human civilization, in millennia. And the question to be answered is “What is my expectation for human culture in the future?” or “Will human beings continue to exist?” Qualifiers and definitions are always critical to answering a question. How long? What kind of culture? What kind of quality of life for humans and other species? The details are important.
There are good and wise people in the world as well as solutions to the problems that plague us. The problem is that there are not enough of the former, and there are institutional obstacles to the implementation of the latter.
We live in a rapacious culture driven by profit-seeking and the desire to consume more and more products while preventing other people in the world from sharing in that excess. Collectively, we have not shown the ability to change our behaviors to save our future. As evidence: the recently lauded Inflation Reduction Act, an anemic attempt to address climate change that has arrived 40 years too late, and which half the Congress voted against. It merely waits for a later iteration of the US government to toss it out.
Capitalism, racism, nationalism, and consumerism are our four horsemen of the apocalypse. There are no gods to save us from ourselves. Of course, conspicuous consumption is primarily in the industrialized countries where an accident of birth gives us this opportunity. The Third World can only dream of eating the world the way we are.
And yet, in the aggregate, human beings may not be wise creatures, but we are clever and adaptable primates. In the end, it is because of this quality that I have considerable hope that human beings and their society will continue to exist. But it will not be pretty, and it will not look like early 21st Century North American culture. In the long term, our lifestyles will be massively changed. We will live much closer to the natural world which we have degraded and will have much less technology. Survival will depend on physical labor and local self-sufficiency. I see it as a kind of “steampunk” world but without a coherent story line.
But I have do have some hope that we will survive.
Gary Poole has worked as an engineer, geologist, radio technician and teacher. He has kept beehives and surveyed caves. His favorite place in the world is Mexico, though any of Latin America will do fine. He has been a naturalist most of his life but only became an official Texas Master Naturalist with the Alamo Area Chapter in San Antonio, Texas, recently serving as president of their board. He is a father of two.