Mr. Hopeless

categories: Cocktail Hour

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While I don’t mind rumbling a bit in my writing, I am not a fan of personal attacks. What follows, I would insist, is not one, but rather an attack on a writer’s ideas, ideas that I have over the years found to be not just wrongheaded, but pernicious. The writer Derrick Jensen presents the world in primary colors, oversimplified, and seems to have had little contact with or knowledge of his fellow human beings, or at least human beings as I know them.

A few years ago I was supposed to be on an academic panel with Jensen, and a couple of weeks before the panel I sent out a friendly e-mail to the other panelists, suggesting we bounce some ideas off each other. Here is part of the actual e-mail I got in response from him:

“The world is being killed, and we need to stop it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Those who come after aren’t going to care about whether we wrote beautiful descriptions of nature, they’re not going to care about whatever epiphanies we had, they’re not going to care how well we crafted our words. They’re not going to care how hard we tried. They’re going to care about whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. They’re going to care about whether the land can support them.”

“Nature writing is not an end in itself. It is but one means toward the only–and I mean only–end that matters at this point, which is that we stop this culture from killing the planet. The reason I feel comfortable saying that’s the only end that matters is that without a landbase you don’t have anything. Everything–including beautiful writing–emerges from and is secondary to the land.”

The other writers and I felt a little cowed by the note, embarrassed that we had been up to then corresponding about such minor concerns as semicolons, tree frogs, and imagery. We worried that we were poseurs next to Derrick, that we should immediately do something, maybe burn our bras or draft cards. I read his e-mail to a friend, a writer I respect who is much more careful about

keeping his politics out of his essays than I am. He told me a story about a Marxist poet who accosted Robert Frost and said: “No poetry is worth its name unless it moves people to action.” Frost replied: “I agree. The question is, how soon?” (It is worth noting that this writer, while not overtly political in his work, has, in his spare time, saved more of Cape Cod’slandbase than anyone I know.)

Don’t get me wrong here. I admired Jensens’ passion, and realized that, face-to-face, we might have more in common than not. I don’t mind fighters, even extreme fighters. The sheer earnestness of environmentalism can make me uneasy, but force me to choose between a tad too much earnestness and melting ice caps and I’ll take earnestness every time. Still, something about his tone unsettled me.

It was only after this encounter that I read Jensen’s most well-known essay, Beyond Hope, where he argues that too much is made of the idea of “hope” when people talk of environmentalism. By the time I read this, I had already been thinking quite a lot about environmental psychology, and some of the pressing questions I was asking myself were: What allows a person to go beyond paying lip service to nature and to actually live with it in this modern, muddled world? How can we fall in love with something so limited and wounded? And how can we go from loving to fighting?

Which led me to think of young people, who were graduating from high school perhaps, and, yes, also led me to think of hope. Jensen, in part simply to provoke (which he has), argues for a politics of hopelessness. I couldn’t disagree more. Without hope and the energy it provides, we curl into the mental equivalent of the fetal position, hiding from the world. “Without hope there is no endeavor,” wrote Samuel Johnson, someone who was pretty familiar with human beings and human nature. He was not talking about the Disney variant of hope, but the real animal. The light that filters down into our dark brains, sparking our neurons. The brightening after darkness, which energizes like the quickening of the world after winter. A thawing and movement into activity, an activity that then gains momentum. This is hope as a physical thing: The hope that spring inspires, after the long winter.

This is the sort of hope that helps you get things done, helps you write books (though Jensen, prolific as he is, tells us sentences are relatively irrelevant) and also helps you fight for causes you believe in. In fact it is just this sort of hope that energized me as I was writing my new book, My Green Manifesto, which in the end I almost saw as a kind of young adult book due to its (partly) inspirational mission. My agenda in writing it was simple: To describe the ways that my own life, and the lives of some people I admire, are connected to the natural world, and the benefits that come from that connection, benefits that are not always obvious. To provide a way for those of us who would blanch at calling ourselves environmentalists to begin to at least think of ourselves as fighters, in the way that citizens suddenly think of themselves as soldiers during times of war. Finally, by both argument and example, to provide a new language for those of us who care about nature

Part of that language is, in direct opposition to Jensen, about embracing hope. Another part is about admitting our own hypocrisy but still fighting on. The best summary of this last sentiment was given by a very un-Jensen-like character who is at the center of my book, Dan Driscoll, the eco planner who for two decades has fought to clean up the Charles River, adding greenways and native plantings. One day, while we were paddling down that same river, Dan said this to me:

“We nature lovers are hypocrites, of course. We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say, ‘But you drive a car,’ or, ‘You fly a lot,’ or, ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites lets people off the hook.”

I pulled my paddle out of the water to listen.

“What we need are more hypocrites,” he said. “We need hypocrites who aren’t afraid of admitting it but will still fight for the environment. We don’t need some sort of pure movement run by pure people. We need hypocrites!”

I thought of Edward Abbey fighting for the West while throwing empty beer cans out the window of his truck. I thought of my own environmental Achilles heel, a dainty preference for hot baths over showers–not nearly as cool as Abbey’s boozing, but possibly as wasteful. And then I thought of everyone I knew and know of and couldn’t come up with anyone who had an entirely clean eco-slate. Which seems to mean that, logically, Dan was right: if only non-hypocrites are going to fight for the environment then it will be an army of none.

Which leads me back to Mr. Jensen. It is fine to think and write in primary colors. It is fine to provoke (I do it, too, you know). It is fine to be a purist. But I’m just not sure his way of thinking has a lot to do with human beings, even environmental human beings, and how they actually get things done. He is right when he says that humans seem dead set on chewing up the whole planet. But you are not going to stop them by suggesting that they be something other than human. And you’re giving them no chance at all if you strip them of hope.

The above was adapted from My Green Manifesto

  1. Lola Terrell writes:

    Hello Mr. Gessner,

    I just re-read Derrick Jensen’s article To Live or Not to Live in the May/June issue of ORION. I saw the link to a ‘counterbalance’ and came here, and just read your post. I do agree more with Jensen than with you. You see, He inspires me To HOPE! I’m the type that needs his brand of ‘extremism’. We are in ‘dire straits’ you know. He is not saying that we all have to jump on ‘his’ bandwagon. I feel he is putting into words his passion for the fight, for the earth, and that he comes from realistic ‘alarm’ about our situation. Of course, we are all hypocrites to one degree or another. He is not saying don’t be a hypocrite. That’s just too philosophical of an argument. He is saying ‘wake up’ people. I feel that those who think like him, and there are many, are the true ‘canaries in the coal mine’ who see what’s coming, are more attuned to it, than others. He is sounding the alarm. And he is also seeing our situation from what you could say one far end of the spectrum – and that is very very necessary. It’s all worse than we think or know. Scientists keep saying, this or that is more extreme due to global warming than we thought it was going to be. I read all the time of the natural world going through extreme changes, that even 30 or 20 years ago, would be have been front page news, buried in the middle of the Los Angeles Times. It’s so disheartening, to realize that so many of us are still in such denial. We seem paralyzed to act because it does seem so huge, and so beyond our control. And as long as we remain paralyzed and in our own little bubbles, the earth will rebel even more strongly and with more disastrous consequences. Each one needs to do what they can. There has got to a critical mass working to save Our Mother, and we are no where near it, I don’t think. Life goes on., But Life as we know it cannot go on operating as it has and still is doing. I’ll end with a great ‘cartoon’ I saw today in some popular newsstand magazine – it shows Obama and Hilary Clinton apparently in conversation. The balloon above his head reads “The status quo is unsustainable”. Her balloon reads “No Shit”! No f***ing s**t bro! Time or wake us up in one way or another. If what is happening from global warming isn’t enough to wake one up, perhaps nothings is! Love Your Mother! and Thank you!