by Robert Jensen
[This is an edited version of a sermon delivered July 8, 2012, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. http://www.staopen.com/. Audio is online at http://www.staopen.com/podcast/2012/jensen7_8_2012.mp3]
Hope-Monger or Hope-Peddler?
In 2005, I preached on the ecological crisis in a sermon I titled “Hope is for the Weak: The Challenge of a Broken World.” [http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=72&ItemID=9125] Looking back, I realize that I had been far too upbeat and optimistic, probably trying too hard to be liked. Today I want to correct that.
Hence, my updated title: “Hope is for the Lazy: The Challenge of Our Dead World.” Let’s start with two of the three important changes.
First, to be a hope-monger or a hope-peddler today is not just a sign of weakness but also of laziness, and sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. Don’t forget that, as good Christians, we try to avoid those.
Second, our world is not broken, it is dead. We are alive, if we choose to be, but the hierarchical systems of exploitation that structure the world in which we live — patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, white supremacy, and the industrial model — all are dead. It’s not just that they cannot be reformed, but that they cannot, and should not, be revived. The death-worship at the heart of those ideologies is exhausting us and the world, and the systems are running down. That means we have to create new systems, and in that monumental task, the odds are against us. What we need is not naïve hope but whatever it is that lies beyond naiveté, beyond hope. If this sounds depressing, blame Wendell Berry. He got me going on this. In every sermon I’ve preached at St. Andrew’s, I have quoted Berry, and I will do that extensively this morning. This is the first verse from one of his Sabbath poems:
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
[Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2007, VI, in Leavings: Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), p. 91-93.]
The Systems of Our World are Dead
This is what I say to myself: The systems of our world are dead. Our world is a dead world. If we are to live, we have to believe in something beyond hope.
By “beyond hope,” I’m not talking about heaven, about a magical realm beyond our material existence. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I will continue to assume that Earth is not a waiting room. We shouldn’t distract ourselves by looking to someplace up there, somewhere above or beyond, something that we pray is just around the corner.
I’m also not talking about living in domed cities or blasting off to another planet. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I will continue to assume that we aren’t going to invent our way out of our core problems. We are here for the duration, playing the hand we have always played, with no extra aces up our sleeve.
So, ignore the desperate claims of the religious fundamentalists and the technological fundamentalists. Their fantastic futures are based on fantasies of innocence. We have sinned. We have desecrated the places where we live. We have been guilty of weaknesses and laziness. We are not innocent. Let’s deal with it.
Ecological News: It’s Bad and Getting Worse
Let’s start by dealing with the news on Earth about the Earth, the ecological news: It’s bad and getting worse. Think of those dsytopic futures from science fiction, the scary futures that movie directors conjure up. It looks like that kind of future is coming faster than we expected, looking meaner and uglier than we anticipated. [For a review of how that future is unfolding in parts of the world today, see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).]
Scientists these days are talking about tipping points [see the June 7, 2012, issue of Nature.] and planetary boundaries, [see the September 23, 2009, issue of Nature.] about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits and making it increasing unlikely that the ecosphere can continue to support human life as we know it.
Paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California-Berkeley and 21 colleagues warn that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” [Anthony Barnosky, et al, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, Nature, June 7, 2012.]
That means that we’re in trouble. The authors conclude with a simple set of recommendations:
[A]verting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation to stem current global-scale anthropogenic forcings. This will require reducing world population growth and per-capita resource use; rapidly increasing the proportion of the world’s energy budget that is supplied by sources other than fossil fuels while also becoming more efficient in using fossil fuels when they provide the only option; increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution instead of converting new areas or relying on wild species to feed people; and enhancing efforts to manage as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both in the terrestrial and marine realms, the parts of Earth’s surface that are not already dominated by humans.
To take seriously even that short list of fairly limited tasks, a significant portion of the population would have to agree with the scientific assessment of our situation, and then we all would have to summon the moral and political will to radically change the way we live. If we could do all that, we might have a chance to minimize the damage. If.
Simon Fraser University biologist Arne Mooers, a co-author on that study who specializes in biodiversity, says the odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations: “In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there. My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.” [Jeremy Hance,“Scientists: If We Don’t Act Now We’re Screwed,” Mongabay News, June 19, 2012.]
It would be easy to look at all this and conclude there is no hope. That would be easy because it’s the most rational assessment. If that seems harsh, well, life can be, and often is, harsh. As ecologists like to remind us, nature does not negotiate. Nature sets limits. For those who prefer sports metaphors, nature bats last.
Avoiding Reality Is Not Winning
Avoiding reality because it is harsh is not a winning strategy. We are not going to win by praying for deliverance by the hand of God or waiting for deliverance through the wizardry of gadgets. Religion and technology, understood historically and used wisely, are both important tools to help us cope. But religious and technological fundamentalists are weak and lazy, because they spin fanciful stories about how we can magical