Category: Individual & climate change

The Failure of “Optimism”


Light & Shadow on Hollyhock leaves copy
‘Light and Shadow on Hollyhocks’ © J.Hart ’14 ink on paper.

It has been an interesting experience for me to try to explain my ideas about climate change face to face in real life. Everyone to whom I have dared to speak, and by now I am discouraged enough to rarely bring it up in person, agrees that something is up with the climate, and that we are looking at major changes in the world; but then the response divides along two slightly different paths.

The first is a complete refusal to even think in depth about what is happening; it is a kind of mental throwing up of one’s hands-a belief that nothing substantive can be done to change the situation, though not a denial that the situation is as bad as it appears. Most of my friends feel that they are doing all they can: composting, recycling, voting for the best politicians, buying less, reusing, demonstrating, posting on Facebook, and praying that someone or something will rescue us, and there the discussion ends.

The second reaction is a concentrated effort to show me that I am clearly a pessimist who is catastrophizing a situation that may or may not happen in the near future, hence the encouragement to be happier and more positive-to see the glass as half full rather than half empty!

This Panglossian attitude is usually bolstered by all sorts of data supporting the world view that we are living in a golden age: less crime, better health, less abject poverty ( This view privileges data without understanding that data is neutral; it is only useful if the methodology creating it and the questions asked of it are unbiased. Depending how it is framed, data can be read in many different ways. There can be less one-on-one crime, and yet more violence worldwide as the heat and drought exacerbates war and famine and state supported crime.

It is also based on two fundamentally flawed ideas: (1) that humanity can control Nature; and (2) that “progress”-the unending improvement and growth of the human condition, whether in wealth, longevity, safety, health-is a realistic goal for human existence.

Both ideas are ahistorical and unnatural. The first comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage and has been enshrined the past three hundred years by the scientists, engineers, and merchants who brought us the Industrial Revolution, including the agricultural revolution of the past one hundred years. It suggests that we are not part of Nature; not under the rule of natural laws, but above them; able to understand, manipulate, and coerce the natural world to satisfy our needs in a way none of the “lower” animals can.

The historical record suggests that this has never been the case. There have been many great human civilizations over the past couple of millennia (Mayan, Roman, Greek, etc.) all of which crashed and burned when their size and appetites overwhelmed the natural resources on which they depended. (Please see Jared Diamond’s Collapse for a very clear description of this history.)

Of course, we believe today that we have progressed so far technologically and scientifically that, at this point in history, we can avoid a collapse. Most of my friends and acquaintances, who use this argument, are convinced that, with the level of our science and with the interconnectivity that computers and the internet bring, our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and inventors will, in very short order and in the manner of a deus ex machina, solve our ecological problems and save us from the mess we have created and continue to exacerbate!

This belief is not to be found among the scientists who spend their time and efforts actually studying Nature. They have been figuratively screaming at the top of their lungs the warnings about the approaching disasters, but to no avail. ( The alienation from the natural world is very extreme in the Western urban “first world” where I spend most of my time; and the distance between the average person who has very little connection to Nature and the scientists who study all aspects of the natural world in great detail is alarmingly great!

The image I have of the “optimists” who tout the status quo is that of people looking around, attempting to see reality, but, while doing so, holding mirrors up in front of their faces, so all they can see is their own reflections! Given the choice, I prefer to believe the scientists who have studied Nature deeply and have a healthy respect for her power, complex systems, and physics, rather than the pundits and “optimists”  whose reading on the subject is shallow and whose understanding is constrained to a one species world view!

The second fallacy is a new idea, historically, but one that has proven to be particularly addictive and unnatural. It is embedded in the present dominant capitalist economic system; and it is the underlying assumption for much of what we do, as individuals, corporations, and nation states. In order to show progress, we must become wealthier, our lives must become better, our houses bigger, our lifestyles easier and more convenient, our pleasures more spectacular, our cars faster, our lives longer, and the list goes on and on! Any reduction in comfort, diminution of convenience, reduction in scale, or husbandry of resources is seen as a loss and a moving backwards!

But Nature does not operate on “progress” much as we would like it to. The reality is that the natural world is regenerative. There is no waste in Nature; everything is related to every other thing, and every animal fits into its ecological niche, fulfilling a role that allows the whole system to operate efficiently and to maintain itself over very long geologic time periods. For us to use the resources available to us on Earth in a sustainable manner that would guarantee our future existence as a species, we would need to jettison much of what we are so proud of in our modern world: all the technological and worldly goods that have been created with the use of unsustainable resources and that have had to be trashed when they break and are unrepairable.

So it is true: in one way I am a pessimist. I believe that only a few of us (the Amish, for instance) can revert to a natural and really normal lifestyle dependent on the work of our own hands and the fruits of our own agricultural labor. The rest of us, and I include myself, don’t have the courage or self-discipline to reduce our lifestyles to the level that is necessary to help the Earth. But Mother Nature will eventually force us to live closer to her, more in rhythm with her seasons and laws; unhappily, if we continue on our present path, the transition will be painful and traumatic.

So, though I don’t subscribe to the “optimism” that clings to the present unsustainable economic system, at the same time, I am optimistic about our future: a simpler, slower, and more rustic  future that we will be forced to make, but which will not be a loss but a improvement in our human community and condition. The present dark age with its extreme luxury built on the misery of exploited people, animals, and ecosystems will end, and I believe it will be replaced by a time of reduced material comforts but increased justice and peace.







*Definition of Panglossian. : marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds; from Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s book Candide.


Keeping Compassion Local

black buddha w:mirror web
‘Black Buddha’ oil on canvas © J.H. Hart ’17

Every day for years now, I wake up with the thought, “today I will do better!” but I seem unable to do that. On the other hand, I see very few people able to curb their appetites or live sustainably. We are like fish caught in a tight net of desire that this economic system has thrown over us, and we are thrashing on the floor of the fishing boat, gasping for air and struggling to extricate ourselves!

Some of us are closer to the advancing disaster, but there are so many things that the society throws up to distance all of us from what is right in front of our noses. The news of those things are particular distractions for those of us who think of ourselves as “global citizens.” These realities that we can only know second hand are actual tragedies in far away places: wars, famines, droughts, disease, pollution, all of which are forcing whole populations to flee for their lives.

The irony is that there is very little that we can do for people who are at such a great remove from us. The difficulty understanding the complexities of their experience; the great geographical distance that dissipates our best efforts to help; the flattening and simplifying of their misery and deaths in abstractions and statistics means that our compassion and energy can never be awakened to the degree that it can be at home.

So while I fight the urge to run away; to find a safe quiet small town with kind people where I can grow a beautiful garden; and to hide from the coming catastrophe, I know that the reality is that even if I were lucky enough to find myself in a relatively safe haven, it is an illusion: there is no safe haven! The forces that are destroying a world that was perfect for our species’ survival (is this a second ejection from Eden?!) are operating within the circle of our influence.

So it is here, in our backyard, with the people whom we can help face to face, with the simplification of our personal lives, and with our firm resistance to greed and violence, that we have the chance to save the Earth and ourselves; and where we can most effectively make our stand.

Artisans of the Common Good

old shoes 1 web
My walking shoes: L.L.Bean sneakers & Ecco leather ties. Pastel on watercolor wash.

I got a very interesting comment recently on my post about the difficulty of walking around Dallas, and I have been thinking about it since the New Year.  My reader noted that the folks in Dallas love their cars, but also that they need the cars in order to commute in a spread out city during the summer months when the temperature is often in the triple digits.

Fair point, but why make the solution to commuting, during the four months when it is unhealthy to be outside walking most of the day, fit every day the rest of the year? (It has been -11 degrees F. recently where I come from in the North so you can only imagine how happy I am walking around Dallas in your delightfully comfortable 55 degrees F.!) What would Dallas look like, and what could some strategies for encouraging walking be, if we didn’t assume an easy one size fits all means of transportation?

Texas just got ranked one of the lowest states (34th) in the nation for good health with 33% of the population obese, so the question is not a trivial one! But for most of us, we use the infrastructure that is in place, and don’t really notice it unless we come from another society with alternate ways of getting around. We tend not to think about how our world would be different (and better!) if we, as individuals, make different choices.

And as we change our lives, the infrastructure would begin to change too. Right now in Dallas, the highways that connect parts of the city are in good repair, but the smaller local streets have been neglected as the city endeavours to save money. It makes sense to walk locally if only to spare your car the damage of negotiating streets with a lot of potholes! If more people walked to do the errands that are now done by car (grocery shopping with a pull cart, picking up dry cleaning, going to the library, etc.); and used walking to get some of the exercise that either they are not getting, or that they are relegating to the time at the gym, the routes between destinations would improve: better sidewalks, more time to cross busy larger streets, and perhaps most important, drivers being aware that there are going to be pedestrians sharing the streets with them!

As David Brooks wrote in his op-ed piece, for the New York Times, recently, on Pope Francis’ New Year’s Eve homily: “the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures: being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, ‘the artisans of the common good.’ ” Choosing to walk, choosing to quite literally “step outside the box” makes you an artisan of the common good!





The Weight of One


new year's (2018)card lilies 2017 web copy
Holiday Bouquet © J.Hart ’17

There have been a number of articles recently complaining that the individual decisions and actions that people are being encouraged to take and to do are irrelevant and possibly counterproductive as they lull people into a false sense that they can ameliorate or even prevent the coming climate related disasters by their personal choices.

These opinion pieces come from both sides of the political spectrum, but they all fail to understand a basic fact of capitalism and our present exploitation by multi-national corporations: whether drugs, fashion, sodas, fast foods, plastic water bottles, or gasoline, all sales of stuff depends on the individual deciding to spend her or his money for something that will enrich the wealthy, impoverish the person, and destroy the earth. And the 1%, the wealthiest in the world, have made their fortunes on these millions of our small individual choices.

The problem, as I see it, is not that sustainable actions for individuals are ineffectual, but that they are unworkable at the scale and with the depth of determination with which they are now practiced. Recycling, minimizing waste, taking shorter showers, not using plastic bags, not drinking anything in one time use plastic bottles, etc. are all good, but are too little too late.

It took barely two generations in the U.S. to go from a relatively modest lower middle class living situation for most people to an untenably wasteful and destructive lifestyle that is sickening and impoverishing much of the population. It took a concentrated media blitz with television shows and advertising to convince people that a wasteful and “luxurious” way of living is to be desired, is a sign of success and even virtue (sic!), and, more importantly, is “normal” and an important indication of progress.

The reality, as we have finally discovered, is quite the reverse: in order to live on the earth and protect our future, we must reduce the cost of living on this earth; and revert to a much simpler, slower, and more modest lifestyle. And if we, the mass of separate individuals, created the wealth and are complicit in the destruction of the planet, it stands to reason that we, as individuals, can make the choices that will save the planet and redeem our species.

But which of us is really willing to do that? What culture in history has stepped back from the brink by reducing its consumption and its power? What individual has willingly walked away from comfort and wealth? The only one I know is Siddhārtha Gautama, the scion of a wealthy family who gave it all up to find enlightenment and become the Buddha. Buddha followed and preached what is called “The Middle Way”, a lifestyle that is neither luxurious nor impoverished. But what was “The Middle Way” in Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE, would probably look like the poorest most uncomfortable way to live in the 21st century AD!

So how do we, the well educated, the solidly middle class, the believers in climate change and sustainability, step out of our boxes? How do we disengage from the non-stop voice in our heads that repeats and repeats that we should never be inconvenienced, made uncomfortable in the smallest manner, or in any way voluntarily limit our appetites or desires? We have been taught that we deserve the best of everything, even if it means the end of the world as we know it. It is what Bill McKibbon calls “hyperindividualism” and it is a very hard habit to break!

So here are some modest suggestions for better choices for healthier habits in the New Year- a way to practice for the coming hard times, disengage from large corporations, and realize a more human lifestyle:

  1. Stop shopping. Don’t shop for recreation or to feel less depressed or less lonely or to alleviate boredom. And if you, as I, were raised in a household and a culture that prioritized shopping, and you are having trouble breaking the habit, here is a link with a helpful psychological tip: No joke: just stop it!
  2. Don’t buy, eat or drink any processed food. Eliminate all sodas, fast foods, and packaged foods with ingredients that your grandmother would not recognize. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as commercial food is created to be, for want of a better word, addictive. However, if you drink only water, tea, or coffee without sweeteners, and you cook and eat locally grown and harvested produce, eggs, and meat, you will find your health improving within a short time.
  3. Unplug from your phone, television, and the internet for as much of the day as you can. Apple, Google, Facebook, and all the other large tech corporations, want you to believe that you can’t live without their products; and their products, which mainly provide entertainment, increase desires and decrease the ability to delay gratification. They also create a mindset that expects speed in all things: information, relationships, and solutions to problems. Neither speed nor tech will be the answer to the dilemma we are facing.
  4. Make your connections to other people locally and in person.  Politics too should be rooted in your community.

I don’t know if enough of us will make the necessary changes soon enough to save our species. But I do know that I would rather make the choice now of my own volition than be forced by disasters to live in straitened circumstances later. If we are committed (and lucky!) we might live to make a more mature and Earth-centric human culture. May we all find peace, joy, & compassion in 2018!