Category: Sustainability & the individual

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.


A Happier New Year!

new year's (2018)card lilies 2017 web
© J. Hart ’19 Watercolor pencil on paper. “Winter bouquet.”

“…the driving force behind most of the unintended changes in society is the power exerted by the countless small decisions made by people in the course of their daily lives.” from The Long Descent by John Michael Greer.

We are starting the New Year (2019) in the United States with a revitalized House of Representatives filled with a newly elected, young, and diverse group of Congress people whose mission it is to make the government less corrupt and more responsive to the people’s needs. It is a tremendously encouraging beginning to the New Year.

However, a political and governmental response to the grave problems we face is only one part of the equation. The other part, rarely spoken about, is each of us as moral agents making important choices individually in our every day life. The government sees us as voters, as workers, as consumers, but not as free agents able to change systems by our combined individual actions.

For much of our life, we are enmeshed in an economic system, and, like fish swimming in water, we really are not aware of the water in which we move. The system is not transparent, so it is difficult to make out how it works, even if we wish to understand it: it is hard for us to know what are the best (or better) choices that we should make.

I am resuming this blog, because I wish to share with you my attempts to make better choices in my life, and to hear, hopefully, what you are choosing to do in yours.

Some choices I am making this year are easier than others: I am taking a hiatus on shopping. I will continue to buy food, but I hope to avoid other purchases, especially impulse buying. So far, so good, but we are only a couple of days into the New Year!

Also, I refuse, and have refused for a while now, to buy anything through Amazon. I will not support a company whose owner doesn’t pay his employees enough to live on, and won’t pay taxes for the infrastructure he uses. Amazon also encourages a mindset of instant gratification that I believe is detrimental to people’s ability to act maturely and morally.

The more difficult choices I want to make this year are with my retirement income, which is tied to stocks and the stock market with its focus exclusively on money making; whether I should eliminate meat completely from my diet; and how to switch my household to a truly sustainable one.

I believe that it is worth putting in the time and effort of research and thought to make better choices in day to day, and everyday, life. Here is to a year of better choices for us all!




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.

The Future of Food*

organic veggies 2-22-18 copy
Organic local carrots, winter radishes, & kohlrabi. Watercolor pencil & gouache on paper, 15″ x 11″ © J.Hart 2018

Instagram is filled with seductive photos of food from high end bloggers, chefs, and assorted foodies. Some of these creative food aficionados were even kind enough to respond to my recent posts. A thank you to all the bloggers who commented and responded!

Now, as a practicing foodie, I appreciate both the pleasure of food sensually and visually. However, our present huge interest in using food as a creative outlet gives me pause. It seems to me that it  rests upon a faith that the supplies that support it, the diversity of crops, both vegetable and animal, coming in from all over the planet, will continue to exist, certainly through our lifetime. I think that is very unlikely: what is more to be expected is that we will lose, in the very near future, many of the foods that we take for granted:

In our present situation, it is heat that is, in the next couple of years, going to radically change the way we eat and drink. It is going to mean that the huge fields of corn, soy, and wheat-with which the mammoth industrial corporations support their empire of fast, processed, and cheap food-will be burned and destroyed by fire and drought. It also means that smaller crops like barley which supports the cheap beer that is the main alcoholic beverage in the States will also be affected.

Very high temperatures during the growing months will make harvesting basic crops like strawberries by hand very dangerous.

The short-term solution will probably be night harvesting, and, of course, the development of robotic harvesting:

Not only heat, but lack of water or too much water at the wrong time, will affect basics like olive oil:

The systematic destruction of the soil and ecosystems will eventually eliminate crops like cocoa:

Finally, the change in the weather and the creation of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the new Pangaea – the unimpeded spread of microbes, fungi, and insects carrying diseases throughout the globe – are leading to the destruction of crops and the disappearance of foods we have learned to take for granted like bananas and oranges.

This does not even begin to cover the destruction by industrial fishing of ocean habitats that support the seafood we are all encouraged to eat for better health. (Here in Dallas, the grocery stores sell a relatively inexpensive shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, I am hesitant, knowing what I do about the dead zones and massive pollution in the Gulf, to buy these shrimp!)

So one issue is that cooking as if the whole world is one’s grocery store is a reflection of a fossil fuel dependent mentality that refuses to imagine that this way of living will shortly end. Even health books promote, without being aware of it, a static delusional world view. Recipes, such as those I just found in  Dr. Mark Hyman’s Eat Fat, Get Lean cookbook (which advertises a combined paleo and vegan diet), depends heavily on foods, like coconut and avocados, which have a huge carbon footprint for North America.

The other more difficult problem is that cooking as a commodity for consumption by the wealthy (food as art!) normalizes habits that are destructive to the planet.  I can imagine in the not too distant future millions of poor people worldwide starving; the middle class here paying much of their income for food and being disappointed that the wide diversity of food they were used to is no longer available; and the superrich continuing to eat as if there is no tomorrow!

(This is probably the best opinion piece on the coming food catastrophe. It is not the first time that I have posted this, nor will it be the last!)

So my suggestion, as always, is to move away from the exotic and expensive in cooking as in life: to focus on your area’s food traditions and local crops; and grow some of your own food. Your recipes will become more wholesome if less photogenic and novel, but the planet will thank you!

*Warning: this post is what I call a Cassandra Report. As many of you may remember from Greek stories, Cassandra was a beautiful woman with whom the god Apollo fell in love. He gave her the gift of prophecy, but she rejected him. Enraged, he cursed her with the ability to tell truth about the future, but the inability to have anyone ever believe her!

So my modest guesses of what the future will hold for us are Cassandra Reports. As a disclaimer, I do not believe that I am clairvoyant. However, I do believe that anyone with a good imagination and the courage to accept change, can “foresee” the future: you do not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows! (Bob Dylan)