Stephanie Jo Kent has penned a thoughtful essay at Reflexivity. The final paragraph includes a comment and a question for me: “I have been listening and watching for ways to stimulate robust processes of social resilience. One idea is to talk about the difference between hope and hopium. Would you be willing to elaborate?”
I assume Steph’s reference to “social resilience” includes the desire to maintain industrial civilization, which I think is a terrible idea for many reasons. But perhaps I’m jumping to an incorrect conclusion. Steph, will you clarify?
With respect to the question, I spoke and wrote about hope way back in August 2007, when this website was launched. In that long essay — the bloated, unedited, transcript of a presentation I had delivered a few days earlier — I described hope as follows:
I view hope as the left-brain product of love, analogous to democracy as the product of freedom, or liberty. Notably, Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me democracy or give me death.” Like the rest of the founding fathers, Henry knew that freedom was primary to democracy; without the guiding light of freedom, or liberty, democracy breaks up on the shoals. Love keeps our left brain in check — that’s the message of the world’s religions. But our right-brain love creates the foundation for hope: love for nature, love for our children and grandchildren, love for each other. Without love to light the way, hope breaks up on the shoals.
Mind you, hope is not simply wishful thinking. And that’s a problem, considering we’re immersed in the ultimate “wishful thinking, something-for-nothing” culture. How else to explain books such as The Secret, which proclaims that happy thoughts will generate happy results, including personal wealth? How else to explain the prevalence of, and widespread acceptance of, casinos? And it’s not just acceptance: it’s adoration, if the boob tube and the local movie theater are to be believed. Not so long ago, gambling was frowned upon because, instead of adhering to a culture of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, it reflects the expectation that a person can get something for nothing. No, hope is not wishful thinking.
And another thing: hope is not a consumer product. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart and order up a carton of hope. Indeed, given the demise of cheap oil, there’s unlikely to be a Wal-Mart — or any other large institution, for that matter — to walk into at all within a few years. Even if Wal-Mart, the federal government, or the University of Arizona somehow find a way to survive, we’re going to have to generate our own hope, one person at a time. Just as an economic collapse happens one person at a time, so too must hope happen one person at a time.
Many years later, after much time reflecting, I’m caught between my earlier description and the gradual merging of my view with the definition offered by Derrick Jensen: “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.”
In other words, my earlier description of hope is giving way to the notion of hope as wishful thinking, also known as hopium. I’m certainly not willing to give up, and I constantly encourage acts of resistance that will allow opportunities for the living planet to persist into the future. In so doing, I’m channeling iconoclastic author Edward Abbey: “Action is the antidote to despair.”
Hopium is the drug to which we’re addicted. It’s the desire to have our problems solved by others, instead of by ourselves. It’s why we keep electing politicians while knowing they won’t keep their promises, but finding ourselves too fearful to give up the much-promised future of never-ending growth on a finite planet.
Knowing we cannot occupy this finite world without adverse consequences for humans or other animals, but afraid to face that truth, we turn away. We watch the television, go to the movies, gamble at casinos, play on Facebook, and generally applauding while
the world burns we take a flame-thrower to the planet. Nietzsche nailed it: “Hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man’s torment.”
Finally, Steph, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nietzsche was right. I used to think hope differed from hopium, back when I had hope. Gradually, I’ve come to see hope and hopium as one. Let’s get off the crack pipe, and onto reality. May Pandora release the final gift from her container.
This essay is not intended to suggest we abandon (1) resistance or (2) joy-filled lives. Life, including human life, is a gift. Let’s live as if we appreciate the gift. Let’s live as if we appreciate the others in our lives, human and otherwise. Let’s live as if there is more to life than the treadmill onto which we were born.