Vision of possible nurtures hope


Restoration: Amid pessimism at the bay's condition, individual action can give grounds for looking to a better future.

July 02, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

LAST WEEK'S PIECE ON the disappointing prospects for the bay's restoration was perhaps the most pessimistic in six years of this column.

Some readers felt it represented giving up, sending a message of abandoned hope.

To believe that is to confuse hope and optimism. There is no contradiction in despair at present-day trends and faith in the future.

This column is about hope. I knew I would write it even as I conceived last week's dispiriting essay -- write it for readers and for myself.

When I began covering environment and the Chesapeake Bay for The Sun 25 years ago, I felt it part of my duty to fairly shout, "It's worse than you think."

Back then, the message too often was that government was on top of the situation, that existing laws were sufficient, that downtrends in the bay were normal cycles.

That's changed. People, especially younger generations, are only too aware of daunting problems, from ozone holes to accelerating rates of species extinctions and global warming.

Human environmental impacts are as old as humanity, but the present scale of them is overwhelming. Part of my duty is to shout, "We can do something about it."

How to be hopeful, though, when one is as pessimistic about the rate of environmental progress as I and many others who follow the global assault on the natural world?

"Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism," says Vaclav Havel, the writer and president of the Czech Republic, who surely was pessimistic during his years of protests and imprisonments under Communist rule.

What kept him and others going, Havel told an interviewer in 1990, was not any assurance their cause would prevail -- rather a belief that their cause was right, "an orientation of the spirit of the heart."

Hope and optimism -- start with the literal root of the difference.

"Optimism," from the Latin, means simply "best." It's a useful word, but limited. We can only be optimistic -- or pessimistic -- depending on how we think things are actually going.

"Hope" is more interesting, derived from the same Anglo-Saxon root as "hop."

Environmental essayist Scott Russell Sanders, in his fine book, "Hunting For Hope" (Beacon Press, 1998), speaks of a mutt he once owned, "a short dog that loved to run in tall grass."

Periodically the dog would leap up exuberantly to get his bearings, to avoid becoming lost. He would quite literally hop for hope, Sanders recounts.

So it is that hope has nothing to do with optimism and pessimism -- rather it has to do with being able to see one's course.

Let me give you examples from which I draw hope:

From Rachel Carson, after publication of "Silent Spring." Dying of cancer, attacked by the pesticide industry and its apologists in government, she drew strength in her final months from the incredible migration of fragile-seeming monarch butterflies flitting past her Maine cabin on their way to Mexico.

From the fact that our species is capable not only of the excessive consumption that is eroding the planet's natural wealth but capable of restraint as well.

From individuals and communities around the bay and around the planet who are asking "How much is enough?" and pursuing contentment (containment of desires) vs. unbounded happiness.

It is a token, perhaps, but in just this vein I bought a small car instead of a more polluting minivan, deciding to rent the latter the few times a year I would need it. You don't do that if you aren't hopeful.

Similarly, whenever a neighbor cuts a tree, I try to plant one. As a result my yard is getting very green -- a statement of my pessimism at neighborhood logging trends, but also testament to my hope that we can become a restorative society instead of one whose goal is minimizing the degradation.

I draw hope from something as small as grass breaking through pavement, as glorious as eagles rebounding mightily three decades after "Silent Spring" led to a ban on DDT.

Hope bubbles from the wonder I have learned to see in the bay and its creatures, and in the connections among them.

If I can learn it, we all can. To the extent we see that we are a part of the natural scheme, not apart from it, we might decide the place is worth keeping intact, might decide to act like stewards instead of owners.

I take hope from what Sanders says in "Hunting for Hope," which he wrote after his teen-age children accused him of overwhelming them with his environmental pessimism:

"Suppose every church and school devoted a parcel of ground to a wild garden, where children could meet some of the creatures that belong to their place. Suppose farmers quit plowing to the fence line and planted hedgerows suppose we took seriously the notion of city limits and halted the sprawl of development .

"Nothing keeps us from doing all that, and more," he writes, "except habit and haste and lack of faith in our capacity for decent and loving work, in the holiness of Creation."

Ultimately, Sanders concludes, he can't answer his kids' questions about hope "by pretending that I see no reasons for despair."

But he also is convinced, even as he feels among tall grass, that we can change the human condition toward peaceful coexistence with the rest of nature.

"We can begin making changes in our own lives," he says, "without waiting for such changes to become popular, without knowing whether they will have large-scale effect, but merely because we believe they are right."

So it is with columns like last week's, warning that the bay restoration effort lacks the vision to succeed. Only an abiding belief that better visions exist gives me the hope to be so critical.

Pub Date: 7/02/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.