Environmental science

Orion Magazine – The Counsel of Despair

As I navigate among the various faces I have in this world—the Happy Everyday Me, the Policy Wonk Me, the New Radical Me—I sometimes fall into the Despairing Me. I tried not to go there, but I stumbled. In this windowless cellar of my mind, I have devastating thoughts, not phantasmagoric apparitions easily dismissed, but thoughts resulting from a calculus carefully tuned to empirical observation of the world spanning many years. There, I encounter the thought that human enterprise on the planet—ambitious, arrogant, heedless, at times inspiring—has inadvertently created an insatiable contraption that is now devouring the planet at a phenomenal rate that human societies can no longer control. If this contraption were bringing genuine human satisfaction and well-being while ruining the planet, well, that would be something. We would at least be going down happy. But for an apt description of the human condition, I cannot but think instead of the Sheldon Harnick lyric, The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.” Generally, people are unhappy for good reasons. Some are unhappy because they are spoiled or misapprehending their circumstances, but for most there are genuine causes of human misery. Hard data support deprivations born in economic disparities, social inequities, environmental decay, political oppression, invidious discriminations, the failure of education and health systems, the loss of community solidarity and human companionship, and, perhaps most importantly, the widespread sense of powerlessness and hopelessness in the face of these challenges. In this bottom chamber of despair, honesty cannot assign a decent probability or even a fighting chance of finding a solution.

Faced with what seems a looming dilemma, human creativity can reach in several directions. First there is acceptance. One can accept this fate with bitter nihilism or with calm stoicism or, most likely, with hedonistic abandonment. Many will opt, as Thoreau noted, to live in quiet desperation and make the best of a bad situation. Second, there is denial, which too can take many directions. One can stick to living in the truth world free of fact and science and full of fake reality and mythical beliefs. Or one might believe—and hope!—these problems, like so often in the past, will be solved—somehow, someday, by someone. This is the hopium solution. A third tack, the world beyond, can be taken by some religious followers who put their faith in the afterlife, not this one.

Then, there is the response I will call rebel and resist. Here, people fiercely oppose and fight back against their fate, knowing full well it is hopeless but nevertheless rebelling beyond hope because the human spirit tells them with insistence that what is unacceptable—all the suffering, all the loss, all the tears—must not be accepted.

A Place Beyond

Beyond all our fears, it is.
Beyond grieving and crying, it is.
Beyond even hope, it is.
What then is left beyond?

A collapse of sentiment?
What do they feel:
the black man in solitary,
the young girl buried
in the rubble of Aleppo,
the Amazon biologist
watching the forest die?

What do we feel, you and I?
Can the mere knowledge
of the world’s desperation
while still in a sheltered space
take us to a place beyond?

I can only speak for myself.
I hunger to strike a blow
so shattering that enthrallment
breaks into a million shards
and falls to the feet of the world.


James Gustave Speth is a professor at Vermont Law School and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization. A former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he also cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was the founder and president of the World Resources Institute, and served as an administrator of the United Nations Development Program. He is the author of six books, including the award-winning The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.

Read this conversation with Gus, or this one.

Then check out his reading list here.

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