Hope versus Hopium

“How to live a life not worth living?” The nihilist poses this question in a vacuum. There may not be any “meaning” beyond what we humans create for ourselves as meaningful, but we are meaning-making creatures. That is what we do. We communicate meaning into being. Using language and cognition we apply sense to patterns. ‘Rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ we interpret each other’s actions and inactions. Sense-making, and the values and behaviors that follow (or are invoked), is only possible within boundaries. There is no science without belief, just as there is no religion without faith. Skepticism involves as much commitment as being an apostle.

Dear Guy McPherson,

This is a #KRKTR clue.
This is a #KRKTR clue.

Yep.  Me again.  Finished reading your book.  You’re a tough cookie, although that might be too civilized a metaphor . . . a weathered lizard might be more like it, after all that peasant labor. I’ve got mixed feelings about my own prospects: on the one hand, if I fail to get into a situation where I can even try to do subsistence gardening etcetera then I’ll be “happily dead” sooner rather than later without suffering the aches and pains you describe. (I realize this won’t save me from suffering other aches and pains, although I keep reminding myself that pain can happen as its own phenomenon without adding suffering as an additional layer.) On the other hand, I like the anecdote you tell of the dad with a seven-year old son who hopes to remain alive so his son doesn’t have all the fun without him. I wouldn’t mind remaining alive in the company of people I love as we all strive to glow in meaningful moments together, despite the physical consequences of a subsistence existence.

It’s not death; it’s the dying

field
What future harvests?

As far as I can tell, coming out as a Deepener is as difficult as any other kind of coming out. I put quotes around the “happily dead” above because a friend characterized her choice not to prepare in those terms, assuming her dying will occur quickly and this will be better for me/my chances of survival. I only partially begrudge the carpe diem ethic: key being if she can enact that attitude through her own dying . . . I don’t know how to predict that. Certainly there’s a fairly high percentage of my friends making this live-in-the-moment choice. If only their temporal frame for ‘the moment’ included human extinction in 30-70 years, rather than the assumption of life going on, somehow, more or less as it always has. These friendships seem likely to weaken.

Given recent shopping behavior before winter storms (referring to the population in general, most of my friends are not into pre-storm panic), I am unconvinced there’s a sufficient percentage of the population that is not going to completely freak out. Just contemplating the slow onset approach of famine has sent me through spells of panic. Certainly the comfort of the ‘normalcy’ of every day routines still unfolding in (more-or-less) the same ways is both boon and blessing: there are still anchors, but they can so easily obscure their own dependency on civil society (which can evaporate so fast).

Still, clinging to the familiar does not necessarily mean people are not paying attention. “You don’t know what people know,” another friend cautioned me. We cannot assume people are ignorant–there are many factors preventing action and interfering with behavior change. Maintaining accustomed routines is a key skill in communicating resilience–the challenges are to distinguish which routines are the most durable and finding the will to dispense with those that may feel good (in the moment) but do not redress the extended, permanent, devastating costs of whatever industrial economy that temporary feel-good activity involves.

A Good Death

Pollination
Pollination

In the final chapter of your book, you ponder answers to the question, “How to live a life not worth living?” The nihilist poses this question in a vacuum. There may not be any “meaning” beyond what we humans create for ourselves as meaningful, but we are meaning-making creatures. That is what we do. We communicate meaning into being.  Using language and cognition we apply sense to patterns. ‘Rightly’ or ‘wrongly’ we interpret each other’s actions and inactions. Sense-making, and the values and behaviors that follow (or are invoked), is only possible within boundaries. There is no science without belief, just as there is no religion without faith. Skepticism involves as much commitment as being an apostle.

If, as the evidence overwhelmingly suggests, humanity will soon be extinguished from the planet, then the meaningfulness of living depends upon how humans, as conscious beings, orient to the condition of mass extinction. Since cultural conditioning generally cushions the middle and upper classes from the basic realities of survival, shock is going to be an unavoidable stage in most individuals’ journey. Kubler-Ross’s classic stages on death and dying may be helpful in imagining how to support a collective transition in consciousness.

You’ve been evangelizing for a long time. If we (in industrialized countries) cannot pull off Plan A, which you articulate as powering down with the equanimity of Buddhist monks, then we’ve got to work on Plan B: How many of us can handle dying with tranquility? 

I’m writing you directly because I respect your courage and humility. In addition to working toward the survival essentials (water, food, shelter, & community), 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?

best regards,

steph

6 thoughts on “Hope versus Hopium”

  1. Thanks very much for this letter, Steph. I’m working on a response and, if all goes according to plan, I will post it at Nature Bats Last within a few days. I’ll let you know in this space, too.

  2. As a linguist, would you agree that it the loss of the archaic meaning of this word is what has transformed hope into hopium. Hope, as trust, is something we cannot not do. This is because trust is oxytocin, one of two neuropeptide/hormonal responses the species accesses in response to stress and stress mitigation. What is trusted is expressed in how we choose to live–and again using an archaic meaning of this word–our faith. The last of the three inate feeling of the human psychy that Paul named in the 13th Chapter of Corinthians is, and again using the archaic term, charity. These three things inform us as humans: our living, trust, and charity. And the greatest of these–when stuck within a mindset of hope as hopium–is fear functioning as greed (dang, that wasn’t one of the three!).

    Greed, in its systemic form as CapitalismFail, is what we live, trust, and limits our capacity to be charitable. Our childishly corrupted language conspires to hide our immaturity from ourselves; allows us to piously dig ourselves ever deeper and faster into the hole/hell of the Anthropocene and near term extinction.

    My thoughts as a poem: http://home.roadrunner.com/~robie/opento/Poems/dis.html

  3. A couple of thoughts on the hope question:
    Most everything has potential for going different ways. Sometimes (often) we don’t understand all the possibilities, although sometimes they become clearer after the fact of one or another bit of evidence/experience. Even reams of evidence don’t mean that we KNOW what’s going to happen, or exactly how it’s going to unfold. Preparation is nice, just in case, and sensible precaution in response to likely possibilities can save the day.
    Meanwhile, there’s the question of how to find the motivation to get out of bed tomorrow (or today). Hope can be used as a narcotic, as a sedative, just like enormous quantities of wine – leading to not getting out of bed at all. Alternatively, hope can be used as a springboard, a source of energy for moving forward, bouncing out of bed toward the next possibility. The tool isn’t the issue – it’s what one does with it.
    Anger and bitterness are likewise tools. Not exactly high on sedative potential, but they can be used as a rationale for utter and caustic inaction, or willful destruction of any action that might be taking place. Or, in the hands of people who connect with the feel of those tools, anger and bitterness can be springboards for a lifetime of going forward in the face of difficulty.
    Just because different people use different tools, with different skills, and different methods, doesn’t mean they’re not valid!
    – Shemaya (greetings, Steph – I’ve been working on the Collapse issue also. Most recent interesting book I came across: Sustainability or Collapse, edited by Costanza and a couple others. Still reading it…)

  4. hi Shemaya, what a treat to read you here!

    I appreciate your clarity that any emotion — such as hope and anger — can be regarded as a tool that, like any other social tool, can be applied for purposes of escape or engagement.

    I took a quick peek at a review for the book you recommended, Sustainability or Collapse, and agree that it looks right up my alley. The idea that we need “the co-operation of all the stakeholders: scientists, politicians, industry, agriculture and…the general public” is right on. And the issues of time and timescales, different narratives & histories & disciplinary knowledges, and “the need for reciprocation between the environmental and social sciences” compose boundaries for the kind of simultaneity wherein I think dedicated groups of people can learn the most, and quickly, if enough of us dare to try.

    Whether or not the learning ‘saves’ us or not is to me a moot question. Debating whether anything we do (individually or societally) will make a difference or not is a red herring; it is a subject that conveniently sucks up emotional and intellectual energy that could be otherwise engaged.

    In fact, the lure of that debate illustrates another kind of “cooperation” – the way so many people are willfully refusing to engage with the ideas or thoughts of others who express themselves in different terms or from unfamiliar (perhaps even unknown) reference points. Arguably one of the worst outcomes of the internet age is how it strengthens in-group boundaries and almost guarantees that people only engage with those with whom they already agree. Similarity is a comfort, of course, but constant immersion in no way prepares us to mediate differences and figure out the terms of collaboration when it becomes apparent that disagreement is more than superficial.

    Anyway, that book was published before the concept of social resiliency grew into discursive consciousness. I’ve been a critic of the term, sustainability, because it implies a steady-state kind of continuation from where things are now. I do not believe that is a future possibility; not at the level of the every day mundane activities which are familiar to us now. Resilience is the more apt concept, not only at the level of the individual but even moreso at the level of social relations with our neighbors: the actual human beings next door and within a short walking distance of where a person lives.

    Let’s continue this conversation, shall we? In the meanwhile, be well!

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