Hanging on to Hope
“I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.”
— E.B. White, “Sootfall and Fallout,” 1956
Not long after the election, I fell down a 5-foot rock embankment. Losing my balance may have been due to a bittersweet vine or a loose rock underfoot. But I suspect it had more to do with the profound sense of disorientation that has set in since this country lurched abruptly toward autocracy and climate chaos.
The shock and pain of the physical fall was mild compared to the vertigo brought on by the recent campaign and election. Many citizens of this one-time democracy are finding it hard to keep their footing and remain upright. The political quake and aftershocks have exposed gaping cultural chasms.
Even the ground beneath our feet and the air above our heads no longer constitute shared terrain, a reality we all can agree on. The White House soon will be occupied by a president and Cabinet members operating at odds with climate dynamics confirmed by scientists worldwide.
Stranger still, the president-elect–who boasts of great business acumen–embraces retro energy policies that flout inarguable economic realities. Industry analysts, for example, affirm that coal’s decline stems not from regulatory measures but from basic market dynamics: falling prices of natural gas and renewable energy as well as declining export markets.
In the months leading up to this election, it was fossil fuel corporations more than the voting public that clamored to turn the clock back to the bygone days of “drill, baby, drill.” Disgruntled voters sought economic stability, but few hold any sentimental attachment to dirty coal or oil. Who would not prefer a job manufacturing solar panels to one underground risking black lung disease?
The majority of those who voted in this election support renewable energy advances, the Clean Power Plan and federal actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even more Americans value clean air and water: Fully 74 percent affirm that the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.”
The current disjuncture between public opinion and presidential convictions awakens flashbacks to when Ronald Reagan took office and Secretary of the Interior James Watt opened up public lands to coal mining and offshore regions to oil drilling. Watt was, as Time editors recall, an offensive “quote machine” who divided the nation into “liberals and Americans.” Forced to resign after a particularly severe gaffe, Watt claimed that his work had all been an effort to “restore America’s greatness.”
Top contenders in the incoming president’s Cabinet include an oil products industry executive; a billionaire CEO of a major fracking company; Sarah Palin; and Myron Ebell, a former tobacco lobbyist and property rights advocate who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge climate science.
Barring some collective epiphany, it’s clear that sustainability, renewable energy and conservation won’t be on their agenda. If Breitbart leader Stephen Bannon remains as the president-elect’s chief strategist, distorted information could spout forth from the White House like an oil geyser.
For the majority of Americans watching the clock ticking on climate change, pushing Earth ever closer to irreversible tipping points, this presidential transition evokes visceral angst. That fear is likely justified, but it will not serve us well.
Part of what made this campaign so rank and repulsive were the shameless efforts to fuel fear–fear of economic losses and fear of those whose backgrounds and beliefs differ from our own. We cannot stand up to this insidious culture of fear-mongering if we dwell with trepidation on potential disasters ahead.
Pope Francis, the most catholic (in the sense of all-embracing) pope ever, offered wise counsel just before this election, noting that “no tyranny can be sustained without exploiting our fears.” He spoke of how fear “weakens and destabilizes us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defenses, numbs us to the suffering of others, and in the end… makes us cruel.”
To combat fear and transform the planet’s grim prognosis, we need hope – “the thing that is left to us, in a bad time” as E.B. White wrote. Hope can sustain an ongoing commitment to listen, pay attention, shed complacency, speak truth to power and stand with others in upholding civic decency, justice and equality.
We depend on hope to shelter each other and our beleaguered Earth. Grasp it like a lifeline, and hold it out to others.
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.