It’s not over

Our best thinking got us here – Alcoholics Anonymous, traditional

The question of what will and won’t change as locked-in global heating takes hold and it becomes clear that any remaining hope of even mitigating runaway ecological collapse has been squandered by our generation, is one I seem to have got stuck on. And there’s that over-burdened little word which keeps coming up in this context. Hope.

I seem to keep needing to talk about hope. About hope and despair. I think what I’m trying to work out here – in all of these Borrowed Time letters, I mean – is what either one has to do with prayer.

Perhaps that’s all the wrong way round. And maybe prayer’s not even the right word. It’s the one I’m using for now. A species of behaviour: one that requires neither a particular set of beliefs nor the cultivation of any special level of insight. Less still the membership of any club or institution. Just, a way of learning how to be helped. Of learning how to ask for help as if we meant it, as we roll with life’s challenges, sorrows, miracles. An imitation of unconditional gratitude, more like a game than a creed. A game played in conversation with religion, for sure – or at least with the religious imagination – and in conversation with the innumerable and diversely prayerful generations of hominids who share this circling journey through deep time with us secular moderns.

But anyway, let’s start with hope.

In 2018 the climate scientist Erika Spanger-Siegfried wrote one of the finest reflections on ecological despair that I’ve yet come across: The Miraculous Hope of Climate Realists. For Spanger-Siegfried, aware through her own research of just how critical an emergency runaway ecological unravelling already is, hope remains an unchosen and unavoidable reflex: something innate to our still-breathing bodies and as such, inseparable from love.

“If you love something” she tells us, “you hope… You don’t even get to decide. However poorly we tend it, however fragile we think it, this hope thing will not – really, cannot – quit. We might feel anguish, but despair just won’t stick because it’s not over.

It’s not over. But see what’s been lost, in our lifetimes.

Just over fifty years ago in California, the young social visionary and entrepreneur Stewart Brand came up with a catchy slogan for a new age of ecologically literate capitalism: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it”. What this culture’s addiction to growth has inflicted on Earth’s life systems since then, if we allowed the mind-numbing scale of it to brush against us for a moment, would surely silence forever all such competence-addicted market solutions rhetoric. As we look back across this rapidly growing void, the brash swagger of Brand’s infamous strapline might call to mind another popular phrase, one that’s haunted the green movement over roughly the same period of time and one which might, paradoxically, offer us a better place to stand.

Civilised moderns are not as gods. What we are, as is writ large in the appalling ecological record of the past 50 years, is fucked. And Spanger-Siegfried’s right, it’s not over. For most of the Global North fucked is barely getting started. And any remaining uncertainty about this culture’s lethal trajectory seems likely to desert us well before ‘over’ actually arrives, whatever that turns out to mean. If fucked is what we are, then, we might as well – we better had – get good at it.

I’m not suggesting that we passively accept what’s being visited on the young, least of all by praying. Far from it. But nor am I convinced that any sudden about-turn is at hand, some collective last minute epiphany. Least of all am I for offering the sardonic, cynical shrug that We’re fucked so often carries. But if nothing we do at a local or personal level will solve or prevent this gathering catastrophe, maybe the question to release us from deadlocked, numbed despair is now less What to do about it? than What are we actually hoping for?

And why bring prayer into it? As we rummage the heirlooms of bankrupt civilisational religion, holding each one to the dark glass of anthropogenic mass-extinction, we might make some interesting discoveries about this being fucked thing: that in terms of what stifles or restores the human heart, a so-called ‘unprecedented emergency’ changes surprisingly little; that in throwing off our depressed acquiescence in what empire’s best and brightest thinking has led us to, we find ourselves on well-trodden and well-mapped ground; that the turning-around our own complicity in this unfolding nightmare calls for is nothing new, but remains, as ever, ours alone to make; that this species of revolution takes hold only in fellowship and solidarity, as it moves among traumatized, addicted, colonised lives, enabling them one by one to throw off the lethal spell to which they’ve been enthralled, and decide how best to act.

That, to me, feels like a workable version of hope.

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