Hard times

Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change. art.earth 2022

Here in the epilogue to art.earth’s beautiful Borrowed Time publication Richard Povall and I ended with the question that’s run the length and breadth of this two-year symposium: In the context of biospheric collapse, what do we mean by hope?

Of the questions that circulated through these Borrowed Time conversations, one of the most insistent was that of hope. Among the many who broached this theme with us, Dr Rachel Clarke’s account of what she witnessed within NHS hospitals during the early waves of the Covid pandemic — and how those terrible months paradoxically planted a new understanding of hope in her — remains especially powerful and compelling.

With many and sometimes conflicting notions of hope at large, then, one idea we toyed with as a closing session for our three-day summit was that of Putting Hope in the Dock: a mock trial, complete with our friend and collaborator Charlotte du Cann in judge’s wig and robe, at which we’d invite delegates to offer witness statements for or against the continued usefulness and value of hope.

In the end we wrapped our gathering with a more fluid and informal discussion on the nature of hope: what this elusive word means to us, where we meet hope or lose it, whether we do or don’t find it a helpful reference point, as we contemplate the unravelling gathering pace around us.

That discussion took its lead from the visionary ecological educator David Orr, whose 2004 essay Hope in Hard Times, echoing Vaclav Havel, frames hope not as optimism, but as ‘knowing what the right thing to do is, and being able to do it’.

Our guests, as we knew they would, brought an abundance of insight, empathy and humour as they made their case for abandoning, deepening or queering hope. We met hope as an inescapable bodily reality, as a dangerous and delusory false comfort – the soporific hopium which our keynote Jennifer Abbott describes as ‘no friend of mine’ – as an irreducible aspect of our humanity, more akin to courage than optimism, and most commonly obscured – as noted to the Indian writer Arundhati Roy – by privilege. By the luxury of despair.

We neither sought nor found any resolution of these diverse perspectives, and that full unresolvedness confirmed our earlier hunch to set aside the improvised courtroom drama, tempting as that idea was, and instead to let our discussion flow where it willed.

Nor shall this goodbye succumb to the temptation of claiming any last word on hope. The richness we encountered in this drawn-out gathering of humans and their various other-than-human symbionts requires no distillation. No doubt we’ll continue to ponder the nature and value of hope until the very last cow staggers home. Charlotte still has her wig to hand.

Meanwhile, we’re proud to have shared these rolling thought-adventures with you — in person, and here in this book. Thank you to every one of you that accompanied us on the long and strange journey of the past two years. It may not have always been easy, but we wouldn’t have missed your company for the world.

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