Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

For a long time I’ve been trying to visualize how our (near) future might look. Even if our social, economic and political systems were working well, they can not for much longer. They are being overwhelmed by climate chaos, which is rapidly worsening. Increasingly frequent and severe storms, flooding, precipitation, drought, heat and fires are already causing more death and destruction than communities can recover from. There will be increasing violence and unrest as people desperately search for food, water and shelter. Millions more will be forced to leave their homes, adding to the global number of climate refugees. We are moving into cultural collapse. https://jeffkisling.com/2019/12/19/radical-hope-preface/


As I was about finished with this post, I came across the following, that I hope we keep in mind. The reason I wanted to write about “Radical Hope” is because it suggests a positive way forward, instead of giving in to fear.

“Climate fear is turning into a new religion (because what is religion other than a set of behavioral rules we obey because we believe they will make us right in our own eyes, and perhaps those of others and/or a god?) with a brand-new set of 10 commandments: Thou shalt not eat meat or animal products, thou shalt not fly, thou shalt not use any mechanized transportation, thou shalt not have a child – that we then use to persecute any we perceive to be heretics with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.

If there is any trend I am most discouraged by this past year, it is this. I used to fear that apathy could doom us – now, I fear that it is our fear that will.

Katharine Hayhoe in The high and low points for climate change in 2019 by Bud Ward, Yale Climate Connections, Dec. 11, 2019

Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay in the New Yorker that resulted in a lot of discussion.

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

What if We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped? by Jonathan Franzen

James Allen recently wrote:

The problems before us are emergent phenomena with a life of their own, and the causes requiring treatment are obscure. They are what systems scientists call wicked problems: problems that harbour so many complex non-linear interdependencies that they not only seem impossible to understand and solve, but tend to resist our attempts to do so. For such wicked problems, our conventional toolkits — advocacy, activism, conscientious consumerism, and ballot casting — are grossly inadequate and their primary utility may be the self-soothing effect it has on the well-meaning souls who use them.

Most of us lack the stories that help imagine a future where we thrive in the midst of unstoppable ecological catastrophe. We have been propelled to this point by the myths of progress, limitless growth, our separateness from nature and god-like dominion over it.

If we are to find a new kind of good life amid the catastrophes these myths have spawned, then we need to radically rethink the stories we tell ourselves. We need to dig deep into old stories and reveal their wisdom, as well as lovingly nurture the emergence of new stories into being.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium
June 18, 2019

Most of my life I have used the tools of “our conventional toolkits” and have found them “grossly inadequate.” I also agree that “we have been propelled to this point by the myths of progress, limitless growth, our separateness from nature and god-like dominion over it.” This is what I meant when I said capitalism has failed us. https://jeffkisling.com/2019/12/23/cultural-collapse/

I think James Allen is correct when he says, “if we are to find a new kind of good life amid the catastrophes these myths have spawned, then we need to radically rethink the stories we tell ourselves. We need to dig deep into old stories and reveal their wisdom, as well as lovingly nurture the emergence of new stories into being.

In recent times I have come to believe more strongly in the importance and power of stories.

ALL THAT WE ARE IS STORY. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017)
Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

I was fascinated by the title of the book “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” by Jonathan Lear. The book tells the story of how the Crow nation dealt with the devastation of their culture. Can we adapt this story, these lessons, to find a way through our own cultural collapse?

SHORTLY BEFORE HE DIED, Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation, reached out across the “clash of civilizations” and told his story to a white man. Frank B. Linderman had come to Montana in 1885 as a teenager, and he became a trapper, hunter, and cowboy. He lived in a cabin in the woods near Flathead head Lake and was intimately associated with the Crows.

Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. “I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 29-33). Kindle Edition.

Following is the review of the book, found on Goodreads:

Shortly before he died, Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, told his story―up to a certain point. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” It is precisely this point―that of a people faced with the end of their way of life―that prompts the philosophical and ethical inquiry pursued in Radical Hope. In Jonathan Lear’s view, Plenty Coups’s story raises a profound ethical question that transcends his time and challenges us all: how should one face the possibility that one’s culture might collapse?

This is a vulnerability that affects us all insofar as we are all inhabitants of a civilization, and civilizations are themselves vulnerable to historical forces. How should we live with this vulnerability? Can we make any sense of facing up to such a challenge courageously? Using the available anthropology and history of the Indian tribes during their confinement to reservations, and drawing on philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, Lear explores the story of the Crow Nation at an impasse as it bears upon these questions and these questions as they bear upon our own place in the world. His book is a deeply revealing, and deeply moving, philosophical inquiry into a peculiar vulnerability that goes to the heart of the human condition.

Goodreads “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation”
by Jonathan Lear https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/335357.Radical_Hope
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