My Radical Hope

With so many significant and for the most part negative forces at work in the world now it has been difficult to remain focused on the ideas from Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation that I’ve been writing about for the past several weeks.

I often don’t know what the Spirit will lead me to write until I sit down at my computer, center myself, and listen. I believe the reason I was led to read this book was because it distills a lot of ideas I’ve been thinking about, and justice actions I’ve been involved in, for years.

For my entire adult life I’ve known the supply of fossil fuels was limited, and no more could be created. As a scientist I could visualize the damage (invisible) greenhouse gas emissions were doing to Mother Earth. My faith led me to know I could not contribute to this situation, and thus could not own a personable automobile. That resulted in a lifetime of tension with my Quaker faith community, neighbors and friends when I could not convince them to give up their cars and move away from fossil fuels embedded in our culture.

Part of the reason for this failure to convince others to stop using fossil fuels is related to what Albert Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” People could not envision a future that didn’t continue to have what appeared to be unlimited fossil fuel supplies that were easily extracted.

Sooner than anyone imagined, the realities of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and the damage done to our environment from burning vast amounts of those fuels are apparent to everyone. The extraordinary air temperatures and the fires engulfing Australia are hard to believe. Rapidly evolving environmental devastation is one reason our culture is collapsing now.

The other reason our culture is collapsing is our economic system and the political institutions based upon that. Capitalism helped create our current crisis. Demanding an ever growing economy, dependent on fossil fuel energy, and seeing natural and human resources as simply inputs to profitable outputs. Valuing monetary gain above all else. Capitalism is failing due to lack of jobs with adequate pay and extreme distribution of wealth. Millions of men, women and children live in poverty as a result.

Realizing our culture is collapsing, Jonathan Lear looked for examples of a culture in the past that navigated its way through collapse. In Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation he tells how the Crow Nation’s culture collapsed when the buffalo disappeared.

The Crow had an established practice for pushing at the limits of their understanding: they encouraged the younger members of the tribe (typically boys) to go off into nature and dream. For the Crow, the visions one had in a dream could provide access to the order of the world beyond anything available to ordinary conscious understanding. Young Plenty Coups took the traditional resource of seeking a dream-vision, and with some help from the elders in the tribe he put it to a new use. This gave the tribe resources for thought-for practical reasoning-that would not have been available to them in any other way. And it gave Plenty Coups the resources for a transformation of the virtue of courage.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 664-668). Kindle Edition.

At the time Plenty Coups went on his spirit quest he was nine years old. And although the buffalo were being hunted by White men, they were still plentiful, which makes his vision more powerful as it looks to the future.

The practice was for the youth to tell the tribe his dream, to help interpret what it means, and then to act on that interpretation.

The elders of the tribe listened to young Plenty Coups’s dream. Yellow Bear, “the wisest man in the lodge,” offered this interpretation:

“He has been told that in his lifetime the buffalo will go away forever,” said Yellow-bear, “and that in their place on the plains will come the bulls and cows and calves of the white man. I have myself seen these Spotted-buffalo drawing loads of the white man’s goods. And once at a big fort … I saw cows and calves of the same tribe as the bulls that drew the loads. “The dream of Plenty-coups means that the white man will take and hold this country and that their Spotted-buffalo will cover the plains. He was told to think for himself, to listen, to learn to avoid disaster by the experiences of others. He was advised to develop his body but not to forget his mind. The meaning of this dream is plain to me. I see its warning. The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens we may escape this and keep our lands.”

The buffalo were disappearing from traditional Sioux hunting grounds, and as a result the Sioux were pressured to move in on the Crow. It is in this context that young Plenty Coups had his dream-and it was in this context, too, that the tribe took the dream as a key to the challenges they had to face. They decided on a foreign policy that would guide their acts for the next century. They explicitly recognized in an official council that their buffalo-hunting way of life was coming to an end, and they decided to ally with the white man against their traditional enemies. This is the way they hoped to weather the oncoming storm and hold onto their land.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 718-728). Kindle Edition.

This is a fascinating story and illustration of how the Crow Nation came to find a way to navigate their cultural collapse. How they were able to learn to be at peace with the White settler-colonists while maintaining their basic culture and traditions, adapted to the loss of the buffalo.

Can we use this model to navigate our own cultural collapse? The collapse of our fossil fuel based, capitalist economic model?

To do so would require:

  • A vision from someone. Perhaps it needs to be from youth.
  • The interpretation of, and actions based upon this vision by the community (elders?)

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about cultural collapse and/or this vision based model. Please leave your ideas in the comments. Thank you.

I have a vision that has evolved over the years as I’ve tried to move us off fossil fuels. Perhaps that will be what I write next.

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