THE ARROGANCE OF DESPAIR

From Daniel Pope, Loam's academic anarchist- in-residence, comes a powerful essay on the importance of active hope. 

WORDS: DANIEL POPE

IMAGE: WILL RUSSACK

At the beginning of Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, she relates a story about the complex, spiderwebbing, far-reaching effects of activism. “Causes and effects assume history marches forward,” she writes, “but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.” How, she asks, can we possibly calculate the effects of one person’s activism on the world? How can we assume that doing something will accomplish nothing? In other words, to take the stance that we can’t do anything anymore to combat the injustice of environmental degradation is not only stupid—a misreading of the facts compounded with groundless assumptions—but, also, profoundly arrogant.

Hope, Solnit argues, is active. Here we can perhaps use the word “hope” in contradistinction to “faith,” which (arguably) is passive and tells us that we will be delivered, someday, by some kind of Messianic event. I use Christian language because the idea of faith is often inextricable from a certain Christian logic of passivity, a logic that some black theologians have argued vehemently against because they believe it breeds quietism in the face of tragedy. Christianity is the religion of the oppressed, this logic goes—the religion of the weak, the wretched, and a religion that promises them eternal life as long as they just wait and do these ten things (or whatever). But some intelligent black theologians, like James Cone or William R. Jones, argue that this kind of thinking breeds quietism and inaction. What if this logic is co-opted by state power to keep certain people content in their suffering?

I recently saw a talk by William Connolly in which he discussed a similar phenomenon in environmentally-minded people, one he called “passive nihilism.” This is in distinction to “active nihilism,” the kind of logic that rebels against the facts of the matter and ends up ramping up one’s destructive activities—think SUVs “rollin’ coal” or presidential candidates denying climate change. “Passive nihilism,” instead, is—by my understanding of his definition—the “fuck it” category, in other words the category of people who have shrugged and continued in their environmentally-destructive habits, saying “fuck it” and shaking their heads at the “idealistic” activists.

However—this is my thinking now, not Connolly’s—the people who think “fuck it” always maintain a diaphanous faith in a Messianic deliverance, probably from hypothetical technological innovations that will come in the future, or alternative green energies (again, hypothetical and, again, future-tense) that will allow us to retain the economic structures that we have in place. Or perhaps their hope isn’t thought out at all, but it’s definitely there, otherwise living would be impossible. It’s nihilism in name only.

Denying that there’s hope gives one an opportunity to give up, while still harboring some kind of distant, passive hope. There’s no denying that this is stupid. But we come to the inescapable conclusion that this giving up, this despair, is also profoundly arrogant. Environmental scientists study unfathomably complex, open systems with countless variables. This makes effects hard to predict. When one takes the jaded, cynical viewpoint—often with a view to dismissing the viewpoints of those who are deemed, pejoratively, “idealists,” “naïve,” “dreamers,” etc.— that nothing can change anything anymore at this point (so, “fuck it”), one actually bullshits oneself as much as those who completely deny everything in order to keep living the same habits. Besides, in the end, they both basically come out to the same thing anyway.

Rebecca Solnit acknowledges the complex interweaving of life in all of its differential glory. Recognizing that we are all entangled with each other and our environments to the extent that it is impossible to make any final pronouncements on what will and won’t work to solve the ecological crisis can help us harbor an active hope that engages with today, takes action, cultivates the seeds of a brighter future. We don’t know whom our work will inspire, which words will spark a movement, which action will change everything.

Because systems of power tend toward inertia, this kind of hopeful thinking is discouraged these days. It is seen as “idealistic” (again, pejoratively) and “unrealistic.” The cooler, more nihilistic stance is “fuck it.” This logic has been co-opted by global capital: think of cigarette brands that imply you’re not cool unless you slowly kill yourself. That’s just one example of how neoliberal logic actually necessitates self-destruction—it is easy to see how this extends to environmental degradation.

This is a pose. Nihilism is, almost by definition, impossible. Those who think they are truly hopeless about the environmental crisis are fooling themselves. This pose is self-important, misguided, and destructive. The only way we will surely destroy ourselves is by doing nothing—and the jaded viewpoint that advocates this, at least in practice, is really the effect of an overweening arrogance.

Not that it isn’t understandable. Sometimes it seems that every political issue, or at least the way they are presented to us, is so depressing and seemingly impossible to change that it tends to inspire this pose of passive nihilism. It’s the certainty bred by ideology. But it’s important to recognize that this is nihilism in name only; each of us hopes. It’s up to you whether your hope is a Messianic faith or an active hope. It’s a choice, and an indispensable one, so make the right decision. 

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