The Day Hope Died – And I Feel Fine

January 4, 2011 | Posted in: Editor blog

by Michael P. Nelson

We know the outcome. On September 10th, 2010, President Barack Obama refused to accept a solar panel from author and activist Bill McKibben and 350.org. What is now perhaps the most famous (or at least well travelled) solar panel in history was originally installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter in 1979, then removed by Ronald Regan in 1986, then set atop a cafeteria at Unity College in 1991 where it has remained in service until offered to President Obama. The Obama administration – an administration that not so long ago held the hopes of all in love with this good green earth – offered no reason for their refusal.

While the simple gesture of accepting the solar panel would have been appropriate (not to mention polite), the simple gesture of saying “thanks, but no thanks” to that solar panel sent an hugely important signal: Barack Obama is not going to save us, he never was going to save us, and that’s okay. We need to abandon the hope that some politician or political process will save us. We need to abandon hope because hope is the poison that forever weakens our will to do what is good and important and beautiful simply because it is good and important and beautiful. The decision to act from a sense of moral obligation frees us and empowers us. We have been let down not by what we have hoped for, but rather by our own naïve commitment to hope in the first place. We need to care and to act without hope, without faith in politicians, international meetings, protocols, proclamations, or IPCC reports.

While putting together essays for our book Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, and while on tour this Fall with the book, Kathleen Dean Moore and I have been taking a different tack – an appeal to ethics. Here’s the basic idea, as professors of philosophy we know that any formal argument leading to a conclusion about how we ought to act or what policies we ought to adopt must have two premises, one about facts and one about values. So, when scientists tell the world of the harms threatened by environmental degradation and global climate change, they provide the first premise: environmental harms are real, they are dangerous, and they are upon us. But science alone will not, cannot logically save us, since you cannot simply string together a series of facts and somehow magic-out a prescription for action. There is a second premise, a premise we almost never speak of, but a premise that is critical if we want to conclude that we have an affirmative moral duty to prevent or reduce the effects of climate change and other environmental harms. This missing, Voldemortian premise lies outside the scientific purview, in the world of social and ethical values, a normative principle affirming our responsibility to prevent such harm to the future. Only by this combination of facts and values, but from neither alone, can we reach conclusions about what we ought to do.

Our book tests that second premise. Does the world’s collective moral wisdom suggest we have an affirmative moral responsibility to leave a world as rich in life and possibility as the world that was left to us? We asked the world’s moral, religious, scientific, philosophical, literary, business, and political leaders (including President Obama, whose essay is a beautiful affirmation of his sense of obligation to the future, and runs absolutely contrary to the implications of his solar panel rejection). Here is the collected human wisdom about what is of value, an affirmation of what is worthy and worth doing. Essays, songs, proclamations, even poems poured in. Each, in their own way, affirming our moral obligation to the future to act now, to act boldly, to act for all time to avert the impacts of climate change and other environmental horrors. Though we speak from different countries, ethnicities, ages, worldviews, religions, and cultures, on the question of our moral obligation to the future we speak with one voice!

Most certainly, and deliciously, September 10, 2010 should be acknowledged as the day hope died. But that means September 10, 2010 is our day of liberation. Would it not be amazing if, five years from now, we looked back on this moment when President Obama turned a cold shoulder to that old solar panel as the day we grew up. In 2015 we might say this was a wonderful day, a day when we finally realized that those in political office (red or blue, tea or coffee), those in scientific laboratories, those working for engineering firms were not our salvation, and we were not going to wait for them to be. And we might say to President Obama, thank you.

Postscript – On October 5th, 2010, less than a month after I wrote what’s above, the Obama Administration announced that it would be installing solar panels and a solar water heater on roof of the White House residence.  Though it may take a bit of steam out of my rhetoric, this doesn’t matter one lick.  The argument here is precisely the same.

9 Responses

  • Let us be inspired by ideas, not heroes.

    Reply
  • Yvonne Boudreaux → February 22, 2011, 3:20 pm

    I wanted him to LEAD, and that’s why this broke my heart. Thank you, Michael for making me grow up a little more. How can I insure that Obama will know how much he disappointed us on this? and that we won’t wait again…

    Reply
  • Gracie Hinman → March 7, 2011, 2:37 pm

    Thanks for that comment, Yvonne. I feel the same way. The above update of Oct. 5 ,’10 gives me some heart but the disappointment and the lesson learned remain the same.
    (Until today I wasn’t aware of Grist newsletter. Learned of it through NRDC.)
    We need millions more people to be right-minded, ethical-caring towards the Earth. Each individual can help. At age 79 I don’t take to the streets any more but after several decades of environmentalism I’m not even close to giving up.

    Reply
  • Christina Snyder → May 5, 2011, 1:38 am

    Some of the people I respect most are those that keep on doing what they perceive to be right action in the face of having no hope that it will produce the outcome they desire. nearly a decade ago Thom Hartmann confessed to a small gathering in Michigan that he’d lost all hope that we’d be able to change in time to avert runaway global climate change. Yet he persisted in right livelyhood and in caring for where he lives, and since then has regained his voice speaking hard truths to power on his radio show. Oddly enough, its this persistance of life in the face of hopeless odds that gives me the most hope now – life goes on in places like Chernobyl that we’ve damaged the most. In the absence of humans, diversity thrives, despite having to live with horrific amounts of pollution. We don’t know what it may take to stabilize our climate again and exactly how long we have to do it, so we might as well bust butt trying to pull it off, and if nothing else, at least we’ll go down trying.

    Reply
  • I was a Camp Fire Girl, camper, junior counselor and counselor. We were taught “Always leave a camp site cleaner than you found it.” That’s enough moral imperative for me.

    Reply
  • randy reneau → May 23, 2011, 3:56 pm

    Boy I feel connected to people that see as I do.
    THANK YOU

    Reply
  • Thanks for fighting the good fight, and thanks for the connection the net gives so we can (still) exchange information to keep each other inspired! If it wasn’t for articles like these, I would think the whole world mad and me the only one who sees the perpetual driving and/or consuming and all the while all staring at a small box (while poking fingers at it) or talking to themselves (too loudly). Wasn’t there an old 60′s addage – for these days of euphamisms – if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem! To hang hopes on politics is like trading carbon-burning dependancy for a more complex technology that is (barely) understood by even fewer people.
    It’s like the old Alan Watts maxim: Subscribing to a Guru (sic) is like letting someone pick your pocket and sell your own watch back to you.
    Funny that all the “hard work ethic” people aren’t the driving force behind lifestyle correction. Get a job indeed…they’re still the driving force behind driving though, even on their free time. VVVRRROOOM!

    Reply
  • Monica Neil → May 31, 2011, 4:06 pm

    Our government is US! We need to fight the fight and get it back. I know what to expect when I vote Republican. The problem with Obama, and so many other Democratic representatives, is that they are Republicans too. They just lied about it.
    How many people know who their representatives are, let alone phone and write them? Call 1-800-FED-INFO and ask who your senators are, and who your Congressman is. Ask for both their phone numbers and their mailing addresses. Then don’t let up. Write, and call every day to let them know what you want from them.
    YOU’RE THEIR BOSS.

    Reply
  • We are the ones we have been waiting for. When you get tired of the way things are you will change the way you live, and that will change the world.

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