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Threatened by Hope

Submitted by Chris Mills on January 14, 2013 - 2:26pm

Okay. Nobody needs to tell me that things are pretty dire. Trust me on that. I mean, hell, I helped to co-found Transition Guelph, and believe me, I would never have undertaken such a daunting task if I didn’t think it was important. We’re headed down the road for some pretty difficult times, and we do need to prepare, and soon. That’s what the Transition movement is all about.

But if I didn’t think there was hope, I wouldn’t bother. I’d probably be out in the woods somewhere, hunting and growing my own food and raising chickens.

Instead, here I am in the city, growing my own food (well, some of it anyway) and raising chickens. And not hunting, not yet anyway. (And honest, the image of me running around in the woods waving a rifle is one that would probably make Charlton Heston start to whimper.)

In my work with Transition Guelph, I do a lot of reading; everything from articles posted in the various transition blogs, to documents and essays that detail the latest developments in the myriad problems that we are facing, books, magazines, you name it. And one thing that strikes me is that it really seems there are a lot of people out there who are determined to crush out hope; the hope that we, the folks who are trying to do something about these problems, use as our fuel to keep going.

Why is that? Are they in some way threatened by that hope? It seems possible. Someone—I forget who—once laid out the five stages of “waking up to reality” (which mimics the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler Ross described in her book On Death and Dying). Those stages are: ignorance, denial, despair/depression/panic, anger, empowerment.

But, many people do seem to get stuck in stage three, the despair, depression and panic stage. It’s quite easy to do. The problems, once you are aware of them, seem so massive and so inexorable, and you also look around you and see so many people trapped in stage one or two (ignorance or denial) that the situation seems hopeless. (It’s a principle that many people use to justify not taking chances in their lives: Why bother to apply for that job; I’ll never get it. No point in auditioning for that part, I’m not good enough. Best not to approach that attractive girl/guy, I’ll just get rejected.) Then, adhering to the “misery loves company” principle, it seems perfectly reasonable to do everything you can to demolish the hope you see in those few people around you who have moved on to stage five.

Really. I’ve read countless blog posts, essays and online articles that appear to take the approach of systematically seizing upon every belief that those who are actually working to effect change use as our justification, and dismantling them one by one.

It’s an awfully negative view of human nature: Building community is useless because when things get bad people will turn on one another. Survival of the fittest, not cooperation, is nature’s way. Relying on innovation to mitigate challenges such as oil depletion or climate change is futile because innovation hasn’t solved many of the world’s problems up to now. It’s pointless to develop alternative energy sources because nothing can replace oil. And so on. (I have rebuttals to each of these arguments, but we’ll leave that for the moment.)

Even more telling, there are entire websites devoted to gruesomely detailed descriptions of each of these problems, and exactly how they will bring down civilization, how may people will die, and so on. It’s the same fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios that brings people to films like Armageddon, 28 Days Later, Mad Max, The Stand, Terminator, Omega Man, I Am Legend, Deep Impact, Resident Evil, The Day After Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, Independence Day, The Matrix trilogy, etc. etc. etc.

I am absolutely not saying that these apocalyptic scenarios are wrong. I certainly hope they’re wrong, but there’s no way to know. Joanna Macy says that uncertainty is simply part of life. You don’t know, when you enter into a relationship, if that relationship will be successful. You don’t know, when you have a child, if that child will be healthy, or happy, or successful. You don’t know, when you move to a new location, or take a new job, or change your life in other dramatic ways, if those changes will lead to happiness or misery. But you do them anyway, because that’s the nature of our existence. Chance and risk are simply a part of life.

But one thing is for certain. If you don’t take those chances, you will never know the outcome. More importantly, you will never affect the outcome.

The Transition movement is social engineering on a completely unprecedented scale. We don’t know if it will be successful or not, and we don’t know if the sweeping changes that are necessary to save us will be in place by the time they are needed. The outcome is full of uncertainty. But the outcome if we do nothing is certain. We have to try.

I said earlier that I had rebuttals to each of the arguments I listed earlier raised by the “it’s pointless to do anything” crowd. Here they are:

Building community is useless because when things get bad people will turn on one another. Survival of the fittest is nature’s way. Yes, survival of the fittest determines which species survive and which ones don’t. But it’s a fallacy to assume from that that those species who make it do so at the expense of others. Our image of nature as a solely competitive arena is incomplete. There are far more examples of cooperation in nature than competition. It is actually more common for species who cooperate to survive (i.e. be the “fittest”) than those that compete.

Relying on innovation to mitigate challenges such as oil depletion or climate change is futile because innovation hasn’t solved many of the world’s problems up to now. Proponents of this argument often point out that despite all the advances in modern medicine, we still don’t have a cure for the common cold. This is quite true. But consider that in our present socio-economic structure we tend to focus our efforts, and capital, on projects that have a high return on investment.

I have in my pocket a digital device the size of a couple of packs of gum that is roughly ten thousand times more powerful than the first computer I worked on as a student, back in 1972, which filled an entire 5000 square foot room. It (my phone) runs for days off a battery the size of a square of chocolate, has a high definition full color display, can instantly connect to other computers anywhere in the world, and can tell me where I am on the globe at any moment, to an accuracy of about 10 meters. That first computer required about 10 kilowatts of electricity as well as cooling provided by air conditioners the size of mini-vans, printed its output onto huge sheets of paper using a device almost a big as a small car, and couldn’t connect to anything.

This astounding development in technology happened well within one person’s lifetime. That’s because, in the intervening timeframe, about twenty trillion dollars has been poured into the development of digital technology. Where would we be if that same amount of capital investment were poured into curing common illnesses? Or, more to the point, if that amount of investment and innovation were put into building a sustainable world?

It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity (as defined here by return on investment) has dictated that vast amounts of innovation and development has been poured into digital technologies. Up to now there has been little motivation to turn our attention to oil depletion or climate change because, shaky as things are, they’re still, for most of us, okay. But that will change, and who’s to say what fruits necessity will bear once the shit really hits the fan? (Or, to apply the same paradigm: when "return on investment" becomes defined as one's survival, rather than profit.)

It’s pointless to develop alternative energy sources because nothing can replace oil. Perfectly true. Oil is the most energy dense fuel we know of, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. But it doesn’t follow that the only way to maintain a civilization is to stick to the ever-increasing energy curve we have been on up to now. We squander obscene amounts of energy every day, much of it on trivial uses. We have not conserved energy or worked to moderate our use up to now simply because we haven’t had to. Ex-civil engineer Pat Murphy (author of Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change) has calculated that we could reduce our energy consumption by 50% without any changes to our social or technological infrastructure whatsoever, just by instituting aggressive conservation strategies that already exist. We can reduce it still further by changing our expectations around how energy gets used: stop flying for trivial reasons; expand our mass transportation infrastructure and vastly reduce single vehicle use; rely more on local resources—food, water, energy and other commodities—rather than importing those things from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away. Finally, we can develop clean, sustainable energy sources to the point where it can fulfill the remaining demand, in perpetuity.

So yes, the task ahead is daunting. Time is short. Maybe it won’t work. But then, maybe it will. There are certainly a lot of very knowledgeable people who believe that it's already too late, that the human race is doomed. That may be true. But one thing is certain, if we sit back and do nothing, those predictions will certainly be true.

Norman Cousins once said, “All things are possible, once enough people realize that everything is at stake.” Everything is at stake. And if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

To quote George Bernard Shaw, “Those who say something can’t be done shouldn’t get in the way of those doing it.”

Or, to steal a slogan from the OLG, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”


Hi Chris,

I really appreciate your thoughts,  as someone who can at times get bogged down in the abundance of yuk in the world yet simultaneously passionate about the possibilities of the future it is refreshing to read. I particularly like your rebuttal around cooperation being a more powerful mechanism for survival than survival of the fittest.

Although I am not a christian, I love the scripture that says 'without hope the people perish' and I think that it is hope fuelled by imperative that leads to change. 


I too would very much like to learn more about Transition Guelph.

Great reflection!

Hi Chris,

This is an amazing reflection! You write with such passion and insight.

Can you please share more about what Transition Guelph does... how does it address this issue you have mentioned?


Hi Rachel,

Thanks so much for your complements and encouragement. I think it might be worth writing a short blog entry to talk about just what the Transition movement is and how it operates, so I'll be doing that in the next few days, I hope.

Transition Guelph is just one node in a worldwide movement; like all Transition Initiatives, we're just doing what we can to build resilience and sustainainability into our community, so that it can reduce its dependence on a global infrastructure that, though masssive and complex, is actually quite fragile.