Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.
It means you are essentially powerless.
-by Derrick Jensen
I’ve been bashing hope for many years. Frankly, I don’t have much of it, and I think that’s a good thing. Hope is partly what keeps us chained to the system. First there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes—all of this rendering of our power—leads to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness: how, for example, would Philip Berrigan have acted had he not believed— hoped—God would help solve things?
One reason my mother stayed with my father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the fifties and sixties, but another was because of the false hope that he would change. False hopes, as I’ve written elsewhere, bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities. Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, this line of thought runs, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Bullshit. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse.
One of the smartest things Nazis did to Jews was co-opt rationality, co-opt hope. At every step of the way it was in the Jews’ rational best interest to not resist: many Jews had the hope—and this hope was cultivated by the Nazis—that if they played along, followed the rules laid down by those in power, that their lives would get no worse, that they would not be murdered. Would you rather get an ID card, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather go to a ghetto (reserve, reservation, whatever) or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get on a cattle car, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed? Would you rather get in the showers, or would you rather resist and possibly get killed?
But I’ll tell you something important: the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, including those who went on what they thought were suicide missions, had a higher rate of survival than those who went along peacefully. Never forget that.
In case it's not clear how dangerous our sacred word "hope" actually is : Jensen elaborates
It isn’t merely false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself.
Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that against all odds makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must at all costs, including the cost of our sanity and the world, be avoided). How can we continue if we do not have hope?
We’ve all been taught that hope in some better future condition—like hope in some better future heaven—is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was “the only good the casket held among the many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune.” No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune. (Fortune: from Latin fortuna, akin to Latin fort-,fors, chance, luck: this implies of course that the misfortune that hope is supposed to comfort us in is just damn bad luck, and not dependent on circumstances we can change: in the present case, I don’t see how bad luck is involved in the wretched choices we each make daily in allowing civilization to continue to destroy the earth.)
The more I understand hope, the more I realize that instead of hope being a comfort, that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as a belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular version of the same old heaven/nirvana mindfuck.
Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane.
I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying, “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails”—without hope there is no fear—not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.
More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would—how many editors for how many magazines have said they want me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to “make sure you leave readers with a sense of hope.” But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I couldn’t, and so turned the question back on the audience. Here’s the definition we all came up with: Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.
Think about it. I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I’ll just do it. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them.On the other hand, I hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash.To hope for some result means you have no agency concerning it.
So many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve guaranteed at least its short-term continuation, and given it a power it doesn’t have. They’ve also stepped away from their own power.
I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do what it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave because they don’t like how they’re being treated—and who could blame them?—I will say good-bye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off. I will do whatever it takes.
When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure tigers survive. We do whatever it takes.
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