I recently gave a talk to a college audience on what I called the hidden role of energy in every environmental problem. As part of my presentation I went through a depressing list of environmental problems and showed their connection to our energy use. The next day I received a message from an audience member who clearly understood the implications of my talk, but who bemoaned my failure to provide practical solutions. He said I had left the students feeling hopeless.
This unfortunate result was partly a problem of scheduling. Most of the students attending needed to leave early to go to other presentations that evening on campus. Those who stayed did have some opportunity to discuss possible responses. I say "responses," because I don't believe our ecological predicament has any solutions by which people normally mean that we can solve our problems and then go back to business as usual. Instead, we are left with responses--responses which may prove valuable or worthless, but the results of which cannot be known in advance. In short, there are no guarantees that our responses will work. By "work" I mean allow us to maintain the semblance of a technically advanced human civilization.
It's no surprise that such a realization brings many people to the point of despair. Of course, if they remain there, they can accomplish nothing. But, let's not hurry forward. Let's dwell on that despair for a moment. Does it have a function? I think it does. It is at the point of despair that people can feel deep down their connection to all that has come before them and all that will come after. It is not just their personal futures that are at stake anymore. It is the whole project of human civilization, the art, the literature, the philosophy, the great works of architecture, the great institutions of learning and research, the huge store of human knowledge, and the ongoing experiment in self-government. It is also the future of the natural world, not just what it can provide for our sustenance, but also the beauty and diversity that result from its own purposes.
It is no wonder that such an understanding brings with it what seems like an unbearable burden. Indeed, for some people this is the very first time their personal ambitions shrink as their link to the social and natural world greatly expands. To feel that link strongly can be overwhelming. It brings with it a sense of responsibility, the size of which seems immense. The moment seems to say, "If I am linked to all of this, I am somehow responsible for it." But how can one lone person even make a dent in the immense challenges humankind faces?
The question certainly reflects a state of despair; but it is in this state that we can become aware of our connection to the greater world. Without that connection nothing important can be accomplished when it comes to sustainability. With it, in my view, genuine work can begin without hubris; with respect for the size of the task; with the realization that each person can only do a part of the job; and with a sense of solidarity with other humans and with the natural world.
So, how can a person who has been brought to the point of despair take the next step? For those who are late in life, it is often an easy step. I've puzzled over why the older a person is, the more likely her or she is to be concerned about peak oil, global warming and sustainability in general. I've discovered two reasons. First, age teaches us limits in ways that no words can. Second, those in the late stages of life think of their children and grandchildren, and they begin to act out of love.
As for young people, Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, has a suggestion. He says that every generation likes to think that it will change the world. This generation has to change the world. Everything must change, he explains. That's the kind of invitation that an idealistic young person would find difficult to pass up. No matter what his or her interest--engineering, art, architecture, literature, sports, theater, music, community organizing, politics, agriculture, the building trades, computers--everything must be reworked for sustainability.
And still, on the path to sustainability, I do not think that despair is something to be avoided. Rather, I think the point of despair can become a point of departure for contemplating our deep connections to one another and to nature. When we have made some sense of those connections, then and only then, is it time to move on to action--action now informed by a new and more profound understanding.