Hope Indistinguishable

Be patient with me. I have a number of landmarks on the way to where I’m headed.

It’s been some years now since I dined with Brian at The Grill.

Now closed, Grill was a downtown favorite of Tucsonans. I could get a great burger with my choice Full Sail on draft. On this occasion, my friend and I talked about our mutual concern over the future of our world. As if we’re the only ones, right? He’s an environmental mediator. I’m an environmental educator. Our conversation mourned the insurmountable list of environmental and social issues we faced. We still face.

Young people shot and killed. Coal, gas, and oil lines erupting. Anthropogenic mass extinction that may likely doom our own species as well.

What prompted this conversation was, at that time, a recent interview with James Lovelock (listen to interview). Lovelock is well known for his “Gaia Hypothesis”, which represents the Earth as a self-sustaining organism, capable of healing itself, regardless of whether or not human beings survive. The interview was especially disconcerting. He saw climate change to be already irrevocable, science to be corrupt, and any human interventions hopeless.

Brian’s Buddhist and I Taoist. We both struggled to find any zen in so much faithlessness.

You’re probably familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s 3 Laws of Prediction:

1. A distinguished, older scientist stating what is possible is most likely right,
but a distinguished, older scientist stating what is impossible is most likely wrong.

How this reflects on Lovelock’s foreboding, I have no idea.

2. The only way of testing what’s possible is to venture into the impossible, and…
3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

A spin on Leigh Brackett: “Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. simple science to the learned.”

Does this suggest we can technologically or even biologically engineer our way out of this? I doubt it. We weren’t able to do so when we had time to act; why do we think we’ll be able to do so when it’s too late?

But when I think of how frightening the world and our future seems to be, I’m reminded of Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. His moral, as I understand it, is that violence is random, even for the violent, and that this has always been the case. Emperors, insurrectionists and messiahs have been fighting for power with the souls of men since our species evolved.

So what do we do? This is the torment we shared in Grill those years ago. From an Eastern Philosophy point of view, we are to be still. From a Western Religious perspective, “be still and know God.” But as we’re fond of attributing Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Last Monday I was teaching a class on leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and abdicratic strategies you adopt depending on interpersonal or environmental conditions. I told my students: “Lead from the center. Disappear into the river of group dynamics, become more active or passive as a leader as the situation dictates. …then return to center as the situation changes.”

As I consider the multiplying issues that all demand our reaction, I think of Tai Chi, how the movements quietly extend and return within our immediate reach, never over extending our balance.

It must be that balance is in leading our world, our time from center, extending our action or passion to what is proximal and touchable for us, returning to stillness as the river flows.

At the end of Lovelock’s interview, he’s asked why he’s smiling in the face of such hopelessness. He answers, “That’s because I believe you enjoy it while you can. …It’s been an incredibly beautiful world.”

When the Taoist Master Lieh Tzu was confronted by “the effortless scattering of change, the billows and waves of history flowing away,” it is said…

[He] realized that he hadn’t even begun to understand Tao, so he returned home and didn’t leave for three years. He cooked for his wife, and fed the pigs as though he were feeding people. Human pursuits meant nothing to him. He whittled and polished himself back to utter simplicity: a body standing alone like a clump of earth. Taking this refuge in the midst of all confusion, he kept himself whole to the end (Hinton, 1997, Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters).

Now Lieh Tzu was one of the three great philosophers of Taoism, and the most practical.

To paraphrase Clarke and Brackett, I find his brand of hope to be indistinguishable from magic.

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