This semester I taught a course entitled “Ethics in the Anthropocene.” I had never taught it, but was able to build on a syllabus a colleague of mine created. The main question of the course concerns climate change and the new geological era that climate change introduces, one in which the driving force of geological change is the human species. In this new era, what does it mean to live the good life, to be responsible. It was an immensely interesting course; my students and I read interesting and provocative essays, and engaged in challenging discussions. For the last class, when I typically offer some summary comments, I focused on hope. In this season of light and promise I thought you might find something in those comments. Here they are.
What have I learned about climate change and the new world it promises? Well, it is immensely complex. It is the ultimate interdisciplinary challenge; not one discipline at our university is untouched by its reach. It requires a kind of thinking, a deep thinking, that we have not been tutored to pursue; we need to ask hard and troubling questions about how we live, what it means to be human, what our relationship with all other living beings and systems demands of us. We need to rethink how we do things, because as essayist Audre Lorde once said, “you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” I learned that engaging the challenge of climate change demands commitment; it is not something I can do in my spare moment nor can I expect a single action on my part to show success quickly. In the end, though, I learned of the centrality of hope in a climate disrupted world. And the hope I’m talking about is not optimism, which has a clear idea of what life will be like. No, hope is more radical than that; it is not knowing, or having any confidence in one’s hypotheses, about what life will be like in a climate disrupted world, but it is a deep and abiding sense that all will be well.
What gives me hope?
The immensity of the universe, the creative agent that brought it forth, the fact that in the human being, the individual human being, the creative, dynamic, always new and surprising universe becomes conscious of itself. Does that guarantee anything? No! But it does reveal that anything is possible. Who could have predicted, from the big bang, that at some point in cosmic unfolding a goldilocks planet would emerge from the apparent chaos? And then on that goldilocks planet, who could have imagined the leap from inorganic to organic, the sudden emergence of cells that could grow, divide, reproduce, turn the materials in their environment into the building blocks of further cells? Who could have imagined the emergence of social, gregarious species, with larger brains than normal, who fashioned tools to, first, uncover vital resources, and then, when those brains got large enough, to transform their environment? None of this could have been predicted at the big bang.
Now, we humans have become pretty good at predicting, pretty confident in our knowledge of what could be, but are we? Really? Has the cosmos changed that much in terms of its creative dynamism, the source of the improbable becoming probable, the clearly impossible becoming possible? Have we tamed the cosmos to that degree, that we can be confident of what is possible? I think not.
That is what gives me hope. Each of you gives me hope. Your questions, your skepticism, your desire for change, your resistance to easy solutions, the creativity of your projects. Each of these is a moment in the ongoing, creative, dynamic unfolding of a universe full of possibility, and you, by being you, make the possible more probable.
So, don’t disengage. Be yourselves. Burn into your self-understanding the fact that you are the universe become conscious of itself and allow that to motivate you to be a responsible earth person, made of earth, to return to earth. Earth is you, you are earth. I wish for you that such an insight works its way deeply into your spirit and imagination. In the end, that gives me hope.
We at CFET wish you a holy and blessed holiday season. Happy Christmas! Happy Kwanzaa! A belated Happy Hannukah!
Be yourself! The universe has been waiting 14.3 billion years to see what might happen in you becoming all that you are!
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Chair, Board of Trustees