Sustainability Practicum Reflection #4

John Ehrenfeld says that the question of whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the future is the wrong question. The right question is, “Are you hopeful?” Well, are you? If so, why? From what source or feeling do you manufacture your hope? And if not, what motivates you to pursue an educational path that includes an emphasis on a study of the environment even though you are not hopeful for the future?


Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.


  1. Jennifer Damian says:

    I am not hopeful about the future, and by future, I guess I mostly mean up to 2100. Every time someone refers to the future, I have never thought of it as endless as the definition refers it to because in terms of humans, I don’t feel we will make it that long. In terms of the planet, I definitely believe it will have a future – it will recover from the catastrophe we have created. In terms of the future of humanity, it is sad that we will not survive, and it is sad that the majority of the population on Earth will live lives of extreme instability due to the actions of the racist greedy imperialists of the world, from both the past and the present. We will die because of them, and they will die too, but they will probably be the last ones and the ones to die less chronically.

    In that aspect, I don’t have hope. If the future proves me wrong, then praise the Lord. However, my motivation is to help ensure that the people who have had the down end of the stick on life can have more time. Time – that is what I feel all our efforts are leading up to – to give everyone as much time to spend time with their loved ones without having to focus so much on the direct dangers of climate change right in their backyards. This generation and a couple of upcoming ones might be the last ones who could enjoy the benefits of life that we currently take for granted, and I don’t think it’s fair that the generations a couple after us will not have that same quality of life. Updating infrastructures is only so that we will prolong our shelter from the upcoming increased natural disasters, but there will be a point when infrastructure will not be enough, at least for the majority. However, every effort that has been made up to today and those efforts that will continue to be made were and are not useless. Each effort is a saved memory, a saved experience, and a saved life. This is what keeps me doing what I do. Sometimes people think I’m overreacting when I tell people about environmental disasters and upcoming ones, and I guess maybe it’s warranted. I am one of the apocalyptic environmentalists, and I am proud. I don’t care if you don’t care that I am caring for your friends, family members, and society and the future ones as well. You don’t need to know that I am doing this for the future. I don’t need your thank you. My efforts don’t need to be recognized. As long as I can help more people hold on, for as long as possible, to the aspects of life that everyone deserves, then I will continue doing what I do. Until I die.

  2. Sage Taber says:

    I am a hopeful person. Like Ehrenfeld, I do not think that the right question is of optimism, as optimism is misleading and can inspire a false sense of hope characterized by unrealistic ideals and ignorance of the future. In order to feel hopeful, I not only recognize the severity of the many environmental crises we face, but continue to educate myself and work at solutions hoping to influence a positive environmental outcome. I am hopeful because I feel I must be in order to give my work meaning. I do not see the benefit of pursuing environmental work if there is a pre-existing notion that nothing can be done because the human race has induced irreparable damage to the environment. It is not that I do not have feelings of negativity, depression and parallelization concerning the current environmental scope of the world. However, I think that feelings of discouragement can be used productively as a personal tool to continue an educational path such as mine – Environmental Studies and Environmental Architecture. Within my studies, I constantly analyze built and non-built environments, and as I approach my thesis I find my focus has shifted more specifically to theorizing about designs that can be resilient in the face of climate change.

    The challenges of climate change incite me with a sense of meaning and motivation to contribute to solutions. Increasingly, I want to dedicate my life towards improving conditions through design, and creating human-ecological landscapes capable of coexistence with a changing climate. I am hopeful that I can help to create flourishing environments that holistically address environmental concerns. As I continue with my educational path, I can only hope that my area of focus evolves and appears in the work that I produce as worthwhile and impactful. For myself, hope involves a belief in personal impact and that the future may not be perfect nor doomed.

  3. Hernán Gallo says:

    I am hopeful for the future because of all the dialogue about climate change and social justice. I have seen concern arise amongst a lot of my peers and I believe that having honest concerns about the future will be vital when striving toward a better future. I am hopeful that we, as the next generation, can push toward a more sustainable and just future, even if we may not immediately benefit from it.

    Although I am hopeful, I am not entirely hopeful that things will drastically change for the better in the near future. This is mostly due to the systems in place that make it extremely difficult to progress. Many systems of oppression restrain us from reaching a more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable future. This leads me to believe that large, positive changes will not be accomplished soon. Our unequal society is unsustainable, but I am hopeful that over time we can have a more sustainable world. It will take time to change, but I am willing to be patient as we progress.

    Being patient allows me to be hopeful for the future because I know that my ideal future will not be granted immediately and I may not even live to see it. It takes a lot of effort and dialogue before we can reach a goal. Taking smaller steps may make others extremely impatient, but I feel that I can be patient and insistent enough to be able to move forward. Human beings have damaged the planet and it is important to acknowledge that it takes longer to clean up a mess than it is to make one. So, through the frustration that I face every day with the unjust and environmentally insensitive actions and catastrophic events, I take in a deep breath and prepare myself to even begin to address these issues. We can all benefit from being patient and rational as we reach toward a better, more sustainable future. It is an important value to me to be patient and rational when demanding something because it is very easy to come off as arrogant and demanding, when trying to make change.

  4. Molly O'Neil says:

    I am hopeful about our future because of the variety of inspiration I see in this world every day. Throughout my college career, I have been lucky enough to manufacture my hope through my academic peers. I spend my life surrounded by incredibly bright people who all want to do their part in order to help the earth through policy, agriculture, energy, and more. My peers open my eyes to a whole new world of ideas that I had never thought of before. I believe that people all over the world are already asking the right questions about sustainability. Many want to know what it is, how it works, and how to best implement it into our culture. This quest for answers is one of the most important steps, and I encounter people exploring these questions in every aspect of my education. More importantly, I have confidence that we will be able to find the answers to these questions. The power to stop the damage we have caused since the industrial revolution lies with my generation – the same people who remind me of hope every day. The brightest minds of previous generations sent man to the moon. It is only fitting that our generation will accomplish something just as grand, if not more. We have the power of history, technology, and media in our hands. We can rapidly spread ideas and change the way the world works in a relatively short period of time, and we have great ideas to do so. Within the next two years, the cost of solar energy is predicted to fall another 40%. It is rapid innovations such as these that mark unprecedented steps in the right direction.

    If I were not hopeful, I would find it impossible to pursue an education in environmental studies. My hope is what drives me to continue my studies and learn from my peers. I hope to pursue a career in environmental management. However, I also love the idea of environmental education. Creating informed citizens is an increasingly high priority of mine. Luckily, I believe that my generation has the unique ability to rapidly inform others through social media and other forms of technological communication. As Frank Sesno said, our power lies in the ability to tell stories. Now, we can tell stories in many different ways and inspire those who are unaware of global issues to become educated and develop a more sustainable lifestyle. Although there are many roadblocks in the way of addressing climate change and other global environmental issues, I am hopeful that the conversation will rapidly become more innovative and inspiring in order to make addressing global environmental issues the highest priority in politics, economics, and development.

  5. Darrell Davis says:

    In the movie Shawshank Redemption, the character who played Morgan Freeman said that hope is a dangerous thing. He was speaking to Andy Dufresne, talking him out of the methods he was using to deal with being in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Morgan Freeman’s character was right, however, hope is a very dangerous thing. Hope can leave you stranded without a plan to ameliorate a situation, hope can hinder you from seeing reality, hope can lead into cynicism very quickly. Hope is like the game changing, last resort surgery when all else fails. Hope is all of that, but it is truly vital.

    To be an environmentalist, I think one must be hopeful. Different people have different derivations for their specific environmentalisms, one of the places that I derive mine from is hope. You need hope you deliver the news of planetary destruction with a smile. I am hopeful, because hope is the sweet nectar that perpetuates the ecosystem of ideas. Hope is the abundant rain that abruptly ends a long drought. Hope is being in a coffin filled with cow manure, but seeing yourself in a warm shower in an hour. Hope is how we will get through this, because hope mobilizes the collective. I manufacture my environmentalism, in part, from hope. I manufacture my hope from radical variants of love. By that, I mean that I derive my hope from a deep love of the planet, a love so strong it makes me hate systems of oppression. I see the the planet is in a coffin of manure,but my hopes tells me that it will be taking a warm shower in an hour; at the first hour.

  6. Laura Berry says:

    In 2008, Barbara Kingsolver gave a commencement speech to graduates of Duke University called “How to Be Hopeful.” In it, she advises that “the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides…the hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it.”

    Seven years after first reading Kingsolver’s speech as a soon-to-be freshman in high school, I still have to remind myself that hanging onto hope is better than the alternative. Being hopeful isn’t easy, and to be optimistic is to be ignorant of the realities of climate change, environmental destruction, war, unrestricted economic growth, racism, and inequality in our globalized world. Born in 1994, I have never experienced a month in which the average global surface temperature was lower than average. According to the IMF, the fossil fuel industry receives $10 million in subsidies each minute. Every day, I open Facebook and receive an onslaught of new information about everything bad that’s happening in the world that requires, at the very least, my awareness. As an environmental studies student and activist, I’ve made being confronted with these realities and trying to deal with them the main focus of my life, and it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed with despair and hopelessness sometimes.

    But over the six years that I’ve spent fighting environmental injustice, I’ve realized that to do so requires me to be an emotionally resilient individual. Whether marching with four hundred thousand people in the largest climate rally in history or helping to build natural houses for low-income families in an intentional community, I have to believe that my actions can ultimately make a difference, but only if I trust others to do the same. For every new climate change study released detailing how much worse the future will be if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, a village somewhere installed their first solar array. For every free trade deal that gets passed, someone starts a locally owned business geared towards supporting small farmers. Across the globe, millions of people are actively part of a massive environmental and social justice movement to create a more equitable world. Yet what gives me hope is not faith in the power of this movement to spur “innovation” or creatively designed solutions to the world’s problems, but rather to foster the love and solidarity needed to create a sustainable global community.

  7. Hannah Root says:

    I am very hopeful for the future, mostly because of my work in this field of study. I am inspired everyday by the work that people are doing to move our society back to caring for our planet. I absolutely recognize the enormous challenges that we face, and also realize that we may not be able to change the course of global climate change. However, I believe in the creativity inside of all of us, and I think that it could definitely save the world.

    I want to be an elementary teacher for this reason, and I think that my focused goals for the future help me be hopeful. Teaching, although greatly undervalued in our society today, is one of the most important jobs. Teachers can help children realize their creative potential and, even more importantly, their ability to make change in the world. I have had the fortune to meet some teachers who are doing this now, and I am so inspired by their work and their students’ work. Nature brings out kids’ natural curiosity, and when teachers take advantage of that, children are intrinsically motivated to participate in class and learn. It’s a way to engage students who might not thrive in the traditional classroom setting. Teachers see more creativity and learning when their students are engaged. I think that the more our youth has positive experiences in nature and connects to specific places, we will see our society shift towards being more environmentally minded and creative. That’s why I want to teach in elementary school with an environmental focus, promoting a connection to place and an understanding of the natural world alongside traditional elementary curriculum. I think that teachers can bring positive change to our society. I am hopeful because we have so many amazing people in our classrooms and I want to join forces with them and change the world.

  8. Benjamin Harris says:

    Though I believe that scientific research and “technocracy”—regardless of their flaws, which Ehrenfeld so aggressively attacks—are necessary drivers of change, I tend to derive my hope from science’s counterpart: art. The way I see it, art can be more than passive “absorption,” like watching films from the armchair, or admiring museum paintings from a distance away. Art of this variety can come off as pretentious (e.g. art collectors) or elitist. Instead, I’m excited by what might be called “social art,” which embodies the idea of hope as “a verb with its sleeves rolled-up.” As David Orr’s quote suggests, I’m talking about the forms of environmentalist expression that are more practical (pragmatism is “power through practice,” says Ehrenfeld) than “pretty,” at least in the classical sense. It’s an art genre that is accessible to the laypeople. It’s the kind of emotional outpouring that appears, sometimes spontaneously, always passionately, in the streets or in the soil—in other words, at the grassroots level. In an urban setting, this social—or activist—art appears as mass demonstrations and marches, like the watershed moment that was the People’s Climate March last fall. In the past, I’ve viewed environmental protest through a somewhat skeptical lens. The reason? I saw this sort of citizen organizing as futile because I expected too much from it—and of course my hopes were dashed, since eco-art isn’t a silver bullet solution. My perspective has since shifted; as McKibben maintained, people’s art may not trigger large-scale change, and it may not persuade stubborn leaders. But it has the ability to draw the spotlight and shift the dialogue to neglected (or conveniently avoided) topics. McKibben seems to say that whether any new legislation arises in the aftermath of an environmental demonstration is not the point; the protest, in itself, can be enough, because it raises publicity and forces politicians to acknowledge controversy.

    In the end, hope is a matter of perspective for me. The future looks bleak when I weigh the odds. The “paradigm shift” that Ehrenfeld deems necessary, to me, seems unattainable. It would take a global “coup d’état” to overthrow the dominant power structures and unsustainable modes of consuming and thinking that cause social injustice and environmental wrong. This is where the inkling of hope enters: so if the system can’t be ousted from its throne, then why not be a thorn in its side? This seems to be the rationale behind McKibben’s rabble-rousing strategy, and I like it. Although he admits that his approach is “low-success pressuring,” shows of solidarity and civil disobedience promote incremental progress. It’s not a sudden reversal of the status quo, but rather a quiet undermining, and in many ways, I harbor greater hope in this type of gradual improvement. Social art is the sort of “continuing inquiry process” that Ehrenfeld sees as part and parcel of sustainability. Environmental demonstrations are recurring, persistent, symbolic “question marks” that keep us on our toes. They probe our collective conscience, asking us—and particularly those in power—to reexamine our priorities and values. Thus, social art, ironically, actually turns over the reins to the very people that it targets: in the end, if social art cannot directly effect change, it strives to make enough of a compelling case that people make the right choice on their own. Hence, I think that art could bring about more authentic change because it doesn’t impose its message; rather, art only reveals to its intended audiences—like governments and corporations—the error of their ways. Ultimately, the decision falls in their hands.

    Repeatedly throughout Flourishing, Ehrenfeld rails against science’s “reductionism,” citing how R & D produces technologies with limited applications, short lifecycles, and high prices. In contrast, socially and environmentally minded art is holistic and inclusive. As its name suggests, The People’s March was an open invitation to all participants—unlike expensive technology, “buying-into” social art doesn’t require a certain income. Social art is also the antithesis of reductionism in another way. Social art that starts “in the soil”—in rural developing countries rather than the streets of NYC—has tremendous networking capacity. I’m truly hopeful in the power of nongovernmental organizations to combine forces and collaborate both within and across sectors such as food, water, health, etc. In Blessed Unrest (which Jack mentioned to us in class on Monday), the author argues that nonprofit partnerships are largely untapped. Through enhancing collective impact, I hope that there can be broader, better change. Just as social art in the form of climate protests relies on average citizens, international development “art”—when executed the right way—lets the local population paint the future that they envision (not outsiders). The movie “Waste Land,” which we watched in Environmental Video Production, illustrates the benefits of local engagement. The film follows a world-renowned artist who employs local trash pickers at a Brazilian landfill. Together, the scavengers create gigantic portraits that are later sold at auctions, and all of the proceeds go to the squatter community. I’m hopeful that international NGOs will follow the lead of art (and artists like Vik Muniz) in building momentum from the bottom-up, thereby avoiding the high-level bureaucracies that Nick Rome bemoans.

    In McKibben’s article about the power of art in climate change dialogue (referenced in his talk), he says, “It [climate change] hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” A final reason for my hopefulness relates to the out-datedness of McKibben’s claims. Ecological-social issues now permeate our culture’s art: there are apocalyptic movies and doomsday parables everywhere you look. I think it’s possible that mass media’s dire warnings, however absurd, can foster the global consciousness that Ehrenfeld wants us (i.e. Americans) to cultivate. For instance, the recent craze about zombies is really, when you get right down to it, all about environmental and societal collapse. “Pogo,” the comic strip character and anti-pollution poster child of the 20th century, might say that, yes, we have met the enemy zombie…and he is us.

  9. Timothy Harper says:

    It is easy to give in to despair when you study the environment. The world has so many issues and none of them seem to be getting any better. How do we find the energy to work on a problem that we aren’t even sure we fully comprehend? A problem that many don’t even agree is a problem? It seems unlikely at best that we will be able to find a solution as the population continues to grow.
    I draw my hope from my experiences out of the classroom, observing the driven people that are already trying to find and contribute to the solution. There are so many innovative people at all levels of society that are passionate about making this world sustainable and it is their work that gives me hope. Locally, I see grassroots campaigns all over the world advocating for sustainable lifestyles and helping to raise awareness within small communities. I have seen organizations in several developing countries, even where people don’t have basic necessitates like food and water that are helping people to develop in a sustainable way. It is heartening to see even in the most dire of circumstances that the cause of sustainability is gaining ground.
    On a larger scale, it is hard to put faith in the ability of the system to change. Our sprawling, multi-lateral institutions can be hard to identify with however when you meet with the people that are pushing the cause of sustainability from within it gives me hope. I have had the opportunity to observe the UN headquarters in Nairobi where there are hundreds of highly educated and passionate people planning and innovating in the search for a sustainable solution. My own school, a massive institution that has 100,000 undergraduates throughout the system, is beginning to show signs of change, driven by passionate faculty, students, and administrators, from curriculum changes, to a thriving composting program to investments in renewable energy and healthier farming practices. These institutions can seem inhuman and inaccessible but when one has a chance to see the passion and drive that the people who work in and run and these large institutions, as well as the access and capacity that the institution gives them, it is easier to draw some hope from them.
    There are so many people across all levels of society that are working towards sustainability as flourishing and in seeing the ubiquity of our goal I am given hope that we can come together to solve these issues. The true solution is going to require a society wide effort, and seeing how much the sustainability movement has permeated our society already gives me a great deal of hope.

  10. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    I actually have a lot of hope for the future that I think stems from my faith in my generation and the millennials. I think there are major shifts in pop culture and the values of my generation are different from older generations. The DIY movement, thrift shop explosion, small farm revitalization and go local movement are a distinct shift from traditional values and were pushed by our generation. I see people in my generation choosing to live differently than our parents: we don’t want the suburban dream or tons of stuff. We want worldly experiences, good stories to tell, socially and environmentally responsible clothes, local food. We value critical and independent thinking, doing things differently and breaking the American dream mold. We fight for families with one or two parents, with two moms or two dads, affordable education for everyone, and the right to healthcare.

    I’m not saying I have a lot of hope that we will be able to stop the climate change crisis before it causes a huge amount of human suffering and forever changes the natural systems of earth. I think the urgency is too slow to build, change is too slow to take hold and, to some degree, the damage has already been done. But, I do have a lot of hope that my generation will learn to live with this and change our belief system to exist in the future world in greater harmony with the earth and with each other. I also have a lot of hope in future generations to think even more differently than we do. We will carry a lot of our parent’s values and many of those I think we will not be able to move away from. But I hope that future generations will.

  11. Ali Surdoval says:

    I often think about hope as a choice. I expose myself to as much information as possible regarding the study of the environment, trying to hear many varying opinions along the way, then I take a step back and evaluate the information I’ve gathered in terms of the question, how can this be useful? Anyone telling me that efforts to make change are futile because we’ve already caused too much damage to undo, I acknowledge then promptly let those opinions float by. When I hear about all the species that have gone extinct as a result of human activity, I keep that nugget of info with me, letting it inform how I make present decisions, but I don’t let it dictate my opinion of all humans. Hope, to me, is focusing on the things that can be used to make positive change.

    I often wonder, what is the point of not being hopeful? Whether or not it is actually possible for humans to coexist sustainably on earth, it would be senseless not to try to make it happen. My hope is manufactured out of practicality. No good comes out of not being hopeful. If there is a chance for positive change to be made, we need to believe in it. Having hope is what allows us to make change.

    Another source of my hope comes from the fact that I don’t think about environmental success in terms of whether or not the human species survives. No species can live forever on earth– that is not what evolution has taught us to believe. It wouldn’t mean that we failed the environment if humans no longer exist. My drive to affect change is motivated by thinking holistically about the earth, not only about humans.

    Finally, I choose hope in part because it is a healthier way to live. I wouldn’t be happy if I believed that environmental efforts were futile. I try to be as realistic as possible, but my life is short in the grand scheme of things, so I’m going to choose hope and happiness wherever possible.

  12. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    I relate to Ehrenfeld’s sentiment about maintaining hope without actually being optimistic about the future. As a fairly cynical person, I am pessimistic. I don’t believe that humans can turn around all of the degradation of natural systems that we have started. I don’t believe that we can pull ourselves out of institutional systems of oppression. I believe that we have started and are on our way to completing a massive global development wave which will only lead to more and more consumption. We view this development and spread of capitalistic consumerism as the only way to reach a higher standard of living. Despite being witnesses of the terrible ecological destruction that industrialism brought in the past few centuries, we continue to implement and rely upon the same basic energy and food structures while consuming ever more. The solution to our deep-rooted socio-economic maladies has long been seen as a shift in technology rather than any sort of shift in thinking and behaving. At this point, it is simply too late for us to prevent certain disastrous effects of climate change.

    All this being said, however, I am still hopeful about the future. It may be nothing more than my personal happy disposition that fuels this hope, or it may be something bigger. I do see lots wonderful people doing incredible work and organizing across the globe. Technology is advancing at alarming and exciting rates, including renewable energy sources and energy storage (Tesla’s powerwall). I want to pursue this route of education because in the off chance that we may be able to make a real difference, I want to be a part of that. I know that if I were to lead a life ignoring environmental problems and sustainability I wouldn’t be satisfied. I care so much about the earth and the natural environment that I feel inextricably tied to them, and therefore have little choice but to learn more about what I can do to try and progress into the future.

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