readings in the twilight between hope and despair

Two pages from the birdwatching notes of Olli Rissanen, the author’s father, from 1959.

“Extinction is a rupture in the world. Each time a species is lost it takes with it not just its genetics, but its nature, its way of being in the world. And as it does the universe is lessened.” James Bradley

My intention with sharing these readings is to provoke thought, and more so, emotion that leads to action. We cannot afford to remain indifferent, placid, inert, calm. Regarding the title, hear Greta Thunberg: “And yes, we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” If you’re drowned in a morass of inaction, please read at least one of these articles: reading can be an action from which other actions emerge. The two texts by James Bradley were recommended to me by Zoe Sadokierski, a friend and collaborator. We are processing and documenting our reaction – mostly grief – to the sixth extinction in Precarious Birds, aiming to give some flavour and form to the irrevocable losses but also the inspiring stories of seeming resurrection and hopeful recovery. Perhaps these excellent texts will spur you into actions, small or large, germinating hope wherever you travel.

‘The End of the Oceans’ by James Bradley, in The Monthly.

Bradley reviews our blunder of Earth’s oceans, through the systemic removal of its inhabitants for our consumption, and more recently, through heating and acidifying the oceans to the brink of unlivable for many of the remaining inhabitants. A while ago I wrote about us humans replacing other life with us, and Bradley’s piece gives that substitution painfully detailed shape. His descriptions of marine abundance seems like an oceanic version of accounts of Passenger Pigeon, still found in unfathomable flocks less than two centuries ago in eastern North America. Those of you in that part of the world, take a moment outside, look up, and imagine a flock of birds passing over for an entire day – “a feathered river across the sky”. What else, or who else, are we willing to lose?

‘An Ocean and an Instant’ by James Bradley, in the Sydney Review of Books.

This struck me: “The philosopher Glenn Albrecht writes of what he calls solastalgia, a form of existential grief caused by environmental change. His intention was to create a term to capture the psychic dimension of climate change, but I wonder whether the term might equally describe the feelings of loss associated with the passage of time.” I didn’t have the word during my UTS Library residency in 2017; I recognise the feeling, both my own and of the generous strangers I had conversations with during those nine weeks. For the next two weeks I am working on Pieces of a Continent, a project with Salla Salin, my long-time collaborator on 15%. The work arises from land and from place experienced across different timescales. We will visit some of the sites my father went birdwatching in 60 years ago – see image above – to see who is there now, who is there still. I expect some of those feelings of solastalgia to arise. In my father’s book there is a record of a Northern Shoveler nest in Pikku-Huopalahti, now a fully developed, built-over small bay in Helsinki. While still a breeding bird in Helsinki at large, that bay is an unlikely home for them today. Bradley writes: “…the destruction of ecological communities by human cities and farms is so normalised it is invisible. In human terms this process is slow, accretive, but in geological terms it is shockingly swift.”

‘Loving a Vanishing World’ by Emily Johnston, in Medium.

Johnston builds along the lines of Bradley, on the profound loss of our time, calling out the systemic causes in the present. The liars, the villains Johnston refers to, are the fossil fuel executives who, with complicit politicians, for more than three decades have spent unimaginable sums of money to sow distrust in science to maintain their structures of wealth creation. Johnston acknowledges the uneven privilege that either enables or not this work of resistance and action. That privilege has a direct correlation with the increasingly uneven distribution of wealth in this world: I am one of the privileged. As she calls to those of us who are able: “Our goal can and must be … to use our leverage this week, this month, this year, this decade as best we possibly can.” I am far from a perfect exemplar of this work, but I take it upon myself to continuously elevate what I do, to continuously reduce my impact, to give up, one by one, what previously seemed indispensable. Individual actions may seem hopelessly significant and we drown in the internal cynicism, but if a new individual action is an embodiment of a permanently altered worldview, its power is immeasurable. Keep sharing the worldview: become Teflon to others’ cynicism. Stand in possibility, and act from there. Hear Johnston’s call: “We have beautiful work to do before we die.”

Teaching makes me hopeful. Many of my students refuse to accept the structural injustices that my generation and I have mostly inherited but have not dismantled, and worse, have allowed to grow. This past spring I co-taught a lecture course, Waste and Justice, with Joel Towers. We developed the course within the Tishman and Environment and Design Center where both Joel and I serve. Joel’s work in sustainability spans three decades; for example, he worked on the Hannover Principles with William McDonough and Michael Braungart, work that led to Cradle to Cradle and more. In Waste and Justice Joel made the point that we think in the wrong geological era. Our thinking is in the Holocene, when we exist and live firmly in the Anthropocene. Shifting a mindset, a paradigm, is often challenging, but as we have learned from Donella Meadows, it is among the most effective leverage points for systems change. And total systems change is what we urgently require. It maybe difficult to imagine now but nonetheless, try it. In seeking inspiration to imagine, we must make space for diverse voices from Greta Thunberg to Winona LaDuke to Vandana Shiva to Kate Raworth and others. Radicalism may feel uncomfortable but shying away from radical ideas will cause more discomfort in our lifetimes than we are able to imagine today. These are times for unreasonable imagination.

2 responses to readings in the twilight between hope and despair

  1. Zoe says:

    What a beautifully eloquent roundup. Can’t wait to talk more and share more readings and projects x

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  1. […] The Ortolan Bunting and Yellow-breasted Bunting were plentiful during the first decade of my childhood. (I was born in 1975.) The latter was never common in Finland; the country was on the edge of its distribution, but it was an abundant birds throughout its range across northern Eurasia. Well, no more. Yellow-breasted Buntings are no longer seen in Finland every year and more than a decade has passed since the last documented breeding. The Finnish population of Ortolan Bunting has declined 99% in my lifetime. It is a bird I remember from my childhood, now at risk of vanishing completely from Finland within a decade or two. Both birds are caught in large quantities and eaten; the Yellow-breasted in its wintering grounds in China, the Ortolan during migration through the Mediterranean. Eating an Ortolan is an ignominious tradition in France. While habitat loss due to changes in farming is impacting the Ortolan, I can’t help but ask: is eating these birds out of existence worth it? We did it with the Passenger Pigeon and then repeated it with the Eskimo Curlew: we replaced them with more of us. […]