The TH Interview: David Orr (Part Three) Where Hope and Optimism Split


In the final portion of our three-part interview with David Orr, the environmental polymath bring us to the 30,000-foot view and points to where hope and optimism must go their separate ways. With his closing thoughts, Orr reminds us that true hope means staring down the barrel of a gun.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download. (Listen to Part One here and Part Two here.)

Full text after the jump.
TreeHugger: So let's talk about hope for a minute. You've got some interesting things to say about how hope and optimism differ. As you point out, we've got greenhouse gas levels higher than they've been in the past 650,000 years. In such a situation you liken optimism to "whistling past the graveyard." But then you write that, "nonetheless, we like optimism and optimistic people. They soothe, reassure and sometimes they motivate us to accomplish a great deal more than we otherwise might. But sometimes optimism misleads, and on occasion badly so. This is where hope enters."

Explain this, what's the role of hope and how does it differ from optimism?

David Orr: Well, I said a little bit further on that to be optimistic is like being a New York Yankees fan with Mariano Rivera on a mound when you're up by a run, you've got two outs and two strikes on a 200 hitter. Optimism at that point is simply prediction you're going to win.

Hope is rather more like being a Boston Red Socks fan. I said in that article [The Carbon Connection] that hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. If you're a Boston Red Socks fan or a Cleveland Indians fan you live by small percentages. And you believe that 200 hitters sometimes do rise to the occasion and drive the runner home and win the game.

But I don't think either optimism nor pessimism is a very useful position. Optimism because it simply misleads—the odds are not in our favor. And pessimism because it's paralyzing. But hope is something different.

Hope is a sober quality. It says, "whatever the odds, I am going to do my best to change it, to see a way through it." Hope requires the courage to stare down the barrel. Optimism is often rather phony and not terribly sober. I've sat through a lot of talks and I think I have unfortunately given a few of them, that are optimistic because I think that's what the audience wants to hear, and that's what the audience rewards. But it's a tougher talk to have to describe hope as our best shot.

Winston Churchill, in saying, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat", certainly was not being optimistic, but neither was he being pessimistic. He was, in that sense, being hopeful but honestly so. Odds are long. And there's going to be a lot of suffering before we get through this.

I think the best advice I've heard on this subject came from E. F. Schumacher in a book written back in 1970s when he said that if you ask a question: "can we survive," and the answer comes back "no," then it's eat, drink, and be merry and despair. If your answer comes back "yes," then you may not do your best to work on it, you just assume "yeah, we're going to survive." His advice was: don't even pose the question; just get down to work.

I like that advice. I don't know for sure what the odds are. I think I know I have an opinion about it. When Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal from Cambridge University, wrote his book "Our Final Hour," he had looked across the record of all the threats to human kind and believed that we had less than a 50/50 chance to make the year 2100.

That's a prediction and I understand that. H. G. Wells and other people made predictions similar to that a long time ago. But I think that to be hopeful is, in that Schumacher sense, simply not to pose the question. It's just to get down to work and try to change the odds in every way that you can.

TreeHugger, you guys are reaching thousands and thousands of people that otherwise aren't reachable. is doing its thing, and Wangari Maathai in Kenya is doing her thing. You see this rising tide of effort that Paul Hawken describes in Blessed Unrest as the largest movement in history. It's a planetary immune system, in his words. And I like that kind of thinking. I believe that's what is happening.

But I think you have to put that into perspective. There is a rising understanding of where we are, but on the other hand there is a remorseless working out of big numbers: carbon in the atmosphere, biological loss of species, spread of nuclear materials—it's just a remorseless working out of things.

I think we're in a kind of a race, aren't we? And I do think we're going to pull through. But it's going to be closer than, I think, we'd otherwise like it to be.

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