Angle of Repose

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The Geography of Hope Conference has been held in the village of Point Reyes Station, California, since 2008 and has become one of the country’s most significant literary festivals. It brings, you might say, the natural and the cultural imaginations together for mutual invigoration and creative synthesis. Recent events of this ongoing program have explored the overall theme of “Practicing the Wild,” a notion that is understood not only with respect to the natural world, but also as an inextricable part of human character and culture.

The 2013 conference, held last March, was called “Igniting the Green Fire: Finding Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.” This conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Humans and Nature, together with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and several other groups, and was a gathering of the world’s foremost Aldo Leopold experts. Green Fire, the 2012 Emmy Award-winning film about Aldo Leopold’s life and conservation legacy, was shown at the conference and was discussed by many of those who made the film and shaped the ideas presented in it. The lead article in this issue of Minding Nature by John Hausdoerffer grows out of a concluding presentation that he gave at the conference.

The striking phrase and metaphor, geography of hope, derives from the writer Wallace Stegner. In a letter concerning the preservation of wilderness areas, he observed: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Let us pay close attention to what Stegner, no careless user or waster of words, says here. We need to reassure ourselves of our sanity. Why? Because we are all too capable of losing it. And what sanity? Not our sanity as human minds only, but our sanity as whole “creatures.” The reassurance concerning sanity to which Stegner refers is the sanity that comes from remembering that we are indeed materially embodied and ecologically embedded. That sanity is fragile and often lost because we so often do think ourselves to be otherwise, and behave as if we were. Wilderness by its very existence returns us to sanity by restoring the awareness of our creatureliness. Wild places remind us of the nature of ourselves.

Stegner then goes on to say that this reassurance and remembering are part of a larger structure of mind, a more comprehensive “earth writing” (geo graphie) of hope. Wildness is an essential part of the earth we write. Its loss would diminish the geography of our lives. To me at least, the notion that hope has a geography—a writing that is from and of the earth—suggests that hope is something more than a sentiment or an emotion only. Hope denotes an active stance in the world, not simply an emotional orientation toward it. Hope’s geography is best understood as a public, outer engagement, not as a private, inner mental state.

Interpreted in this way, hope cannot be divorced from the natural in either its wild or domestic condition. On a planet without wild nature, the geography of hope would be rewritten drastically, its maps redrawn. Perhaps it would not make sense to speak of “hope” in such a place at all. Hope, then, is something other than a belief that something (good) will happen. Hope is not an empirical report or a prediction. It subsists apart from expectation or optimism. It is, as Emily Dickinson knew, without feathers, without the adornment of a confident account of reality that entails the arrival of the object of our hope.

On the other hand, I do think that hope is worldly in the sense that there must be some grounds for it in what we do understand (through science and history and cultural experience) to be natural laws and social possibilities. Hope is engaged public activity with a purpose. It is an intentional and enabling act of mind and heart that makes sense because the present is subject to change for the better. If a creature’s geography of hope could not exist in a wholly artificial world, neither could it exist in a static world of determined possibility, or in a world entirely without the prospect of social change and moral improvement. In a thoughtful book by Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, we see an example of the second of these conditions in the closing of a culture; in the continuing and even accelerating effects of human activity on global warming, biodiversity, and bio-geological processes, we may eventually see the first of these conditions in wounded ecosystems of profoundly diminished resilience.

Therein lies the rub of central problems with global ecological governance today, especially democratic governance in the most developed and intensively carbon-using countries. That governance, seemingly incapable of undertaking sufficient measures quickly enough to be meaningful to long-term global warming and climate change, poses a lethal threat to our geography of hope. By century’s end we may have rewritten the earth into a map and a landscape of despair.

Remapping hope in the ecological realm on a large scale is insidious, happening with something akin to what the philosopher Hegel called the “cunning” of history—that is to say, behind our backs and with our unwitting collusion. By the time we comprehend what is happening, it may be too late to stop it.

I must say that I come across this alarming idea all the time in what I am reading for my work these days. One recent example comes from Lisa-ann Gershwin’s book Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. Jellyfish are ancient, hardy, and tenacious creatures. Marvels of reproductive evolution, they are transforming the oceans of the world. This is going on below the level of our political radar and with a good deal of assistance from our own rapacious use of the world’s fisheries. Suffice it to say that, like ourselves, jellyfish are not a species whose behavior is conducive to flourishing biodiversity. If unchecked, they exhaust life and then move on. Gershwin describes her sense of the “cunning” of this truly radical transformation of the biosphere in the following terms:

When I began writing this book,  . . . I had a naive gut feeling that all was still salvageable. . . . But I think I underestimated how severely we have damaged our oceans and their inhabitants. I now think that we have pushed them too far, past some mysterious tipping point that came and went without fanfare, with no red circle on the calendar and without us knowing the precise moment it all became irreversible. I now sincerely believe that it is only a matter of time before the oceans as we know them . . . become very different places indeed.

Once again Wallace Stegner provides us with an enabling act of mind to comprehend what is happening to us, this time in his metaphorical use of a notion from physics called the “angle of repose.” This, of course, is the title of one of his best known novels, a powerful and disturbing study of aging and intergenerational conflict. The angle of repose is the maximum slope at which a conic pile of loose particulate solid material (such as soil) will remain stable and not collapse. It involves the equilibrium between gravity and friction, forces that bring structures down and that keep them up. Now often referred to popularly, as Gershwin does above, as a tipping point, the angle of repose provides a kind of physical, biological, and economic limit from which we should maintain a safe operating margin through the governance of our activities. Atmospheric carbon pollution leading to climate change is an example of something that has an angle of repose we are not respecting.

Can we retain hope that this angle of repose will be sustained? That the equilibrium between gravity and friction—and their metaphorical extensions into human purposive and institutional activity—can be maintained? That the upright shape and functional integrity of the soil, the land, the biosphere can endure beyond this century?

From a variety of perspectives, the articles and reflections in this issue of Minding Nature address the challenges of hope, resilience, sustaining balance, dynamic tension, and the ethical responsibility human beings have for their own future and the future of the living world.

John Hausdoerffer’s article grows out of the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference and reflects on the conversations that took place there about change, about letting go, and about the co-evolution of iconic ideals, such as the land ethic, and our hopeful geographies. He recalls Leopold’s remark that an ethic evolves in the mind of a thinking community. But he points out that today the “mind” of our “thinking community” has grown more diverse, more global, more urban, more politicized. It is in this uncharted territory that the geography of hope must be mapped anew.

Continuing a discussion begun on natural resilience in the May 2013 issue, Jake Bornstein takes up the cognate notion of social resilience and asks a fundamental question: Can we meet the challenges that increasing strains on our climate, resources, and economies will pose without some viable conception of the human and the common good? All visions of the future bring with them different types of social resilience that themselves depend on conceptions of what it means to be human. When discussing resilience it is not enough to simply propose a solution without examining its implicit moral assumptions.

Daniel Caston pursues a point about the nature of the good to be aimed for in conservation and ecology by suggesting the notion of biocultural stewardship. He argues that past discussions concerning bioculturalism and those concerning ecological stewardship have not sufficiently engaged one another, yet do have potential for cross-fertilization. Biocultural stewardship provides a perspective on land-use practices and governance that is culturally relevant to indigenous cultures and illuminates pathways for Western cultures to recognize the interdependence of people and nature. He argues that it would foster conditions for creating relationships with indigenous cultures to promote biological and cultural conservation and relearn indigenous understandings of alternative ways for humans to relate with the natural world.

The reflections in this issue carry on this theme. Michele Battle-Fisher brings the question to bear in an urban setting. How does the geography of hope work there? She reviews the discussion of various approaches to creating green space and an ecological sense of place in cities, but she insists that these conversations must engage with equally fundamental questions about social justice. Hope for her takes the active form of insisting that there be parity of access to these newly designed green communities regardless of income.

In his reflection on evolutionary continuity, Earon Davis finds that the necessary human motivation to live sustainably is there, in our primate genes. The problem is that without understanding our primate nature, we have created cultures and expectations that undermine our sustainability while seeming to support it.

Finally, John de Graaf turns our attention to political economy and the shortcomings of a growth-oriented system. If we are to save the planet from the impacts of unbridled economic growth and, at the same time, provide access to gainful employment for millions who lose their jobs due to increased labor productivity, reduced work-time must be part of the solution. This essay considers how people can be healthier and happier without constant economic growth in rich countries, while continuing to provide for increases in the standard of living for those in the less developed parts of the world. Workers of the World, relax.

The Last Word provides a poem drawing on wisdom and perspectives from Navajo culture by Lyla June Johnston. Her title and her text embrace wonderfully the message of this entire issue of Minding Nature.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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