The Geography of Hope in Dark Times

After being challenged by more than one reader about being overly-negative, I’ve been exploring this issue of the relationship between hope and realism, between despair and leadership.

One reader wrote: “This site has descended into a spiral of bitterness and negativity. While I don’t necessarily disagree with anything written, I find the tone the articles have generally taken to so depressing and deflating, in stark contrast to what attracted me to this site in the first place. Granted, the political landscape might look rather bleak, but part of progressive thought and progressive politics is about trying to keep that positivity even in the darker times when it’s most challenging.”

They continued: “I understand that this role may seem like a thankless task, and I appreciate how hard it may be to avoid getting bogged down in the emotional mire that comes with it. It’s times like these were it becomes more important though, there’s an opportunity for Bella to show a bit of leadership here. Continued wallowing in negativity and self pity will only contribute further to the situation, but pushing back, as hard as that may be, with a return to the kind of progressive optimism that made Bella stand out in the first place could help buck the trend.”

It’s a challenging comment. To what extent should writers, and editors, and publications reflect the world as they perceive it, and to what extent should they try and shape it, bend it to their will? One of the things that movements of all kinds need to do is to face reality, not evade it.

One response to the reader, (perhaps instantly defensive), is to reply ‘it’s not up to me to cheer you up?’ Another is to look inwards and reflect on how much output is negative, and what that’s about? A third might be to recognise that, objectively, in many of our political movements, cultural spaces and social reality, there is much to despair about.

This from an essay by Yotam Marom reflects on how people act in moments of extreme crisis or collapse, in which he reflects on how the Jewish resistance responded in the Warsaw ghetto (What To Do When the World is Ending?‘):

“In the moments of wisdom encouraged by these heroes, I remember that despair is my vanity talking. It is an indulgence in the illusion that what is here and now is inevitable, that the future is written, that we can see how it will unfold. Despair is not about reality, or the world, or even ultimately the people we care about. It is about us.”

“Despair is also, quite simply, bad politics. By surrendering the fight outwards, despair refocuses us inward. It encourages what I’ve called the politics of powerlessness, marked by navel-gazing, endless process, posturing, and the internal power struggles and call-outs that weaken our organizations and movements. When we don’t believe we can win, we reach instead for the comfort of being surrounded by people who think and talk and look like us, the thrill of being part of the in-group, the small pleasures of being right and pure. In despair there is no need for good strategy, no need for healthy group culture. These are things we only need if we intend to take a real shot at winning. Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it blocks us from taking agency, which makes it all the more likely that our worse fears will come to pass.”

He concludes “Movements that are hopeful and aware of their power sometimes lose. But groups that don’t believe its possible to win always lose.”

The antidote to this approach is a little more cynical. At the time when Obama weaponised Hope in his campaign he was widely derided from those on the Left as creating a vacuous liberal trademark that bore little relation to his actual delivery. This was, it was argued, the worst kind of ‘false hope’ which actually delivered system-continuity with superficial, surface-only change.


‘How’s that Hopey stuff coming along?’ people would sneer.

It’s important to think about what Hope is not. As is often the case inspiration and clarity comes from people who do rather than people who remain passive.

Hope is also not a general outlook, or an outlook of optimism. Rebecca Solnit wrote a book ‘Hope in the Dark’ in 2005. She writes:

“It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one.”

What all of these writers stress is agency, or hope with a purpose and a plan. What influences despair in most of us is a feeling of lack of agency. We suffer from a torrent of information – most of it terrible and tragic – and with little or no capacity to respond. We doom scroll endlessly in what some have called inter passivity – the appearance that we are interacting ‘clicking’ or ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ but really interacting in only the most passive and ineffective way possible.

This idea appears new but can be seen in the work of Elisée Reclus, who wrote ‘The Geography of Hope, a Guided Tour of the World We Need’ over a hundred years ago.

As the preface to a new collection of work about his ideas puts it: “One of the best-known images from Reclus’ works originally appeared above the preface of his magnum opus, L’Homme et la Terre. It depicts two hands holding the earth, coupled with the statement in French that “Humanity is nature becoming self-conscious.” It is clear that the image indicates not only that the fate of the earth is now in the hands of humanity, but also that humanity can only fulfill its weighty responsibility by acting with an awareness that we are an integral part of nature, rather than continuing under the illusion that we are a power over and above the natural world.”

There is a tension in writing and publishing about how you respond to the world. If Reclus vison gives us historical and geographic context to step away from our own ‘moment’ you can draw inspiration too from Patrisse Cullors (one of the founders of Black Lives Matter) idea to: “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power (and collective transformation), rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”. Her statement perhaps illuminates the fact that despair and rage and grief and hope all coexist.



Comments (29)

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  1. Kevin Mulhern says:

    I only dip into Bella, mainly due to the amount of time I have to devote to reading things.

    I have a gut reaction to this type of criticism. I get these comment from people who are comfortable and feel that a criticism of society at large is a criticism of them, I have been told compassionately the I should ‘relax more’, excuses that things will ‘never change’, or more frequently people just turn away. I completely understand these responses but recently I have been asking whoever is making the criticism what they are doing about these issues.

    In developed countries we are ripe to deal with the internal and external trauma that our dependence on colonialism and the imposition of capitalism globally, which we still propagate and profit from, not to mention out excessive responsibility for the current climate crisis. This must to end, for that to happen we need to change, and it will not happen until we, in the countries that benefit form this arrangement, dismantle these structures. Being hopeful while you are not materially engaged in that process is very close to a definition of insanity.

    If you want to read thing that are a little more hopeful, it is you responsibility to build those stories and provide real hope not just silence any despair, you can then tell Mike or write the story yourself.

    Thank you for Bella and I hope it continues and avoids pandering to this type a sensibility.

  2. David Millar says:

    I’ve given up: I seem to be surrounded by people who are jetting off here, there and everywhere, as if the Climate Crisis were just a distant rumour (maybe that is how they experience it – as a distant rumble in the sub-conscious). And Edinburgh is full of slow-moving people from all over the planet willing to pay large sums to experience ‘The Fringe’; strange that this event started as a sort of counter-cultural movement. If I broach the subject of our boiling planet, I am looked upon as some sort of Malthusian figure, tricked out in ash and sackcloth.

    I disagree with the post above this: I prefer my news about the world straight; not laced with the artificial sweetener of ‘Hope’.

    Bella: keep on telling it like it is.

    1. Cathie Lloyd says:

      I’m not sure there can be such a thing as the straight news you’re wanting. The present context like any other contains limitations setbacks but also opportunities and political lessons. That’s what I seek in commentaries. And do find it a lot of the time in Bella

  3. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I’m surprised you don’t quote Gramsci here to have pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Writing political commentaries surely involves an element of leadership along those lines. Best not to frighten people into quiescence but rather look for the green shoots. Remembering a brilliant course I took at Birkbeck in the early 80s Paul Hirst got us reading Marx’s political commentaries on 1848 and later the Paris Commune. Great lessons there in identifying positive openings even in dark days.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Yes, a Gramscian approach does have much to commend it. However, in my experience too many of those quoting ignore the optimism part and revel in the pessimism, like Private Fraser shouting, “We’re doomed! Doomed!”

      The other concern I have with Gramsci is how much his thinking has been influenced by his lived experience in prison under his former comrade, Mussolini, and by his disability. His is a remarkable body of work and is an example of hope. He did something, and Mussolini recognised that when he said, “We need to stop that brain working.”

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks for this article and congratulations for having the courage to publish it, reflect on it and produce a genuinely hopeful response.

    As it happens, I disagree with the reader whom you quote, because in my experience as a reader since the site was launched, that the site has almost always been considered, recognised issues, but, ultimately, presents actions which can be taken. It is hopeful and optimistic. Of course, there have been articles which have been gloomy and unrelieved by shafts of wit. But seen in the context of the range of articles published these have their place, but are unrepresentative of the general trend. Sometimes I have felt that some of these gloomy pieces were, in fact, savagely, ironic and, on other occasions I have felt that you are letting transient feelings out and there are times when most of us feel like that.

    I think one of the writers whom you quote gets to the heart of it: hope is about agency – there is almost always something one can DO. It is the essence of existentialism – I do, therefore I am. Many of those in the Warsaw Ghetto DID something. Ultimately almost all of them perished, but they celebrated their humanity by DOING. As Mao Tsedong wrote in his ‘red book’, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Now, Mao was responsible for the deaths of millions, but, he also transformed the lives of millions of others, often for the better. However, whether one celebrates his life or does not (and I do not largely do so) the truth of that quote, perhaps trite, is, nonetheless accurate. If we want change, we must DO something.

    My mother had a friend and neighbour, who lived in poverty and was on occasion the victim of domestic violence and there were many occasions when my mother had to comfort her (and she did the same for my mother, when required). After a while, she would dry her eyes, brush her hair and say, “Well, Rachel, there were bigger losses at Culloden, so, let’s get on with what we have to do.” This is what hope is about. Eventually, she got a council house with a garden and lived with one of her daughters and grandchildren until she was well into her 70s. She was happy!

    So, keep up the offerings of hope, Mr Small. You are DOING something.

  5. 230827 says:

    Albert Camus reckoned that the fundamental question of human life is whether or not that life is worth living.

    Why shouldn’t we just top ourselves? Or refuse to bring children into the world? The world is going to hell in a handcart, and there’s f*ck all we can do about it. Why shouldn’t we despair?

    According to Camus, the absurdity of human life arises out of the tension between the way the world is and the way we want the world to be. We want the world to be just and fair, we want evil to punished and virtue rewarded, we want a world in which bad things don’t happen to good people and vice versa, we want there to be answers to questions like ‘Why are we here?’ ‘Where we’re going?’ ‘What does it all mean?’ But we live in a world in which sh*t happens and in which the universe is indifferent to what we want. The world constantly disappoints us and refuses to bend to our violence.

    Having thus diagnosed the essential problem of human life as its own inherent absurdity, the disconnect and tension between the way the world is and the way we variously want it to be, what’s the prognosis? How should we live in the face of life’s absurdity?

    We could try to overcome the life’s absurdity by appealing to ‘God’ or any of its cognates (‘Nature’, ‘History’, ‘Science’, etc.) and taking a ‘leap of faith’ towards that higher transcendent entity in the belief or hope that ‘God’/’Nature’/’History’/’Science’ will ultimately provide our lives with meaning. Camus opposed this form of escapism, claiming that it ‘deifies what crushes us and finds reason to hope in what impoverishes us’.

    Instead of escaping into the bad faith of historicism and deep ecology (and into the clutches of the gangs and gurus who offer and trade in such escapes), we should reject the appeal of the transcendent and embrace our immanent absurdity, the ‘divorce’ between ourselves and the world, the so-called ‘death of God’ that represents our inescapable human condition. In place of the false hope or religiosity of both historicism and deep ecology, we need to cultivate a revolt against the claims that such bad faith makes on our lives.

    Camus narrated his prognosis through the myth of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced by the gods to the pointless task of rolling a large rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again, and to repeat the task for eternity.

    Sisyphus isn’t to be pitied or victimised, however. Sisyphus is rather to be admired as the ‘absurd hero’, as someone he chooses to live in the face of absurdity, to ‘keep on keeping on’, which is all that a body can do, as the activists, Curtis Mayfield and Martin Luther King Jr., used to urge us to do, in the face of despair. The absurd hero is heroic precisely because s/he is choosing to go on despite of the hopelessness of their situation, in solidarity with other who travel with them along the same road. The absurd hero is heroic precisely in their refusal to be crushed despite the evident hopelessness of their situation. Such passion, freedom, and revolt make Sisyphus, the absurd hero, stronger than the punishment that would crush them.

    By embracing the absurdity of his existence, Sisyphus revolts against the gods and refuses the futility of their punishment by consciously living with passion. While they have no realistic hope of changing their situation, the absurd hero uses all that’s available to him to ‘keep on keeping on’.

    We should persist in the face of absurdity and not give ourselves over to false hope. For, ultimately, we’ll live all the better for the fact that our lives can have no meaning, for their being without hope. It’s up to each and every one of us whether we live our lives with passion, freedom, and in a perpetual refusal to give in, or else give ourselves over to false hope or even choose not to live at all.

    By embracing our absurdity, the ultimate hopelessness of our situation, we can thus throw ourselves into the world with a determination to freely be all that we can be. Though we might never reconcile the metaphysical and epistemological tensions that give rise to our absurdity, we can remember that the whole ‘point’ of life, after all, is to live.

  6. Simon says:

    Absolutely brilliant!

  7. SleepingDog says:

    I think the main problem Bella has is lack of any perceivable model of the world it is trying to achieve, a model which addresses all these problems raised. If we are an integral part of nature, then our systems of governance (currently humanist, theocratic, plutocratic etc) must be replaced by biocratic ones, on behalf of and with input and authority from non-human life and systems (for which we have some objective proxy measures of health, and can devise more). This is actually quite a simple step of reasoning, but one which we are strongly conditioned against thinking.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      … and, since it is so ‘simple’, please set out, in simple terms, what your model is.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Alasdair Macdonald, I do not claim that establishing a system of government based on biocratic principles is simple, just that moving from the quote attribute to the Reclus works preface “humanity can only fulfill its weighty responsibility by acting with an awareness that we are an integral part of nature” plus an appreciation that current governance is failing, to a recognition that we need a new form of governmental system is a simple step.

        I’m not here to plug my blog, but you can find some of my thoughts and reference here:

        Earlier writers on the topic were likely dissuaded by an apparent lack of urgency into fully developing their ideas. Our polycrisis, and nuclear and next-generation bioweapons, have provided ample urgency. Taking a first-principles approach, and putting aside what governments we are offered, work out what kind of government we need.

        1. 230828 says:

          I’m between writing projects and was at a bit of a loose end today, so I had a bash at setting out the ecological model.

          Working Title: ‘Spinoza’s Totalitarian Ethics@

          Everything in nature has a conatus, a fundamental will to persist, to actualise or realise itself, according to Baruch Spinoza in his Ethics.

          This conatus operates both in animate objects like humans, trees, bees, and geese, and in inanimate objects such as tables, mountains, and rocks. Even something as transient as a fire will try to keep itself going.

          Spinoza also argued that there’s only one substance. ‘Substance’ (as Spinoza used the term) is anything that’s capable of independent existence; everything whose existence is dependent on something else is a ‘property’ of that something else. Thus, for example, redness is a property of fire engines; I’m a property of the real and imagined communities on which I depend; and so on. According to Spinoza, everything depends for existence on something else. The only exception (and therefore the only real or absolute substance) is the totality of things, outside of which there is nothing on which its existence can be dependent, for the simple reason that there can be no ‘outside’ to the totality of things. This substance is what we variously call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ or ‘the Universe’.

          As you can imagine, this equation of ‘God’, ‘Nature’, and ‘the Universe’ got Spinoza into terrible trouble with the authorities in the 17th century.

          Spinoza got himself into even further trouble when he argued that mind and matter, thought and physical bodies, the subjects and objects of experience, aren’t separate substances, but are modes or properties of the fundamental totality we variously call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’. God doesn’t transcend Nature, as the Abrahamic theists tell is. Nor does God permeate Nature, as the pantheists would have us believe. Rather, they coincide. ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ are just two different names we give to the same absolute substance, of which all things material and mental, psychical and physical, objective and subjective, are properties

          And, to cap it all, he proved all this heresy with geometric certainty. That’s what riled the establishment most of all.

          Unlike a traditional theistic God, Spinoza’s God or Nature has no overall higher purpose, no grand design. Spinoza’s God or Nature is perfectly free insofar as it acts deterministically in accordance with its own internal conatus, but it doesn’t desire anything outside of itself (again because there’s nothing outside of itself that it could desire). Nature simply *is* and is perfect in itself; a closed and self-sufficient system, to which there is no ‘outside’ or ‘other’. This follows analytically, by definition. For, if God or Nature had some purpose outside of or other than itself, it would have to be part of something still greater than itself. But, as the totality of things, as the sum total of everything that is, God or Nature can by definition have no ‘outside’.

          A corollary of this is that God or Nature evolves (change is evident all around and within us) but it does not progress towards any higher goal. Again, there logically can be no higher goal outside the totality of things towards which it could progress; as absolute substance, the totality of things is already perfect.

          Another corollary is that God or Nature is fundamentally egalitarian. There’s no ontological hierarchy of ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ beings. In Spinoza’s totalitarian ethics, we humans are on an ontological par with fish, oceans, beetles, and grains of sand. A fox, roaming in the countryside, matters just as much (and just as little) as the surrounding farming communities on whose chickens it preys. And the chicken matters just as much as the fox, and the chicken-feed just as much as the chicken. In the totality of things, we’re all without distinction modes or expressions or properties of the whole; nothing is privileged within God or Nature. In Spinoza’s totalitarianism, God or Nature as a whole expresses itself in each individual thing.

          For Spinoza, the problem of ethics – the problem of how one ought to live one’s life – centres on a failure to be in practice what one actually is in principle (a mode, expression, or property of the absolute substance in its totality); that is, on a failure of self-actualisation. And this failure is due to the faulty understanding we have of what ‘I’ is.

          According to Spinoza, we tend to confuse ‘I’ with the narrow ego rather than identify it with the totality of things, of which substance that ego is nothing but a property, mode, or expression. The problem of ethics is therefore that our self-knowledge is only partial and incomplete, and this lack of self-knowledge in turn prevents us from acting well; that is, as an authentic mode or expression of God or Nature.

          So, Spinoza’s moral injunction is the age-old philosophical battle-cry of ‘Know thyself, and to thine own self be true.’

          In this light, the so-called ‘polycrisis’ is a moral pain in the *rs*. It seriously hampers our ability for self-expression. Its urgency makes it difficult for us to realise ourselves as human beings. Increasingly, we’re pushed to settle for safety from the immediate threats posed by the degradation of our mental and physical environments. We can’t even begin to think about how to preserve ourselves/the world in all the diverse aspects of our existence and, therefore, can’t really survive. This why the so-called ‘polycrisis’ is so corrosive: it impedes our ability to ‘know oneself’ and to act accordingly.

          Self-realisation implies a unity of acting and knowing. You need to know yourself well – ecologically, as a mode or expression or property of a vast, interconnected system that is God or Nature, and not just as a narrow, isolated ego – before you can act yourself well. Self-knowledge is empowering.

          By contrast, the lack of such self-knowledge immobilises and disempowers us; it leads us to despair. This is why the so-called ‘polycrisis’ is undergirded by a massive denialism, a refusal to see the so-called ‘polycrisis’ as one’s own self-crisis.

          The encouragement of denialism among us is undoubtedly bankrolled by individual and corporate egos that are seeking to profit from our mental and physical degradation. But that denialism also and crucially represents a moral failure – a lack of courage – on our own part, which those profiteers only exploit. As Bruno Latour writes on the polycrisis in his book, Où atterir? (2017):

          “The elites have been so thoroughly convinced that there will be no future life for everyone that they have decided to get rid of all the burdens of solidarity as quickly as possible. Hence deregulation; they have decided that a sort of gilded fortress will have to be built for those who will be able to make it through the crises. Hence too the explosion of inequalities. They have also decided that, to conceal the crass selfishness of such a flight out of our shared world, they will have to conceal or deny, for example, the climate change emergency. To do this, the super-wealthy have tightened their grip on democracy, creating diversions, such as blaming so-called ‘metropolitan elites’ (educated people) for the worsening economic circumstances of working-class people or pointing the finger at precarious refugees arriving in boats on the shores of wealthy countries. The climate crisis also lies behind nostalgic nationalist throwbacks to some imagined past of prosperous independence, of proud nations that we may still now rise to be themselves again.”

          Oh, flower of Scotland!

          Latour argues that these movements are only superficially like early 20th-century fascism. They rather represent a new political order that’s based on denial, in which those who can create gated communities and other escape routes from the coming apocalypse and try in vain to realise themselves in things that are ultimately unfulfilling and empty experiences, such as superyachts, short trips into space or the deep ocean, and buying up entire islands and football clubs and cultural happenings like the Edinburgh Book Festival while they wait for the end.

          And we’re all at it. We all flee the coming apocalypse by trying in vain to realise ourselves in experiences that are ultimately empty and unfulfilling: tat, package holidays and city breaks, and visiting the great outdoors, sporting spectacles like the fitba, and/or cultural happenings like Grayson Perry’s Smash Hits.

          The rich try to pull more and more resources toward themselves by encouraging deregulation and otherwise influencing and subverting the democratic process. Knowing that this consumption is unsustainable, they retreat into increasingly remote fantasies such as TESCREAL (an ideological bundle of transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism), as promoted by writers such as Nick Bostrom, Hilary Greaves, and William MacAskill and by social influencers like Elon Musk.

          These latter envisage a future in which humanity will transform itself into a posthuman state, facilitated by eugenics and AI, colonise the accessible universe, and plunder that ‘cosmic endowment’ of resources to produce astronomical amounts of ‘value’ that will abolish scarcity and, with it, want and distributive injustice. Appealing to the cost-benefit analyses of utilitarian ethics, these writers justify the pain of our current crises by trading it for the happiness of these future posthumans, most of whom will be digital.

          Against these writers and social influencers, for whom everything is essentially fine and the so-called polycrisis is but the birth-pangs of what will prove to be a posthumanist Golden Age, our very own Beth Lord, a professor of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, drawing on Spinoza, argues in her essay, ‘We are nature’, that the world is rather in the grip of ‘bad emotions’.

          Normally, our emotions help us seek out what’s good for us and avoid what’s bad. We’ve three basic affects: joy, sadness, and desire. Desire serves the function of the Spinozaean ‘conatus’: we seek things that bring us joy and avoid things that bring us sadness; overall, these three basic affects drive and guide our self-preservation.

          However, because of the complex ways in which our emotions interact, it’s possible for us to be mistaken in them and to desire things that don’t really help us to realise ourselves. We think that seeking prestige, fame, and wealth seems will fulfil us. But we’re gripped by them instead and become dependent on their power. Rather than making us more substantial as modes or expressions of properties of ourselves, we lose our substantiality to them and become their properties instead. We become enthralled to and dependent on them rather than to (and, perhaps, as a surrogate for) the totality of ‘God’ or ‘Nature’.

          We see these ‘bad emotions’ in everyone. We’re all polycrisis deniers to some extent. We might not literally deny that there’s a climate emergency, for example, but we actively do so by ‘looking away’. We *say* the climate emergency is real, but we rarely *feel* or *act* like it is. We still go to an airline booking site to visit a friend for the weekend. We still dream of seeing the Great Barrier Reef some day. We’ve no plans that match the scale of the change we *say* we need to make to our own lives locally in order to avert the global emergency other than to do stuff that will offset the cost of our ‘carbon footprints’ by unloading it onto someone else.

          One reason for our bad emotions is despair. We feel that addressing global crises demands substantial sacrifices on our part that are nevertheless but a drop in the ocean given the scale of those crises. The polycrisis is so overwhelming.

          Another reason, however, is ego – the feeling that one is a substance or individual in one’s own right rather than a mere mode or expression or property of the larger totality of God or Nature – which inhibits one’s self-actualisation as just such an expression.

          How then do we get out of this situation? How do we overcome denialism and despair?

          Back to Spinoza again… Spinoza talked of one’s self-actualisation as God or Nature as a ‘blessed state’ (‘beatitudo’). He rejected the traditional equation of blessedness with worldly riches and prestige. He himself cynically refused a lucrative and prestigious professorship at the University of Heidelberg, and just as cynically renounced an inheritance that would have made him independently wealthy for life, choosing to continue to eke out his life as a lens-grinder instead.

          Nor did he accept that beatitudo is a kind of divine reward for obeying some authoritative moral prescriptions. For Spinoza, blessedness consists rather in the expansion of the ego into an ecological self, living not just as if one were a part of God or Nature, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, but also as if each individual fly, rose, mountain, cloud, or flicker of flame or sliver of glass were, its own uniquely particular way, an expression of one’s own total being.

          Once one understands oneself ecologically rather than egocentrically, the self-preservation of conatus will drive one to pursue the preservation of the total ecology of one’s larger existence as God or Nature as instinctively as one ‘naturally’ seeks to preserve one’s own ego. And, once one actualises oneself as an expression of the totality of things, death (as Dylan Thomas wrote) shall have no dominion, since one’s substance, of which one’s ego is nothing but a transient property or passing expression, will endure that passing.

          For Spinoza, flourishing, self-realisation or blessedness isn’t the reward of virtue; happiness is virtue itself. Once we achieve it, we no longer have to constrain our desires, because our desires will dissipate in our ecological unity with the ‘rest’ of nature. This unity is our self-realisation a human being: it is ‘nature humanised and humanity naturalised’, as that other great totalitarian thinker, Marx, later put it.

          All the religious and quasi-religious environmentalist talk of ‘restraining productivity and consumption’ and ‘constraining one’s desires’ is nothing but authoritarian, moralistic twaddle. Once we come to know ourselves as ecological selves, and understand how we *are* the fragile ecosystems we supposedly just inhabit and exploits as ‘environments’, temperance will feel less like unctious self-denial and more like spontaneous self-actualisation. We’ll then be able to derive genuine contentment and wellbeing from the production and consumption .

          Active joy in a Spinozist sense lies in an understanding of yourself and your relationship to the world. When her two-year-old son, Jakobi Ra, was killed in a hit and run incident, Shamayim Harris and her community resolved to transform their dilapidated, postindustrial Detroit neighbourhood into a vibrant village. They bought up houses cheap, for a few thousand dollars, and transformed the area into ‘Avalon Village’ with a library, a solar energy farm, STEM labs, a music studio, farm-to-table greenhouses, and more. They provided a ‘home’ for themselves, a space in which self-realisation rather than egoism is the ultimate norm.

          Resilient communities such as Avalon provide space for self-realisation, which is what in Heideggerian terms makes them ‘true’. They enact a new kind of citizenship, a polis that also includes the nonhuman, the totality of God or Nature, as part of its being.

          There’s not one ‘right’ way for us to be. There’s no ideal towards while we ‘must’ or ‘ought to’ progress, as there is in the authoritarian universe of moral tradition and in the utilitarian TESCREAL universe. Nature has no ultimate teleology, no end or purpose. We matter not as we ought to be (according to some authoritarian rule or hedonistic calculus), not as some cultural inheritor of traditional values or future hypotheticals, but as we are right now in our totality (warts and all).

          In the totalitarian universe of Spinozaean ethics, we can envisage a world in which the beings we differentiate as humans, animals, plants, mountains, rivers, etc. have their own diverse and multifaceted identities, but in which they all nevertheless exist in community as modes or expressions of properties of the same totality.

          Our way out of the polycrisis crisis might therefore begin by a totalitarian reconceptualisation of ourselves as ecological rather than egological selves. Under such a reconceptualisation, living well flows easily from the unity of blessedness and virtue. However, that escape might also be difficult because of our own collective denialism and despair.

          As Spinoza writes in the final lines of his Ethics:

          “If the way I have shown… now seems very hard, it can still be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could it be that nearly everyone neglects it? All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

          The way may be hard, but we can at the very least ‘keep on keeping on’.

          1. 230829 says:

            A wee postscript…

            For Spinoza and his contemporaries, politics has to do with how we should manage our public affairs (res publica). In Spinoza’s day, this question focused on the laws by which we manage the city (the realm of our public affairs), the rights we enjoy of the city as citizens, and the obligations we owe to the city as citizens. Spinoza also shared the conceit of his times that the political order should mirror the natural order of things; otherwise, disaster would ensue in the form of civil war and/or anarchy. Civil war and anarchy were to be avoided because of the terrible disruption and suffering they caused. The spectre of civil war and anarchy loomed large over the lives of Spinoza and his contemporaries in the 17th century.

            The primary justification of the city in Spinoza is security: it serves the conatus, the survival instinct that drives all life in its persistence. In this, he was at one with Hobbes in his naturalism and may be contrasted with the classical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hegel, and Marx on the one hand, who held that the primary justification of the city is the moral realisation or flourishing or perfection of our humanity (humanism), and liberal thinkers like Locke and Kant on the other, who held it to be that of guaranteeing the freedom of the individual against tyranny.

            For Spinoza, therefore, justice or good government consists in managing our public affairs in ways that maximise our security. Any measure that the city takes that enhances our security is just, while any that diminishes our security is unjust. Likewise, we as citizens are entitled to the protection of the city and are duty bound to subordinate our private interests to the interests of public safety.

            Spinoza was ambivalent on the matter of sovereignty where power lies. Providing that power was used in the service of public safety rather than the pursuit private interests, it didn’t matter who wielded it as far as he was concerned. Though, in his republican scheme of things, citizens retained the right to remove from power any sovereign that put their collective security at risk by the misuse of that power through corruption or incompetence.

            It’s easy to see how Spinozaean republicanism is attractive to those who are ecologically minded on both the right and the left wings of our parliamentary assemblies or ‘talking shops’. The so-called ‘polycrisis’ threatens our security and does violence to our ‘conatus’ or survival instinct. That ‘polycrisis’ is, according to the ecologically minded, the consequence of our ‘forgetting’ of ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ (the totality of things; e.g. Heidegger’s ‘Being of beings’). The solution to the polycrisis is therefore to reform our politics along more ecological or totalitarian lines, which subordinate both our private interests (which liberals prioritise) and our special interests (which humanists prioritise) to the total interests of ‘God’ or ‘Nature’, of ‘Being as such’, (which ecologists prioritise).

            But, of course, the critical question is: how doubtful is this solution and the ‘Spinozaean’ narrative on which it depends?

            And, or course, the practical question is: given that narrative on which it depends is sound, how on earth would we implement that solution? How would we establish the sort of totalitarian government the so-called ‘polycrisis’ calls for given the current hegemony of liberalism and humanism?

    2. 230827 says:

      I don’t see this as a problem, SD.

      Bella offers a forum in which (among other things) various ‘models of the world’ or ‘visions of Scotland’ can be and regularly are aired.

      It’s good that it doesn’t just publish a single set of prejudices.

  8. Time, the Deer says:

    Thanks for this lovely article. This was just what I needed to read today.

  9. Bill says:

    Do not agree with the criticism. I have four this site to comment, reflect on and to report REALITY. What else can one do when faced with an increasingly right wing fascist media supporting an increasingly authoritarian and fascist Westminster government. Thank you Mike, not only for the above excellent response to the criticism, but also for your ongoing efforts an a number of fronts. You must feel like those in the trenches of the First World War. The interminable conflict and the lack of a finish date or resolution. Thanks to you and Bella, I only need to rant three times a week, instead of daily. At my age that is indeed a health benefit. As I have said before, keep up the good work – Nae Passaran


  10. Niemand says:

    I tend to agree with the quoted Yotam Marom on this. There is great potential for self-indulgence / vanity in a kind of studied despair.

    Reading number person’s post, it explains why it is so common that when friends get together, complaints about how bad so many things are dominate the conversation, as what we imagine life could be, never can be and it is a constant frustration.

    Plus it is easy to complain and it makes good copy. We all love the more negative – how many wholly positive novels would you bother reading?

    But I would say it isn’t so much about not highlighting the bad stuff, but about remaining in that zone so much that it becomes an end in itself.

    The problem for this site is that in terms of what its core focus is, there is so little to be positive about and this has got worse. The standard bad guys of Westminster, arch-Unionists, the Tories, Labour even are now joined by the SNP, and depending on who you talk to, the Greens and Alba (and Salmond) too. Who is there left to support who actually has agency?

    There are articles that are more positive but they tend not to be the political ones, but even these normally touch on some political aspect and generally in a negative way. At least Bella does this though – other sites are simply wall-to-wall despair and anger.

  11. Mark Howitt says:

    Great article.

    Inspired me to do what I should have done ages ago and set up a monthly subscription to Bella Caledonia.

  12. Gordon Benton says:

    Excellent, very timely article … and one which has attracted serious responses.
    it is proving very difficult in researching ‘development sustainability’ to justify any optimism at all with the present athropogenic bootprint on this EARTH. Where can there be faith in, as is mentioned by one of your respondents, any of our present governance concepts, especially the UN and the so-called, catch-all concept, ‘democracy’? Now, with all the evidence we have before us, with lessons surely learned, we, I believe, must first realise and understand and worry enough that the present situation where EVERYTHING is FOR us humans – the car, trees, skies and clouds, the deer and rivers and fish – cannot continue. Humans must now share the governance with the whole of the Planet’s biotic community. Is a biocratic form of government an attainable answer? We are on to something here.

    1. 230831 says:

      I’ve often wondered how non-human lifeforms, such as plants and viruses, would in practice participate in a biocratic system of government. I used to ask Sleeping Dog what the institutions of such a system of government would look like and how they would operate to include plants and viruses etc. in their decision-making processes. Perhaps you, Gordon, could enlighten me.

  13. Duncan Sutherland says:

    “[…] despair and rage and grief and hope all co-exist.”

    A few years ago I met a man outside Brussels central railway station who apparently had ample reason to be filled with despair, rage and grief but exhibited in fact only hope, optimism and determination to overcome the difficulties with which he was immediately faced. He was an Arab, a Syrian refugee. Absolutely genuine beyond a shadow of a doubt. Therefore desperate and potentially dangerous. That being the case I assisted him liberally but only within the bounds of caution. Compassion may save your soul, but realism will keep you alive.

    Today I heard a tale of woe on an Italian television news channel from a sub-Saharan migrant arriving on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, who had been forced out of Tunisia, she claimed, because the Arabs there “don’t like black people”. At the same time the local authority of the island is in despair because its facilities for processing such arrivals properly have been overwhelmed again, as have those of the local authorities of all the Italian towns to which illegal immigrants are sent on from Lampedusa, which is a common arrival point because of its proximity to the coast of North Africa.

    Climate change is pushing sub-Saharan people north into Arab countries which wish to remain Arab countries and which therefore push these people on to Europe, which is now expected to act with the compassion which North African states eschew in favour of what they consider to be realism.

    Italy, which does not wish to be overwhelmed by waves of unwanted migrants, pushes them up into France, which pushes them up to Blighty, which is struggling to cope with the endlessly increasing flow of suffering humanity begging for compassion and Lebensraum. To what is this all leading? Should we despair or just throw caution to the wind and be generously optimistic, bearing in mind that the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds and the pessimist fears that this is true?

    We would do better to be realistic, I venture to suggest. As I was saying, compassion may save your soul, but realism will keep you alive, as any Arab will tell you.

  14. ronald young says:

    Your post inspired this comment
    Always useful to put your thoughts in a more historical context
    I felt the hyperlinks in the article were pretty superficial

  15. Sarah Eno says:

    Gosh it’s hard to digest the many excellent and some confusing replies below. For my pennies worth, it is good to be reminded that despair is a place to drown and getting oneself above it at times is essential. The many civil disobedience campaigns in the USA in the 60’s and 70’s eventually recognised the danger of despair and burn out and worked on methods to combat this. The Resource Manual for a Living Revolution 1977, pub. Movement for a New Society, Philadelphia has a lot of information on preparing for change, actions, and maintaining momentum. Joanna Rogers Macy wrote Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age 1983, same publishers. If both are out of print that is very sad….. because they are both inspirational and full of practical ideas and examples. For me, acting for nature, volunteering and gardening are key to countering despair and there are plenty of opportunities around Scotland, to add one’s mite to bettering the planet.

    1. ronald young says:

      “”The Resource Manual for a Living Revolution@ is available to read for an hour on the archives site – if you google, adding pdf.
      And readers may find this “Note and annotated bibliography on CHANGE” useful

    2. 230831 says:

      I remember that book. It purported to show us how to transform our paralysis and powerlessness in the face of the destruction of all life on our planet into more positive feelings. Its basic thesis was that, we can free ourselves from our despair in solidarity with othersit through ‘workshopping’ (accepting and experiencing) it. By sharing our terror and grief with others, through guided exercises, bodywork, meditation, rituals, and confessional talk (what she called ‘despairwork’), we become released and empowered and, together, find the physical, psychological, and spiritual resources we need to not ‘give up’ and to ‘keep on keeping on’. By keeping on keeping on, we feel hope and joy rather than sadness and despair. It was a kind of cognitive behavioural therapy for activists. It might not save the world, but it would make us feel better about ourselves.

      I was invited to participate in a despair and empowerment workshop in Winnipeg 1982, which was facilitated by a feminist theatre group from Minneapolis after their show. I declined and went for a pint instead.

  16. Doug Haywood says:

    Keep doing what you’re doing Bella. Your collective voices reflect the reality that we face. Sugar coating it with, “optimism” would be childish. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of, “cheer up, it might never happen.”
    Well, it already has and we’re up to out necks in it!

    Clear eyed, sober analysis of the bin fire we are careering downhill in is needed. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Love the quote from Reclus, next stop Bookchin.

  17. Jenny Tizard says:

    Thanks Mike. Loved this.

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