Applied Hope

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With the following essay we welcome back our friend Amory Lovins, who wrote for Prairie Fire last in January 2008. We became reacquainted with Amory at a recent Chicago convention where he was the keynote speaker and graciously made the following essay available to us. It is part of a commencement speech that he delivered on May 15, 2011, at the Natural Science School, University of California at Berkeley, and that included the text of his 2008 Prairie Fire essay. This fall we plan to present a provocative two-part Lovins essay that recently appeared in the “Journal of Foreign Affairs” that is a short version of his most recently released book, “Reinventing Fire.”

By Amory B. Lovins

The early bioneer Bill McLarney was stirring a vat of algae in his Costa Rica research center when a brassy North American lady strode in. What, she demanded, was he doing stirring a vat of green goo when what the world really needs is love? “There’s theoretical love,” Bill replied, “and then there’s applied love”—and kept on stirring.

Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk, knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

Fear of specific and avoidable dangers has evolutionary value. Nobody has ancestors who weren’t mindful of saber-toothed tigers. But pervasive dread, lately promoted by some who want to keep us pickled in fear, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world, all the suffering in the universe, and asks how dare I propose solutions: isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can, “I can see why you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”

In a recent college class, one young woman bemoaned so many global problems that she said she’d lost all hope and couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a world. But discussion quickly revealed to us both that she hadn’t lost hope at all; she knew exactly where she’d left it.

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it—tangibly, durably, reproducibly and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife, Judy, says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

In a world short of both hope and time we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” Hope becomes possible, practical—even profitable—when advanced resource efficiency turns scarcity into plenitude.

David Whyte’s poem “Loaves and Fishes” captures that goal thus:

This is not the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you—relax and keep on going.”

 

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