“But It Won’t Make Any Difference”
The Fishtrap Summer Writers Conference at Wallowa Lake has concluded for another year. This year’s theme was “Living Upstream,” with a focus on environmental issues and writing. The keynote speaker was author and philosopher, Kathleen Dean Moore. She was impressive for the clarity of her thought and for the strength of her convictions.
I’ve mentioned two of Moore’s books, Piano Tide and Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. Piano Tide is Moore’s first novel. Wild Comfort is a collection of essays, the genre in which she has written most often.
One of questions Moore engaged in her talk is tendency of many people to either avoid the issues altogether or to talk themselves out of taking any particular action with respect to climate change, fossil fuel, endangered species and the plethora of related topics.
Many of us tend to think whatever we do won’t make a difference. Or the overall matter of climate change seems so big and so complex that we don’t want to look at it, much less take it on.
Driving on I-90 the other day I passed a trailer hauling a small fleet of motor boats, presumably bound for a retail outlet. Each boat was encased, stem to stern, in protective plastic.
I expend a bit of time and energy trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use and then to recycle what we do. Watching the plastic sheathed yachts motor past, I thought what good do my puny little efforts do in the face of such extravagance?
So Moore addresses this question, both in her fiction and non-fiction. The way we take no action at all because we doubt our puny efforts will do any good.
As a philosopher she calls this line of thought, “consequentialism.” What are the consequences of our actions? Will they make a difference? Will they make the positive difference we hope and intend? Or might they even miss on that score and bring about negative consequences we had not foreseen or considered?
Moore argues against the consequentialist approach. She says that the important thing is that we do the right thing, as much as it is given to us to know what that is, even if the consequences seem limited or impossible to gauge. This seemed connected somehow to the Beatitude of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
She urged first that we must now take action to care for the earth and creation. And second to base our action in our conviction about what is right and required of us without letting the consequences, or apparent lack of consequence (my recycling of plastic), through us off course.
Because Moore is dealing with despair (“nothing will do any good,” “nothing I/ we do makes a difference”) she focuses as well on its opposite, hope.
In an essay in Wild Comfort titled “Thing With Feathers” she finds a metaphor for hope in the determined action of a two-year-old, Linnea. When a sparrow slammed into the window of Linnea’s family’s home and fell dead on the ground, Linnea picked up the tiny bird and refused, despite parental encouragements, to let it go. She held on to that little bird, fiercely.
“Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul.’ But when I think of things with feathers, I think of Linnea’s bird. Hope isn’t what flitters in the alders. It isn’t the possibility of flight. Hope is holding on with this fierceness, even when–no especially when–that makes no sense at all.”
A bit later in that same essay:
“To hold on, to fiercely hold on, even if we believe we are condemned to ‘a life without consolation,’ is the one triumph open to us. In the end, the fact of life so fully seized becomes the consolation.”
In Piano Tide, the protagonist, Nora, tries to escape from action. But the construction of small dam to create a bottling works for “clear, mountain water” will block salmon from spawning. Nora tries to “mind her own business,” and stay out of it. But in the end, she cannot. Even though her actions are illegal and dangerous, not least to herself, Nora cannot help herself from fiercely holding on.
I found this exploration of hope and despair, action and inaction, to be helpful and inspiring. Yes, the environmental issues are daunting. They are overwhelming.
But act, counsels Moore. Do the thing you know to be true and good, while knowing that your capacity to know exactly what is right is limited. Act, hold on, “even when–no especially when–that makes no sense at all.”
This fall there will be measure on the Washington ballot to impose a tax on carbon. It is imperfect legislation, but still important and deserving of support. (A shout-out to friend, Mary Stevens, for her work on this issue.) Working to establish the nation’s first carbon tax may be one way now to “fiercely hold on.”