Hope. It’s as essential as the air we breathe. And yet, here in America, a land full of plenty and potential, it often feels like we are trying to run on residual whiffs of hope. Daily, we struggle with surging inflation, learn about labor and supply shortages, and witness rising divisions among us, but rarely do we hear or speak of a more ephemeral, a more serious thinning of confidence and hope. Given the strength, scale, and persistence of our problems, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many feel beaten down, hoping for a silver bullet from somewhere and eager to support pundits who might be political saviors.
Amid the weight of these challenges, looking for some ray of hope to hang onto, I came across a description of David W. Orr, Oberlin College Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics Emeritus, who stated, “Hope is a verb.” In 2008, alumna Elizabeth Weinstein said of him that he “moved about the world with an aura of hopeful energy, and when asked what kept him going even when it felt like the world was falling apart, he said: ‘Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hope is always busy trying to change the odds.’”
While it’s natural to feel small relative to the challenges that beset us, I submit that it’s worth recalling how small acts toward our betterment are often cumulative, rippling farther and wider than we ever imagine and sometimes even effectuating progress exponentially. While it’s true that human history often turns on the decisions made by “leaders,” sometimes, perhaps more often than we might think, significant progress is built on the choices of ordinary people ahead of “leaders.”
While millions of examples of “hope with its sleeves rolled up” punctuate our history, one particularly bright and instructive example is Martin Luther King’s battle to end racism. It began in 1955 when the minister of a small Alabama church spoke out against segregation on a city bus. MLK chose a life full of seemingly small acts of kindness, defiance and encouragement, and look what happened. While few of us will likely be as effective as MLK, he certainly provided us with a vivid, indelible example of hope “with its sleeves rolled up.”
In 1968, the Vietnam War was ravaging the lives of young adults, and discrimination and racial violence were lurking around dark corners and perpetrated in broad daylight. Despite this oppressive fog engulfing him, MLK encouraged us: “We shall overcome because the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Sometimes I wonder what enabled him to speak such words. I submit it was not only his faith but also his long-sightedness and a belief that small acts, by himself and many more like him, would accumulate and bear fruit. Like Gandhi before him, MLK understood that racism, entrenched as it was, could not indefinitely suppress millions of acts of kindness and defiance.
As we consider the global warming crisis barreling toward us, perhaps it would be worthwhile to recall this example of how incrementally, individual citizens and business owners can effectuate change. Tragically, “leaders” around the world, fearing political backlash, have been slow to implement policies at a pace equal to this accelerating challenge. As during the civil rights movement — while “leaders” drag their feet and decades of inaction and a mountain of challenges threaten to quell our hope and still our hand — millions of ordinary people are “rolling up their sleeves,” trying to provide future generations with an environmental inheritance that’s not a disaster.
Some may ask, why sacrifice now for a crisis that has taken decades to create and will take decades to play out? One reason is that incremental reductions in our carbon footprint are cumulative. My reduced purchases of fuel and power won’t do much, but hundreds of millions of people doing likewise adds up to eliminating a lot of global warming emissions and encourages others to follow suit.
A second reason is that the earth compounds our greenhouse gas emissions. For every bit we warm our planet, the earth responds with global warming of its own. As we warm our planet, ice sheets recede and the cloud cover thins, diminishing their reflective protection. The permafrost melts, releasing copious amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The sooner we limit greenhouse gas emissions, the more effective our efforts will be to slow the environmental crises rushing toward us.
While it’s clear that an ordinary citizen can’t change our world, it’s equally clear that each of us can make some contribution toward its betterment, and that those contributions are not only cumulative but compound. Drawing upon what generations that came before us did for us and taught us, one truth becomes abundantly clear: seemingly intractable problems cannot suppress “hope with its sleeves rolled up.”
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