More Math, Less Hope


As an idealistic thinker, I spend a lot of time pondering how I, a simple mum, can effect meaningful change beyond the walls of my own small house.

Because my voice shakes when forced to speak in gatherings of greater than two, I’ve mostly shied away from attending PTO meetings at my youngest son’s K-8 school, choosing instead hands-on work in the school library. Sometimes, however, I’ve been so moved by what I perceive to be wasteful practices occurring elsewhere in the school that I force myself to speak up.

The annual spring dance is one such event, and last year I went out on a limb and suggested a couple of ways that it could be greened-up:

  1. The PTO could stop selling novelty items, such as finger lights and light-up wands. (You know the stuff: plastic crap shipped halfway around the world that provides fun for an hour and then never ever EVER goes away.)
  2. The PTO could encourage kids to make use of the water fountain, conveniently located just outside the gym doors, rather than providing bottled water for the kids to purchase, take one sip from, and then set down and forget.

My reasoning behind these suggestions was brought on by remembrances of how things were when I was a kid. You know: when I was a kid, dances were just dances; when I was a kid, we drank water from a fountain when we were thirsty.

Although my suggestions were received with the expected objections —

  • The water fountain?!?!?!?!
  • But the novelty items are fun!
  • It’s only a little bit of stuff!
  • Selling all that stuff makes money for the PTO!

— they did, to my surprise, end up scaling back on the novelty items. Although that was the only concession they made, that one gesture left me feeling like we had, at the very least, made a small bit of progress.

So what happened with this year’s dance, held a couple of weeks ago?


It seems we went back to square one: the full plethora of crap for sale and no attempt at all to curb bottled water use.

So I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling rather grumbly, with questions swirling round my brain:

  1. Do people — despite all the dire daily news, all the documentaries, all the TEDtalks — still not understand the issues we’re facing, not only with climate change, but also with the fact that plastics are taking over our oceans? Is that *actually* possible? (ANSWER: No. I cannot believe there’s a single person in North America or Europe who’s not heard of climate change or the fact that our oceans, seas, and lakes are teeming with plastic.)
  2. Do people understand the scope but believe their fun and convenience outweigh the concerns of climate change and plastic pollution? In short, do they not give a flying f#*&k about what they’re doing to the planet and future generations? (ANSWER: No. Yes. No. Gawd, maybe. The possibility that this is the case sends me burrowing down a misanthropic rabbit hole in which I (mentally) rail at selfish asshats and despair that I ever had children in the first place.)
  3. Do people kinda sorta see the problem but fail to understand the part they play? Are they stuck in their it’s-just-one thinking? (ANSWER: Maybe? So I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll posit it once again: is MORE MATH the way to expose the essential lie embedded in the it’s-just-one attitude? If I had, for example, mentioned the fact that the US uses 50 billion plastic water bottles annually which equals 17 million barrels of oil, would that have been enough to sway the PTO? If I had brought this number-laden infographic to the meeting would the PTO have understood that our throwaway lifestyle is well past the point of fun-and-games?)
  4. Do people fully see the scope; are they doing the math and watching events unfold whilst wringing their hands … but rather than acting are they choosing instead to perform some mental gymnastics in which hope plays a starring role? Are they hoping, for example, that recycling is the end-all and be-all? Are they hoping some new technology will be coming down the engineering pipeline just in the nick of time to save the planet, one which will pull us out of the fire and allow us to continue merrily along on our profligate ways? Are they hoping that children are somehow different beings from us, that they are inherently resilient and optimistic and innovative and that THEY will one day solve all the problems? (ANSWER: Yee-eee-sss? Gah! If people are using hope as an excuse, then here’s a radical idea: I think we all need less hope…)


So … before you dismiss the idea of less hope, and imagine that I’m suggesting we all choose hopelessness and pessimism, please let me explain:

In an effort to quiet my stewing mind, I’ve been turning to podcasts. One of my favourites is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking podcast in which the hosts, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School, explore various themes found in the Harry Potter books. Although they use both Christian and Jewish theological practices to inform their discussions, their approach is decidedly from a humanistic angle.

One of the episodes that resonated especially deeply with me was the one in which they discussed chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone through the theme of hope.

In the discussion, Vanessa explains that she sees hope often being used in a manipulative manner — even as a tool of oppression — and then goes on to say:

The moment of hope that I completely validate and completely believe in is the moment when … you’ve done everything that you can and there’s nothing left to do. That’s when I’m like, YES! now we hope! But hope a second before that just drives me crazy.

Casper responds:

Because there’s practical things that you can do.

Vanessa agrees:

There’s still practical things you can do. It’s just inaction … I think that we use hope way too early as a society and I guess what I’m calling for is not for NO hope, but I’m calling for a critical use of hope.

And Casper sums up:

The way to think about hope critically means to look for when we’re using it as a way to excuse or to hide the work that needs to be done…

Yes, yes, and yes.

Even though Vanessa and Casper’s discussion didn’t touch on climate change or plastic pollution, the implications of inaction in those areas due to hope-without-work and hope-as-an-excuse are abundantly clear.

So, if you’re just as alarmed as me at the state of, well, everything … if you, too, are wondering how you’ll ever be able to look possible future grandchildren in the eyes … then I’d love to know what you think. Do we need more math and less hope? Could that light the way to meaningful change? In my next post I’ll share what I’m doing, but in the meantime here are a couple of eye-opening resources that might interest you:

My Plastic-free Life, a blog by Beth Terry, a woman who read an article about plastic ocean pollution in 2007 and decided she didn’t want to be a part of that sort of destruction anymore.

Karen Lynn Allen’s Musings … She has a four part series entitled “Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017”; the link is for Part I: Taking Stock. (Thank you to Deborah for pointing me to this blog.)

6 thoughts on “More Math, Less Hope

  1. Marian, I’m so glad you spoke up and did what you could to minimize the waste. I’m really struggling a LOT lately with when to open my mouth and when to shut up already. It’s hard to go against the tide even when you’re someone who DOES like speaking in front of people.

    1) I don’t think people understand the severity of the problem. Or worse, people understand the severity of the problem but don’t find it worth it to make inconvenient changes when others aren’t making those same changes. Or you don’t feel it incumbent on you to make the changes because everyone else will do it and your impact is so small. I can’t remember WHERE I read it (and it was ages ago) but it’s been proven that societal change dependent on the individual is so difficult because it’s actually how our brains are WIRED. You can explain it and logically understand it and show the math but our brains just don’t get that each individual has to make the difference.

    2) Peer pressure. Bottled water = affluence. You aren’t making your guests drink from a *tap* (oh the horror). And it’s an actual thing. Also: no one wants to be the bad guy/party pooper/alarmist. (All the more reason you deserve props for saying something. I don’t know if I would have been able to.) I know I’ve bitten my tongue because the group of people I was with would have rolled their eyes, tuned me out, and chalked it up to “Kate just being all extreme again.”

    3) Fear makes people ostriches. The bigger and scarier something is, the more likely people are to turn away from it. And when environmentalists get extreme (because the consequences are extreme) people are going to tune them out. It’s a message they just don’t want to hear. (I’d equate it to Christians talking about the rapture/tribulation. They think it’s just as likely and just as scary and no one wants to hear people talk about it.)

    and finally:

    4) Faith. (Or hope). I can’t tell you how many people in my life believe that “The second coming will come before it ever gets to that point.” or that technology will advance to deal with the issue “it always has before.”

    Now I’m going to go see if I can find that podcast. Because it sounds interesting.


    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful and insightful comment, Kate.

      1) I hate, positively hate, that I seem to be wired in the reverse. (Technically, I don’t hate this; I hate that I am in the minority.) To me, this is no different than the financial gem: “if you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves”. But I suppose, considering the state of personal debt, there are plenty of people who don’t understand or follow through on that bit of wisdom either…

      2) Peer pressure (bottled water = affluence) is something I hadn’t even considered! To me, water out of a flimsy plastic bottle feels like the opposite of affluence; it feels cheap and shoddy. I can see how water from a glass bottle would have had a la di da factor (and that’s how “mineral water” was initially marketed, I think), and I do know the FIJI brand of bottled water has somehow gotten celebrity endorsement and status. So yes, I see where you’re coming from with this, but my goodness, this illustrates once again just how much of an oddity I am, because quite honestly I actually LOATHE acts of pretension.

      Peer pressure from the bad guy/party pooper/alarmist standpoint … sigh. Yes, I SO get this, and completely understand how people don’t want to be perceived as such. As sad as this sounds, I think being the bad guy actually comes very naturally to me — I have always been a cautious “do you really think this is wise?” kind of person. I suspect I have definitely become THAT mum, the one that always wants to squash fun 😦 . But I’ve pretty much *always* been an outsider, so I know that even WITHOUT taking unpopular stands I would never have won a popularity contest. So in other words, I guess I figure I have nothing to lose. (Plus, I think it’s a good thing to stand up for what you believe in and to “speak your mind even if your voice shakes”, and I do firmly believe kids can have fun without trashing the planet.)

      3) The idea that fear makes people ostriches is valid. But even as I completely understand and can empathise, this is something that also makes me mad as hell. I believe really REALLY strongly that in times of crisis adults need to be adults, adults need to step up to the plate and do the right thing, even when it’s hard or inconvenient or uncomfortable. This is a deeply reactionary thing for me: I grew up in a dysfunctional home and as a child, I often felt that the grown-ups in my life were utterly failing to be the responsible adults they were supposed to be. It is incredibly hard to be a child and to KNOW that your parents are not being responsible grown-ups.

      4) It’s funny, when I wrote this post the word “faith” didn’t occur to me in conjunction with the word “hope”. I do understand that many people believe this is all part of the “second coming”, or, alternatively, that God placed the EXACT amount of resources on the planet for us to use and that for us to NOT use them all up would be an act of mistrust. As a non-believer, I have to say I find this sort of thinking reprehensible. In my opinion, wasting resources and polluting the environment simply because you CAN is not only completely dishonourable, it’s the ultimate form of recklessness; it’s like parents gambling away the family house. It also, I think, goes completely against Jesus’ teachings. I’m not religious now but I was raised Lutheran; I think if Jesus lived today he would be horrified at what we’re doing to the planet. There’s a Russian sailor’s proverb that fits in well with all this, I think: “Pray to God, but row to shore”. How I wish we would just ALL start rowing…

      (I’m not sure why your comment was held up for moderation. I had technical troubles like this on my other site too, in the beginning; hopefully I can figure it out…)


      1. I love that Russian proverb. And I’m grateful that our Pope is speaking out about being better environmental stewards. I also hope you know that those four points weren’t necessarily things that I myself speak to (the peer pressure one, sadly, is definitely something I’m guilty of) but things I have noticed in my own discussions.


      2. I’ve been very heartened by the things Pope Francis has been saying about environmental stewardship! And I knew, with 100% certainty, that you weren’t referring to beliefs you yourself held, and that you were simply telling me about things you have heard from friends or family (or just generally from FB or other sources). This is actually something I need to hear (however disheartening it is) because as an idealist I can very easily forget that not everyone thinks the way I do… (And btw, I can’t ALWAYS make myself speak up either 😦 .)


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