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Hope with its sleeves rolled up

Advice on how to get from soul-destroying despair to health-giving hope, compelling us to take action.

July 24th, 2020

Elin Kelsey has been writing books and giving lectures about the environment since 2008.

Elin Kelsey’s latest book is packed with examples of hope-driven action, stories of nature’s resilience and tips for keeping our sanity in a crisis.

Review by John Gellard

Cast your mind back to pre-COVID days when the major crisis was global warming. Manmade climate change was about to destroy human civilization by making our planet uninhabitable.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” said the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg of skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) fame.

“People are suffering. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she famously said at the United Nations. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth.”

“The environmental crisis is also a crisis of hope,” says Elin Kelsey, who has been working on this issue since 2008, writing award-winning books, giving lectures and running workshops. Now Kelsey shows in Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis (Greystone Books $22.95), due out October 27, how to get from soul-destroying despair to health-giving hope — not a passive ‘Pollyanna’ hope, but “hope with its sleeves rolled up” that compels us to take community action and strive toward solutions.

The COVID crisis has temporarily eclipsed the climate crisis. Has this taken the wind out of Kelsey’s sails? Certainly not! The principles of hope she applies to the climate crisis will also be useful in solving the COVID crisis and then we can get back to environmental issues.

Hope Matters is packed with examples of hope-driven action, stories of nature’s resilience and satisfying advice about keeping our sanity in a crisis. So, let’s look at a few of the many solutions that appear as we turn away from apocalyptic platitudes (“The earth is dying”) or fatalistic mindsets (“I am hopeless. It is hopeless”) and embrace dynamic hope.

Nature has an astonishing capacity for healing. Look for ecosystems that have recovered from calamity, including the Bikini atoll where H-bomb testing destroyed life in the 1950s. Now we find healthy marine communities with “corals as big as cars.” Bikini is “radioactive and resilient.” We can help by recognizing this resilience.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, home to a thriving population of radioactive wolves, is a major wildlife sanctuary. Sudbury, Ontario, once horribly polluted, is now “an international model of ecological recovery.”

Not only can we help nature along, but we can also take the lead. Community organizers in Portland, Oregon “wanted to make Portland a place where people would come for the green lifestyle.” Like-minded people gathered there and now the city is “one of the greenest cities in the U.S.”

An Amur tiger in Siberia.

Southern humpback whales have recovered. Amur tigers in Siberia are endangered but their population is increasing thanks to Vladimir Putin who identifies with them. New bridges across highways link the habitats of threatened species from tigers to grizzly bears, elks to turtles. “Rewilding” introduces “native wildlife back into degraded ecosystems.” Giant anteaters have returned to northern Argentina and wild bison to Romania. Salmon have returned to the Elwah River in Washington after a decrepit dam was removed. Blue whales came back to California. They help the fish by fertilizing phytoplankton which absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen.

Monterey Bay in California is a rewilding hotspot. Once disgustingly polluted, it is now a “world class center of ocean conservation,” and home to great white sharks, which prefer seals to people. Marine-protected areas like the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, 506,000 sq km in the west Pacific, conserve fish and enhance fish populations in the surrounding ocean.

A herd of caribou.

Land-based protected areas similarly enhance biodiversity. For example, the Indigenous Guardian Program that protects caribou migration in B.C.

“A decade ago, I felt utter despair over the catastrophic rise in the murder rate of elephants,” Kelsey writes. The insatiable world demand for ivory encouraged poaching in poor African countries. Then ‘The Great Elephant Census’ started and in 2017 China banned the ivory trade. Hope makes you engage in trends that are achieving meaningful results.

A humpback whale rising out of the ocean.

Humans are not alone in showing altruism towards other species. Humpback whales defend seals by ganging up against killer whales. Humpbacks do not eat seals, so what’s in it for them? Where do species get their resilience? How can offspring acquire useful new physical traits from their parents?

The conventional wisdom in genetics is that new traits cannot be passed on without a random mutation in the DNA sequence. “Epigenetics” does an end run here. “Gene expression” can change without mutation. A zebra finch calls to its chicks still inside the eggs. In hot weather, chicks will hear the “hot call” and develop smaller heat-resistant bodies.

We humans might take a lesson from epigenetics. We can improve our health (mental and physical) and the health of our yet unborn children by acquiring good habits — healthy food and hopeful attitudes, and seeking out people who share them. “Everything is connected,” says Lillian Howard of the Tlingit Nation. “Our ancestors are always with us.”

Now that we’ve gained the “sleeves rolled-up” hope that matters, there’s a huge amount of work to be done, particularly here in B.C. Kelsey’s advice is to choose manageable. definable issues. Examples: help to save the Peace River from the abominable Site C Dam; to protect old growth forests from clear cutting; or to save wild salmon from the blight of fish farms. If there’s a second edition of the Hope Matters, it might be worth adding a chapter on the COVID crisis. Soul-saving hope is certainly needed there. We must take care of each other. However we proceed, we must learn to temper anger with hope and good humour.

Hope matters. Indeed, it does.


John Gellard

John Gellard’s articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Watershed Sentinel. He was once named Canada’s “Best High School Teacher” in a Maclean’s magazine poll.

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