Essay by Jeffrey A. Lockwood
— September 30, 2014
This essay was adapted for the “One People, One Earth” event hosted by the Wyoming Association of Churches, Sept. 26, 2014 (read this related story). The original work was part of “A Guest of the World,” a collection of meditations published by Skinner House in 2006.
There is no such thing as utopia, an environment that will persist forever, a final resting place for humanity within nature.
We yearn for the completion of our task, the fulfillment of our striving, the consummation of our journey. And this longing sows the seeds of our defeat. We aspire to solve conflicts, we ache to be done with the hard work of life, we pine for the day in which an everlasting sustainability prevails. In believing that the purpose of the environmental movement lies in securing an outcome, in reaching a just endpoint, in attaining a serene world, we assure our own frustration, our own futility, and ultimately our own failure.
The work of stewardship will never be done — that is the curse and the blessing of being human. It’s a curse in that there is no completion of our labors, a blessing in that there shall always be meaningful work. The caretaker of creation is like Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to an eternal life of shoving a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again in an endless cycle of apparent futility. How could Sisyphus endure such a fate? I’ve asked my students this, and their answers were revealing.
Some students supposed that there is always hope, a hope that the gods would relent, that tranquility will finally come to Sisyphus and perhaps to us. A particularly creative student suggested that over time, the rolling of the boulder would erode the hill so that eventually the labor of Sisyphus would be complete. Maybe as we roll the boulder of stewardship in every generation, the steep slope of ignorance will wear down. But I believe that the most compelling answer came from those students who understood that a sense of futility comes from the belief that we rightfully expect to see the fruit of our labors. We forget that virtue lies in the doing of good works, not in the completing of our task.
Maybe Sisyphus will never recover the graces of the gods; maybe the hill will never be worn down. But if he — if we — can authentically and deeply engage in our labors, if we roll the boulder of justice because it is what we are called to do, if the measure of our work is its capacity to shape who we are, then we can go on pushing. And if in the course of our labors the hill of arrogance is eroded, that will be a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing.
But as much as we hope that stewardship will replace exploitation, as much as we hope to live at a critical point in human history, as much as we dream of a glorious conversion of society, we must understand that while epiphanies may change souls, they rarely change the world. To know what we can do, to understand what the world needs of us, we must look into the drums of toxins, the overflowing slums, and the rising seas. But to sustain our work, we must look inside of ourselves. There we shall find the understanding that world-making is self-making. That the endless labor of life is not about changing others but creating ourselves. We cannot make the world just, but neither can the world make us hopeless.
— Jeffrey Lockwood is an entomologist and writer/philosopher who arrived at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s to conduct groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. In 2000, Lockwood turned his attention to the arts and became a professor of philosophy and creative writing. He is the author of Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic Books 2004), Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Skinner House 2002), Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press 2008), and many other works. In February 2012, Lockwood was featured on WNYC’s RadioLab for the podcast episode “Killer Empathy.”
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