By Huck Fairman
Margaret Renkl, opinion writer for The New York Times, and author, whose latest book is “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache For the American South,” has for some time written about the health of our nation, physical, psychological and political, particularly around Nashville where she lives.
In her latest column, she wrote about the ivory-billed woodpecker thought to be extinct since at least 1944. But then a team of researchers recently found sightings and recordings of the birds, using drones and trail cameras, living in Louisiana marshes. The researchers have now concluded that there is “an increasingly hopeful future” for the species.
Renkl admitted that “it is not easy for me to share their optimism, no matter how desperately I want to.” She explained that “an internal dialectic between hope and despair governs my days: The more necessary it becomes to create a hopeful future, the harder it is for me to imagine one.”
Why is this so, and why is it a widely shared conflicting view of our world?
Renkl notes that several polls indicate that above 70% of Americans believe that the planet is warming and that we need to turn to renewable energy. She is surprised to find this view even in “some of the reddest places in the country, including Tennessee.” She adds, “In January, Tennessee officials partnered with The Nature Conservancy to protect 43,000 acres of wildlife habitat.” Even in Florida, she reported, the governor signed a law that addresses “habitat fragmentation.”
To Renkl, this development in Florida and the discovery of the woodpecker in Louisiana are deeply encouraging, as long as they don’t encourage throngs to trample those environments.
But at the same time, she reports that climate scientists are discouraged by the too-prevalent inaction and by the fossil fuel industry’s production and promotion of its deadly products.
Where does this leave us? Renkl reminds us that “what we don’t know about the natural world is still incalculably more than what we do. Many things are still possible, good and bad, and some of those things might surprise us. Some of them might even lift us from our deepening despair.”
She concludes her latest column: “Wildness is everywhere, renewing itself among us, reminding us not to give up. And who could fail to feel hopeful, if only for a moment, in the presence of new life? Or in the smallest chance that old life has somehow come back from the dead?”
So yes, there is hope in the growing awareness, expressed by Renkl and others. But at the same time, as evidenced in the UN’s latest IPCC report, we as a civilization have may be 10 years or so to turn to green technologies and power. Already, many species of animals and insects are on the verge of extinction, which together threaten our own. Renkl is torn between hope and despair, as many are, and as those who read her columns may be. But at least, thanks to her and others, increasing numbers of us understand the possible futures we face. And we can join together to act, while there is still time.