Finding Hope for Earth

On some dark days, I find myself in search of hope for Earth. You know, “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” per poet Emily Dickinson. My college ornithology prof told me that he gave up his study of birds because it was too depressing to see the the future of so many bird species in trouble. My goodness, this was the chosen work of his life and he was giving up? Deeply admired, he was a walking encyclopedia on everything birds so his message was a big blow to my hope for birds.

But that was years ago. In keeping with the poet’s metaphor, let’s look at hope for birds….

Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report (2014) states that of the 588 North American bird species they studied in Canada and the U.S., 314 species will lose more than 50% of their current climatic range by 2080.


Let’s try another: The 2016 State of North America’s Birds report published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative completed a conservation status assessment for 1,154 native bird species that breed in the continental U.S., Canada, and Mexico, as well as oceanic birds that regularly occur in waters off these three countries. The report states that one third of all North American bird species need urgent conservation action and goes on to tell us that 432 bird species on the watch list are at risk of extinction without significant action.

More blows to my hope for birds.

Yes, there has been multi-national cooperation in support of birds in North America as highlighted in the 2016 State of North America’s Birds report, but we are a long way from any kind of neighborly collaboration for the protection of birds as U.S. President Donald Trump is determined to build hundreds of miles of a new wall along our border with Mexico. Most certainly, it will further fragment and destroy natural habitat for birds and other creatures in North America. Sure, some birds (though not all birds) will be able to fly over the wall, but what about other animals such as the big horn sheep, ocelot, and jaguar that cannot fly and need larger ranges to maintain strong gene pools and survive? Or what about the National Butterfly Center through which the wall may be built? President Trump’s nationalist, me-first, science-denying agenda feeds exactly the opposite of the multi-national spirit of collaboration that we need to address critical global environmental issues.

And my hope sinks; my dream for the Earth sinks, too.

That led me to read The Optimistic Environmentalist by David R. Boyd (2015) who cites numerous environmental success stories worldwide and reminds us that hope is a key to inspiring action. Jane Gooddall who is quoted on The Optimistic Environmentalist website speaks right to my search for hope: Is there hope for the future? Yes, as David Boyd brilliantly demonstrates, because of the energy and commitment of people who know the problems and take action to solve them.

And that’s when I recalled what a friend said when I asked him how he seems to stay so positive about our daunting environmental challenges. He said: “Some days, I feel hopeless. Other days, I know that I have strength and power and am making a difference. I am just glad that those ‘make-a-difference’ days far out number the ones when I feel hopelessness.”

And in my own ‘make-a-difference’ days, I see and feel hope everywhere: In the passion of local and regional citizen groups as I see them staying informed about water issues and standing up for what they believe in. In the spirits of people I know who have committed their lives to advocating for climate change solutions because it is what they call a moral obligation and they owe it to their grandchildren.

I see hope in environmental education programs that engage youth and families in outdoor experiences during all seasons, helping them learn, grow, and develop a sense of shared stewardship for the Earth. There is hope in the greening of cities and in the long overdue environmental justice movement. Hope also rises from our Nature-Health connection and a growing body of scientific evidence supporting it.

I see hope in citizen science—where people are engaged in gathering important information about Nature and monitoring environmental quality where they live. It’s a fantastic movement to train people how to be more in touch with their natural environment while gathering meaningful data points that serve the public good. As they watch how their data grows along with the data of others, they can feel a part of a larger team and help us understand environmental trends.

There is hope in the diversity of people getting connected with Nature through various outdoor pursuits and organizations such as Outdoor Afro and the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s TrailTessa program. Our local university, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, gives me hope as we help to lead the way in sustainability and natural resource management in higher education.

Perhaps most of all, I find hope in the record voting turnouts in Central Wisconsin and in our state for the November 2018 elections. Just knowing that more people are becoming engaged in guiding the future of their government and communities is so important because our Earth (and our birds) need our voices to be heard.

How can I not feel hope on the edge of springtime when I know that an American Robin will soon arrive to share its glorious spring song with me? And just like it was for my father, that’s the closest I can ever get to having a thing with feathers perching in my soul.

Thanks, Emily Dickinson. What a lovely vision of hope you have awakened in me.

What gives you hope?