University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood — an entomologist, creative writing and philosophy teacher — was a panelist at the One People, One Earth discussion in Riverton on Friday, Sept. 26. (Ted Brummond – click to enlarge)
University of Wyoming professor Jeffrey Lockwood — an entomologist, creative writing and philosophy teacher — was a panelist at the One People, One Earth discussion in Riverton on Friday, Sept. 26. (Ted Brummond – click to enlarge)

Futility Refuted

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.

Jeffrey Lockwood teaches philosophy at the University of Wyoming. (Ted Brummond)

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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  1. Perhaps I’m taking the analogy to the myth of Sisyphus too literally, but I think it’s mis-applied here. The labors of conservationists and environmentalists have not been in vain, as are those of Sisyphus. If conservationists and environmentalists expected that their labors would earn them a final resting place in nature, then it might all seem futile. But the ones I know have been too realistic to expect such a thing, and I bet that’s true of most enviros. They didn’t (and still don’t) expect to finally, once and for all time, get the boulder to the top of the hill. They expected to make some concrete things better, or at the least to keep some things from getting as bad as it looked like they would. And in many cases, they succeeded. For example, in Wyoming, people in towns no longer set their garbage to smouldering in barrels in the alley, and we no longer see huge black clouds on the horizon from burning oil-field sump pits. Project Wagon Wheel, the crazy plan to use underground nuclear explosions to stimulate oil and gas production in the Green River Basin, never happened, thanks in part to objections by ranchers and enviros. (I know, Project Rulison in Colorado did happen, unfortunately). As imperfect as our mine reclamation laws are, they’re stronger than many folks in the early 1970s expected we’d get. Outlaw stockgrowers are no longer scattering poisoned carcasses across the hills in hopes of killing coyotes and any other living thing that happens along. Walk or ride horseback into half of the major mountain ranges in the state — Wind Rivers, Gros Ventre, Absarokas, Bighorns — and you’ll find yourself in a big designated wilderness area, from which we derive many benefits. The significance of these past accomplishments may pale when we contemplate the problems looming over us now, and perhaps we’ll go to our doom congratulating ourselves for trivial victories. I hope not. There’s value in recognizing them. Not simply because they teach us that “world-making is self-making”; or that the labor of life is about changing ourselves, not others. Those are good life lessons. But the more important thing we learn by recognizing them is that battles can be won, or at least not totally lost.

  2. All your environmental efforts are totally futile until we as environmentalists acknowledge the role that INTENTIONAL weather modification has had and will continue to have on our changing climate. According to the WMO there are were at least 42 countries engaged in national weather/climate (same difference) modification programs in 2012.

    Notably absent from the list of countries with national weather modification programs is the USA, despite the fact that our government led the way in the development of these technologies and has used the weather as a weapon covertly since at least Operation Popeye during the Vietnam War.

    On a related note, cloud seeding isn’t the only technology being used to overtly and covertly manipulate Earth’s weather/climate. Advanced wireless energy technologies are also being used to manipulate atmospheric water’s behavior and the differences in cloud albedo and greenhouse affect from induced cloud formation or dissipation results in larger weather affects in subsequent hours/days/weeks. Point being that until the brunt of environmentalists are aware of all advances in weather modification and energy technologies our proposed solutions will always be woefully inadequate because we’re not addressing the real issues with the best tools at humanity’s disposal.

    There are energy technologies available today which are not allowed on the market because they are TOO efficient for fossil fuels to compete with. If WyoFile publishes an article about that and maybe they’ll get more than a dozen likes on Facebook.

  3. All your environmental efforts are totally futile until we as environmentalists acknowledge the role that INTENTIONAL weather modification has had and will continue to have on our changing climate. According to the WMO there are were at least 42 countries engaged in national weather/climate (same difference) modification programs in 2012.

    Notably absent from the list of countries with national weather modification programs is the USA, despite the fact that our government led the way in the development of these technologies and has used the weather as a weapon covertly since at least Operation Popeye during the Vietnam War.

    On a related note, cloud seeding isn’t the only technology being used to overtly and covertly manipulate Earth’s weather/climate. Advanced wireless energy technologies are also being used to manipulate atmospheric water’s behavior and the differences in cloud albedo and greenhouse affect from induced cloud formation or dissipation results in larger weather affects in subsequent hours/days/weeks. Point being that until the brunt of environmentalists are aware of all advances in weather modification and energy technologies our proposed solutions will always be woefully inadequate because we’re not addressing the real issues with the best tools at humanity’s disposal.

    There are energy technologies available today which are not allowed on the market because they are TOO efficient for fossil fuels to compete with. If WyoFile publishes an article about that and maybe they’ll get more than a dozen likes on Facebook.

  4. Is it true that climate change or global warming,(your pick). has saved us from the devastation of the western locust? I found the story very interesting, when I read parts a while back. Also love the soft shoe. Does the” us “of good and encompassing ecology transcend the ‘we’ of environgelic scientology.

  5. Is it true that climate change or global warming,(your pick). has saved us from the devastation of the western locust? I found the story very interesting, when I read parts a while back. Also love the soft shoe. Does the” us “of good and encompassing ecology transcend the ‘we’ of environgelic scientology.