Image: Maria Sibylla Merian, “Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam,” c.1719
There is no obvious answer to the crisis of livability in which young folks, and all of us, in unequal ways, find ourselves. There is no shared vernacular of progress, or ready-set-go technical solutions, that can address the entangled ways in which life itself is discouraged and killed, sometimes attritionally and sometimes more quickly, across landscapes of damaged and declining social/environmental ecologies.
We have, in our extremity, rung the bell of our knowledge and found its ring to be hollow, to paraphrase Bruno Latour.
What has been clear for a while is finally beginning to seep into public awareness: scientists and scholars are shocked by the scale and inter-relational complexity of our dilemma. Many of the models don’t work. New understandings of symbiotic mutualisms and interdependent landscape ecologies are rapidly transforming our understanding of life and the place of humans within that, with ecologists and microbiologists leading the way, and increasingly in collaboration with their kin in the humanities. But we are not generating new models, new connectivities, new ways of imagining livability fast enough. And the old models do not disappear. They continue to churn forward, even absent belief in them.
Within all of this, young folks in the New Territories of Hong Kong are caught up in a specific muddle of more broadly generalizable disincentives to life. They are telling, in surprisingly consistent ways, a kind of story that does not make sense. This is something we must trick ourselves into being able to hear.
Below is an anonymous post by a Hong Kong senior middle school student that was shared on one of the popular school-based public Facebook forums. It talks about suicide and unlikely hope. It received several hundred likes, and a large number of comments, most supportive, with many saying they understood or felt the same way. The sentiments the post expresses are not unique among the Hong Kong young folks I talk with, although they are expressed with unusual clarity and urgency.
I am writing and thinking about this post as a way of addressing, perhaps counter-intuitively, hope in a time of cascading multi-species death and the collapse of belief in progress stories. Or rather this is one ground on which something like hope could be imagined without progress. I think this has something to say both about and well beyond the conditions facing young people in the New Territories of Hong Kong – about the social tissues that nurture and sustain us, the multi-species ecologies on which we depend.
Young folks are telling us stories we still don’t really know how to hear. It can, in truth, be difficult to truly hear them, to “stay with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway puts it, before turning them in to something manageable and familiar.
“I want to leave this world, but I’m worried other people will be hurt and disappointed.
I just started Form 6 for a week, and I feel I won’t be able to stick it out till graduation. I want to quit to find a job or die. Maybe you’ll say there isn’t that much pressure for Band 3 schools, it’s just that you suck, your EQ is low and you are weak…maybe because I know I can’t go to university and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.
When I talked to my mom, she just got angry and then told all family on our WhatsApp group chat (my grandma, uncle and aunt-in-law, cousins). Although I don’t get along well with my mom, but I know all my family love me. I’m so selfish. After all my family learned about this, they asked me what’s going on…don’t be so eager to go out to work..shouldn’t kill myself just because I can’t stick it out…
Don’t know how much courage I need to keep living my life. I thought about continuing to live… because I love a “green life.” I want to go to Kadoorie Farm to learn how to farm, start with planting vegetables, but would they hire someone who drops out of school? It’s a huge challenge for me to stick it out for the DSE exam. I often lose my cool, yell in the class, skip classes, avoid going to school and don’t want to go back home.
There have been many students who gave up their lives before， I really envy them..envy that they had the courage to do it. I’m so disappointed at myself…always discourage myself ..and now give myself up and give up study to be a ‘wasteful youth’.
Sorry for being a non-famous-school schmuck, non-band 1 student”
This horrifies us. It strikes at familiar and unfamiliar places of slow suffering. Is it really that bad? If so, what kind of world have we made for them and do we leave them in? We work quickly, for some almost instantly, to contain the dangerous implications of this suffering within familiar notions of Youth as a natural progression through turmoil and uncertainty into adulthood, meaning an acceptance of the world as it is. Except the world, ecologists tell us, is dying.
School is crushing. Family pressures can be very tough. We know all of this, and yet nothing changes, or indeed, things worsen while we tinker at the edges. Some in Hong Kong ask why so many young people are despairing. Others ask why this generation is so weak and how can we improve them, make them more resilient, like a genetically-modified crop strain. Still others indict the genuinely horrendous stresses of Hong Kong’s exam-oriented education system, and suggest, understandably, reducing testing and homework. None of these would alter the extreme and growing inequities within which the education system is situated, and which it would still help generate and continue.
We should ask ourselves a difficult question. What if many, maybe most, young people are actually in that much pain and for real reasons? Before we contain and explain away their pain, we should not assume we already know what we are hearing. The “I was young once so I know what it is like” imagination is at work in the presuppositions of social scientists, teachers, social workers, journalists, and taxi driver-commentators. It is the warping lens and swaddling blanket of modern life.
Natural scientists have a name for the habit of assuming that what is now has always been. They call it “shifting baseline syndrome.”
So let’s be attentive. In the words of this young person, the urge towards death, which here is an urge to escape, is accompanied by another urge – to do something that grows. Something that can be done with one’s own hands. Something that yields, literally, fruit.
There is also, of course, the foreshadowing of failure, the anticipation of rejection. Even farming in Hong Kong requires the proper credentials. But the urge towards some sort of connected life remains. It calls up a different temporality as well, different than the factory temporalities of school certainly. It is the seasonal temporalities of farming, which do not culminate finally, but rather yield and then continue on.
I do not mean that we should substitute romantically imagined prior rhythms of life for those currently. Even if this were desirable, there is no there to go back to. What this signals us instead is that livability involves multiple temporalities and rhythms, which we have learned to forget in the monolithic modes of plantation economies.
Here again the work of ecologists and biologists is leading the way. Symbiotic relations, which is also the condition of livability, beat to diverse tempos and places. A patch of soil is an emplacement of many histories of life and death, which continue on in present relations to critters of all sorts. Strangely, or I think not so, I hear something of this too, at least the desire for symbiotic life, in the stories of young folks in the New Territories.
“Continuing, love, green, and life.” We should not dismiss this as just a foolish dream, though it can be that too. It is also telling us something about life and hope outside of the progress narratives, to which, I think, many of the young are less beholden, something about the conditions that might make livability possible.
Continuing is not just survival. Love is not just commodified romance. Green is not just a marketing ploy. And life is not just what we are sold. Beneath something approaching real despair is the desire for a relation between person, soil, water, air, time, and something that grows out of all of that.
Where at first I could only hear death in this young person’s words, I hear now also an urge towards life. I hear this in many other stories, like Karen’s in the previous post. They seem to be narrating an optimistic energy in the present.
This is not like what we think of as hope, and I don’t think it will last. Young folks are telling us about real crises of livability. We need to hear it. Beneath surfaces that can seem familiar, of youthful despair and optimism, these stories are telling us something else, something about the ruin in which we are presently situated, and what kinds of worlds we need to quickly be able to imagine.