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The Coming Climate Disruptions: Are You Hopeful?

What does it mean to be hopeful in the face of overwhelming climate change?

 Per Espen Stoknes
Source: Photo: Per Espen Stoknes

I often ask the question “Are you hopeful?” to climate communication researchers. Everyone I ask starts off with a laugh or smile, because they cannot simply answer yes or no. One answered, “Cautiously optimistic.” Another said, “That depends on the season; this spring I was severely negative, now I’m more hopeful.”

This is good, because as you know climate scientists are running for the hills.

Poet Gary Snyder was once asked, “Why bother to save the planet?” He replied with a grin: “Because it’s a matter of character and a matter of style!” What I really like about his answer is that it doesn’t attempt to base our actions on some plausibility calculation of success or failure, nor on a dualistic ethics—the good fight against evil. Rather Snyder points to our calling and to aesthetics, both realms of the soul. This grounds our long-term actions in something much more substantial than the expectations of a successful outcome on the other side of our efforts. In other words, while quick wins and successes are welcome and wanted we can’t make our long-term efforts dependent on them. Instead, we must separate hope from bland optimism, and distinguish between the different varieties of hope.

One version of hope is based on passive optimism: "Oh, things will turn out well. Technology will fix it for us. Nature has made climate change before." I’ll call this type of hope Pollyanna hope or passive hope. It is an outlook where—if you think positively—all is sweetness and light. Because the world turns out well anyway, there is no reason to worry and work; we can wait for rewards to ripple down our way.

Another type of hope is much more actively optimistic: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. We’ll make it happen. There is no end to human creativity and ingenuity; where there is a will, there will be a way.” This type of optimism says that the likelihood of a good outcome depends on the magnitude and acumen of our effort. It may be a fight, but one we’re going to win. This type is a heroic hope.

To defend optimism-based hope, both the passive Pollyanna and the active, heroic hope, you have to believe in the likelihood of good outcomes. There must be a good reason to be optimistic—either because things end well all by themselves or because we make them come out well. In optimism we get attached to the likelihood of certain favorable outcomes. But if the outcomes threaten to turn sour and dark, this type of optimism easily crumbles into pessimism. Sound familiar? There are ample examples of our inability to do what it takes to solve the climate crisis, and they are often repeated in the media.

Optimism has—scientifically—a weak case. But if optimism is unfeasible and glaringly utopian, is pessimism then inescapable, and hopelessly inevitable? No. There is a third way—or more—of hope. This way embraces the sense of not-knowing, or accepting the extent of the unknown unknowns: Nobody really knows enough to be an absolutely convinced pessimist. Sure, things may look bad, and optimism may seem rationally impossible to me today, but that doesn’t necessitate flicking the switch over to pessimism. That happens only if we think in terms of dualistic opposites (or some grayish in-between). We don’t have to be attached to either end of that line.

This opens up to a view of the future beyond optimism or pessimism. It is a form of skepticism that also comes in a passive and active version:

The passive skepticism leads to a type of stoic hope: “We’ll weather the storm.” “We don’t know what’s coming. But whatever comes, we’ll take it. No matter, we’ll stand our ground.” “After the tempest, we’ll rebuild.” This is a version of hope that’s sturdy and hardy, not clinging to optimism, but still making no proactive effort to dream or influence the future.

The active skepticism is somewhat more demanding to describe. It goes along the lines of, “There’s no reason to be optimistic, but we’re going for it anyway.” Or: “Our situation is desperate and at the same time hopeful.” In this brand of hope, I’m not attached to optimism or to pessimism. I call this stance a grounded hope. It’s grounded in our being, in our character, and calling, not in some expected outcome. The future is fundamentally uncertain and complex. Therefore it is open to the imagination and always possible to influence in some way. So yes, it’s hopeless and we’re going all in. The active skeptic gives up the attachment to optimistic hope and simply does what seems called for. There is a deep freedom in that.

The dream sometimes glimmers like a silver thread, and that’s all I need to keep me walking. I don’t need to believe that things will end well in order to act. The walking and the doing are their own reward.

What type of hope is yours? Or, which do you want it to be?

Adapted from the book "What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming", Chelsea Green