What if hope can’t save us?


What if hope can’t save us?

A reflection on the meanings of hope and despair in the climate crisis

Coming to know the climate crisis often feels like an exercise in mourning. We mourn the creatures, the water, the steady turn of the seasons. Some of us mourn the children we may decide not to have, or the trust we once had in our elders. We mourn for the people we thought we would become, for the lives already lost to the climate crisis, and for the destruction to come. We mourn the truths we thought we knew.

Reckoning with the severity of the crisis is vertiginous. We know things are going to get a lot worse. It’s instinctual to step back from the ledge and seek shelter in optimism — the strength of which is far from justified. The future is uncertain, to say the least.

Amidst all of this, hope is attractive. I’m familiar with its appeal: half-whispers to friends, to my partner, even to myself: “What if everything ends up all right?”

Even such a timid question feels transgressive. In many ways it is a way of asking, “What if things aren’t really as bad as we think they are?”

Lately, I’ve been troubled by a concern that hope regarding the climate crisis is problematically fickle. On one hand, without hope, we may be overwhelmed by fear. In isolation, fear turns individuals and societies inward, often violently so.

On the other hand, hope, or an excess of it, could lead to inaction and the abdication of responsibility. Confidence that the crisis will be met by others, without us needing to significantly deviate from the status quo, renders it unlikely that we will do the difficult work of demanding and realizing radical and systemic change.

And radical, systemic change is exactly what is necessary to confront this crisis. It is increasingly clear that business as usual is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. We must divest from the dehumanizing, exploitative, colonial, and anthropocentric fossil fuel capitalism that has precipitated the climate crisis.

After all, we do need to be frightened — all of us.

“Panic is needed”

At the January 2019 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Greta Thunberg baldly rejected the messages she had been receiving — and continues to receive — from world leaders in response to her activism. “I don’t want your hope,” she said. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic… And then I want you to act.”

Greta’s comments reminded me of the phrase I’ve often heard used in the context of the fight for climate justice: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Is the balance tipping too far in the latter direction?

Zhenglin Liu, Co-President of University of Toronto Environmental Action (UTEA), characterized this as a problem of finding our individual equilibrium. “Surely there’s a right balance between hope and despair for each and every one of us,” he wrote.

Micaela Tam, Co-President of UTEA, added that it’s also important to consider to whom Thunberg was speaking: some of the world’s most powerful figures, whose individual and collective actions on the climate crisis have left a great deal to be desired.

“Hope is needed for people who might become disillusioned… to break initiatives down into tractable components, [and] to counter the narratives of those who resist action,” wrote Tam. “And at the same time, panic is needed for those who have been complicit for many of the same reasons. They work together.”

There is undeniable momentum in the climate justice movement right now. Now, the task is to amplify it and to ensure that its diverse directions are constructive. But this hope must also be informed by a radically honest understanding of the severity, origins, and implications of the climate crisis.

To quote author Roy Scranton, there’s only one way to enable the realization of this kind of hope: “We have to learn how to die.”

Thankfully, Scranton, who developed the notion in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, means this metaphorically. His thesis is that the climate crisis forces us to overturn and ultimately reject our pre-existing ideas about progress, personhood, morality, economics, history, the value of a life — the list goes on. Learning to die is about letting go of our attachment to our fossil-fuelled way of life and way of interpreting the world, as both individuals and as a civilization.

Ultimately, it’s about loss. Though the way of life we must part with is fundamentally pathological and unsustainable, it is only human to feel fear, perhaps even sadness, when we part with the familiar. We imagine ourselves in the world as we know it to be. Disentangling our sense of self from the systems of knowledge and values we grew up with is and will continue to be a long and arduous process.

The world we knew doesn’t exist anymore. In some ways, it never really did.

The nature of hope

If our hope obscures urgency, there will be little left for the future.

And yet, I still think there’s something to be said for hope. What is hope if not that ineffable force that sustains us through hardship, upheaval, and loss from the routine to the otherwise unendurable? Hope — the right kind — can bring us together when it matters most.

How can hope play a positive role in both the climate justice movement and our lives as we confront the present crisis? What would that kind of hope — something to drive and unite us, rather than delude and render us complacent — look like? Where can it be found?

“Doing this work is the only thing that makes it possible for me to hope that it is possible to build a different world,” wrote Julia DaSilva, Co-Founder of Leap UofT, a student activist group fighting for climate justice.

But there was a caveat: hope can go both ways. DaSilva added that many common narratives about hope treat it as an individual possession.

“[This hope] makes it possible to get through the day, but it doesn’t place any responsibility on the person who has it,” she wrote. “Narratives about hope are only really helpful when they have direction.” 

It is an important distinction, and one that is reflected in psychological scholarship on hope. For example, a recent study published in Environmental Education Research found that when hope was disaggregated between “constructive hope” and hope based on denial, the implications for pro-environmental behaviour were significant.

Constructive hope among young adults — founded upon a sense of trust that their actions and the actions of others would have a positive impact — led to an increase in pro-environmental behaviours. Hope based in denial of the crisis, however, led to significantly more negative environmental behaviour.

Indeed, while conducting research on environmental psychology over the summer at U of T, Liu was struck by how often the idea of self-efficacy was cited as essential to encouraging pro-environmental behaviour. Self-efficacy is essentially the expectation that one’s actions will have an anticipated impact, and Liu characterized it as closely related to hope.

“[It’s] the hope that our actions can make a difference, not the hope that something will come out of nowhere and save us,” he wrote.

On community and collectivity

Skeptical philosophy student that I am, I still have my doubts. Even if hope is action-oriented and tied to responsibility, what can be done to ensure that it is strong enough to engender the change that must occur?

We must feel the bubbling fear in the back of our throats at the idea of climate crisis, and we must take actions to combat that which transcend the level of the individual. Many individual actions available to us — buying local produce, retrofitting our homes to be more environmentally friendly, purchasing electric vehicles, taking mass transit — require a degree of time, money, and luck that many people simply do not have.

We can’t shop our way out of the climate crisis. The idea that we can, or that all we need is individual adaptation through environmentally conspicuous consumption, is malignant. We need collective action and solidarity that confronts the systemic causes of the climate crisis. Action-oriented hope directed toward anything less will be insufficient, ineffective, and maladaptive.

For DaSilva, constructive hope and community are inextricable. She first got involved with climate activism during the summer before university. It was the “love and community” she found in the divestment and anti-pipeline movement that drew her further and further in.

“Hope,” she wrote, “was a byproduct of that sense of deep responsibility that comes from finding community in crisis.”

DaSilva characterized community and solidarity as prerequisites for the type of hope that will lead not to delusion or individualism, but to meaningful action on climate justice.

“Hope is helpful when we experience it as a response to engaging [with] climate justice work… work sustaining our community,” she wrote.

I am inclined to agree. If we come together, from diverse standpoints and communities, to fight for our future and our home, drawing a deep sense of responsibility from our vulnerability and interconnectivity, there will be good reason for hope.

It is not as though there aren’t other reasons, too. The cost of renewable energy is dropping quickly — so much so that the International Renewable Energy Agency has predicted that renewables will soon be cheaper than fossil fuels. New solutions and means of adaptation seem to be discussed every day. Awareness of the climate crisis is at an all-time high, and more and more people are making meaningful changes in their individual and civic lives. It has become a central political issue, and climate justice has entered the popular lexicon.

As Naomi Klein, a social activist and author, told The Guardian this September, “What gives me the most hope right now is that we’ve finally got the vision for what we want … or at least the first rough draft of it.”

Uncertain futures, silver linings

There are so many ways the course of our lives and our Earth’s future can still unfold. We are still smoothing out the creases in the paper every day. There is an element of uncertainty, yes, but there is also an element of undeniable, fortuitous change. As DaSilva told me, “There is no future like the present.”

Who will we become? It is a terrifying yet electrifying question. It also speaks to the unprecedented political and existential opportunity inherent to the climate crisis. The odds may very well be miserable, and, at least in the short term, there will be no avoiding catastrophe and upheaval. But a better world is possible, as long as we look at this crisis straight in the eye.

No one is going to come and save us. All of us on this planet, here and now, are the best shot humanity has. So, yes, hope will be invaluable — but only if it is preceded by a courageous appraisal of our shared condition. Because it is only when we recognize what we will lose and what must change that actionable hope will carry us to the future at which its optimism is aimed.

Ultimately, we can find something to fight for that is more than fear. We can find it in each other. We can build a hope that is ambitious, just, and constructive. We can look to our friends, our family, the earth, people we will never meet, even a single brilliant blade of grass, and say: this, right here, is worth fighting for.