As ice melts, bushfires, heatwaves and cyclones intensify, many grapple with the question of “what kind of hope, if any, can I hold as climate catastrophe deepens?” To answer this question, we need to not only accept the realities of worsening climate destructions, but also re-examine the nature and agency of hope in the face of existential crisis.
Being a natural optimist, giving up hope for a good outcome in any situation does not come easily to me. But in relation to climate issues, I, along with many others, have had to identify when it is that hope becomes a delusionary denial of deeply unwelcome realities. Climate crisis is no longer something that might happen in the future; it is here and now.
Accepting that there is no hope that we can somehow avoid or quickly fix this crisis is a hard and necessary step in being able to fully engage with climate issues. This necessary step brings many of us into the emotional terrain of grief and despair. But as hard and stony as this terrain can be, it offers the foundation for another form of hope, one that is grounded in committed action and heartfelt values dedicated to protecting life on our planet no matter what outcome is likely.
Experienced climate campaigners are deeply familiar with the fluctuations of hope and despair that accompany ongoing climate action. Many understand that these feelings are an integral part of the trajectory of engagement. They also know the necessity of developing the emotional skills and stamina to name and navigate them.
Michael Foster is one of the five Valve Turners who, as “an act of moral necessity”, briefly shut down the Keystone Pipeline one autumn morning in 2016. He observes that:
“Most of the people that I have met who are taking a consistent courageous part in the movement can talk to you about the moment when they lost hope, when they reached despair, and then they woke up the next day and said, “Okay, now what?” I think that despair is a critical ingredient for facing the existential emergency we inhabit. The tragedy overwhelms the mind’s capacity to comprehend. Taking action is the only antidote, the only reason to hope.”
While I don’t believe that taking action is the only antidote or healing response we can have to despair, it is certainly a vital ingredient in cultivating the kind of hope that can maintain engagement with the worsening climate crisis.
Turner is in good company when he links hope to action. Greta Thunberg observes that “once you start to act, hope is everywhere”. Others emphasise how climate hope needs to be nurtured not only by action but also by choice and moral commitment. Long-term environmental campaigner Joanna Macy describes “active hope” as a practice that seeks to find our most inspired response and makes an intention to act on this response, regardless of what we think may or may not be possible. In relation to his campaigning for marine conservation, Tim Winton understands optimism not as an emotion, but as “an attitude, a discipline”. His view echoes Vaclev Havel’s statement that: “Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart”, which works towards what is good, regardless of its chances of success.
These understandings of hope move beyond intellect and pragmatism into the realms of ethics and spirituality. They require an examination of beliefs and values, and require practice, even when the heart is heavy with grief for what is lost, or about to be lost. Approached in this way, hope becomes both a discipline and an invitation for imaginative vision and for the development of psychological resilience. It is not fuelled by promises of success, or positive thinking, but by a commitment to making more of ourselves and our lives, while cherishing what is precious in our world.
The Climate Psychology Alliance describes the hope we need to cultivate as radical hope. This term is taken from Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation, which describes the cultural revolution led by Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation following the collapse of their traditional life in late 19th-century America. The Crow Nation’s adaptation and survival required facing into their collapse, grief and despair. Through accepting both the tragic and total destruction of their way of life and the necessity of imagining a new future, they embraced a different kind of radical hope. This hope was grounded in the relinquishing of old identifications and ways of being, through coming to terms with cultural vulnerability. Out of it could grow endurance and the capacity for truly fresh and radical action.
Radical hope works towards a new future through facing into the grim reality of present and anticipated losses and grief. It requires not only action and commitment but also a re-imagining of ideals and identifications as habitual assumptions of safety, certainty and entitlement crumble. This emotionally disruptive process can become a creative one as it strengthens and releases energy for experimentation, challenge and renewal. Nothing less is needed for unimaginable times.
In reflecting on her own engagement with climate crisis, psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe observes that: “Genuine hope, unlike false hope, is a trusted steadfast belief, strengthened by the part of us that cares, that we will find a way to face things truthfully, even when this brings difficult feelings and moral challenges.”
Genuine hope is a choice that can recognise and negotiate other emotions. All too often climate discussions swing from a forced and false brightness to a pervasive gloom and doom. Neither end of this polarity provides foundations for action or emotional resilience. Anger, grief, resentments, doubts and disappointments are all part of the climate story that need to be expressed, and honoured, for us to act realistically and constructively. When we can acknowledge our own and others’ upsetting and fluctuating feelings and perspectives it activates a dynamic process that generates compassion, repair and renewal.
How then to cultivate genuine and radical hope in climate engagement? Firstly, by entering into the challenge and surprising richness of discussions about the ups and downs of climate hope and despair. Listening to our own and others’ emotional oscillations helps us to accept the necessity and normality of feelings of hope and despair as part of the emotional ebb and flow that accompanies major loss and change. This lessens our fear and avoidance of emotional pain, and the issues that arouse the pain. We become more able to engage with an open heart and open mind.
Secondly, radical hope needs to be grounded in ecological consciousness. Ecosystems seek life and the renewal of life in whatever way possible. Through drought, flood, fire, and land clearing, our ecosystems endure and seek opportunities for restoration and adaptation with varying degrees of success and failure. If the biggest lesson of our times is that we are an integral part of our natural world, then we must learn to recognise and work with ecological processes of adaptation, repair and renewal in both ourselves and our world. This recognition breeds a hope that is regenerative and well-grounded, nurturing life systems through all weathers and climates – geophysical, political, and emotional. Radical hope then becomes a compass of care, commitment and action, providing steady bearings through the paradoxes, confusions and emotional fluxes of climate crisis and the re-imagining of our world and ourselves.
Dr Sally Gillespie is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining our world and ourselves and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sally-gillespie-b5752480/
Environment and climate