Climate Change & Hope

These 2 words/phenomena don't always seem to fit comfortably in the same sentence, do they?? In any case, below is an essay written by Hugh Robertson which it just seems to me timely to post now (with Hugh's permission, I might add) the day after the massive climate rally in Washington, D.C.

This btw is not Hugh's most recent posting about climate change; his most recent is here. This essay, the one about hope, can also be found on Hugh's blog here


"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." – Martin Luther

Crisis has usually been the generator of major changes throughout human history. Whether it was the political changes wrought by the revolutions in the US and France or the economic impact of the Great Depression or the social crisis of the Civil Rights era, change has frequently been driven by turbulence.

We are now facing turbulence of a different type – climate turbulence. But the climate crisis is different to all earlier crises because the physical forces it will unleash, once the point of no return is passed, will plunge the planet into an irreversible downward spiral, affecting everyone regardless of socio-economic status.

As Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker points out, we may not be able to control the climate but we can still determine its direction. The window of opportunity to change direction, however, is rapidly closing as demonstrated by the extreme weather in North America this year.

The crucial question is how we motivate people to change their lifestyle behaviour to avert the impending crisis, especially when apathy is so widespread. Doom and gloom is not an effective message, fear depresses many and information overload seems to paralyze most of the rest. But demoralization and ignorance is no excuse for inaction.

President Roosevelt nailed the issue succinctly in one of his fireside chats during the Depression: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Now, we need a new narrative for the climate crisis: Hope itself is our only hope.

Hope, however, is a double-edged sword. Delusional hope and illusory optimism, devoid of action, is dangerous and “stiff upper lip” fortitude simply entrenches inaction. On the other hand, positive hope driven by passion and action is inspirational and contagious – it is our only hope.

Alexander Pope’s well known line “Hope springs eternal from the human breast” from An Essay on Man written in 1733, no longer inspires the same optimism. Today, we are more skeptical of Pope’s confidence in hope and faith and his notion of an ordered and divinely inspired universe.

Hope in action

A spirit of hope that is in harmony with nature, suffused with love and humility and underpinned by a program of action must be our objective. Faith, optimism and hope all need action for fulfillment. Constructive action nourishes our souls.

As the Lappes point out in Hope’s Edge, hope is an action verb, not a passive noun. We establish a self-perpetuating chain reaction when our actions inspire a hope that in turn re-energizes the passion for further action, driving an irresistible momentum.

We will need courage and tenacity because building a secure future for the planet will require a herculean effort. The challenge will not be for the meek of heart. It will demand in Churchill’s stirring words: Blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice.

No species, certainly not humans, can claim entitlement to life on a stable planet. Optimism and hope for the future have to be earned. We have to learn to live within the regenerative capacity of the biosphere. That is hope’s one and only bottom line.

Initially, the focus of our activism and advocacy must be on minimizing our individual carbon footprints. A carbon campaign, focused on fossil fuel reduction, is essential to slow the growth of greenhouse gases that are inexorably warming the planet. Our personal footprints, carefully quantified using the various calculators available, are powerful symbols of our level of hope and commitment.

Hope for the future then, means taking individual responsibility for our lifestyles. We cannot make excuses for our shortcomings, blame others or project our guilt on society. We cannot criticize unless we have set a personal example. We have to live our hope as individuals and in our communities and places of work.

Illusory hope

An artificial optimism seems to pervade our society today. Being endlessly up-beat has become a dominant cultural trait. But the social critic, Barbara Ehrenreich, has shown how the relentless promotion of positive thinking is crippling North America. By masking our feelings, by denying our dark sides and by trying to inure ourselves against pain, we are, in fact, living a lie.

Are we also hiding behind hope? By professing positive feelings and optimism for the future, as opposed to expressing our anxiety and fear, are we absolving ourselves from the moral responsibility of acting? It may be easier to assuage our consciences by a Pollyanna approach to global warming rather than confronting our personal demons, such as excessive consumption that is really driving environmental degradation.

Why do we seem to latch on to doubt and denial so easily? Misguided optimism may actually be a type of denial. Just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel according to Samuel Johnson, so has hope, short on action, become the last refuge of the climate denier.

It is a utopian myth to believe that governments or markets or technology will solve our environmental problems. Simply tweaking our lifestyles by changing light bulbs in the hope of slowing global warming is an irrational dream. Optimism can so easily lull us into complacency but glibly professing hope for the future is akin to living in a delusional bubble if it is unaccompanied by a determined commitment to adjust our lifestyles to the needs of nature.

The downside of hope

A school of writers that include Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain project, argue that not only is hope futile but it could also be detrimental to initiating essential societal changes.

Jensen is regarded as the philosopher-poet of the environmental movement. In a widely read article in Orion Magazine in May/June 2006, he addressed the issue of “Hope.” He writes that hope is a longing for a future condition over which we have no control. It is false hope to expect that a mythical savior will rescue us. Once we stop hoping for external assistance, we are then forced to do the hard work ourselves. When hope dies, action begins.

Why, he asks, are we afraid to express despair and sadness about the environment? It is a perfectly natural response to our present plight. Perhaps there is an underlying concern that, if we actually allow ourselves to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, we may be forced into taking action. Despair, therefore, may be an excuse for inaction.

Giving up hope is liberating, he suggests, because we cease relying on others, such as governments and environmental groups, to solve our ecological problems. It also frees us from fear. When hope dies, the culturally conditioned “you” who allows others to exploit your hopefulness also dies, Jensen contends. The real “you” survives, sustained by your innate feelings of love for life and reverence for nature.

Both writers argue that hope is a construct of modern society and a control mechanism keeping us psychologically chained to a destructive political and economic system. Hope is a secular way of keeping us in line. Enchained by hope, we become puppets for politicians.

In a recent column entitled The Mendacity of Hope, George Monbiot of The Guardian echoed the concerns of Jensen and Kingsnorth that we can be easily co-opted by hope. Writing during the Rio + 20 Conference in Brazil in June, 2012, he describes how a series of abortive international meetings since the success of the Rio Conference of 1992 have kept us hoping for decisive action and positive environmental developments. Nothing changes from one failed conference to the next – from Kyoto to Durban – but we never cease hoping.

Governments, bankrolled by elites, keep promising and the masses keep hoping, securely shackled by their naïve optimism. Society is powerless to mobilize and initiate change because “we are endlessly seduced by hope,” he writes. “Hope is the rope on which we hang.”

Shades of Benjamin Franklin, who exhorted his colleagues at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to hang together otherwise they would surely hang separately. To give the adage a modern climate twist: unless we all hang together now, we will all surely hang together ultimately.

Our only hope

It matters not whether your passion for change is driven by negative feelings, such as fear, anger or despair, but it is important to convert these sentiments into a positive activism rooted in compassion and gratitude. Anchoring our aspirations in action must be the watchword of our age.

Gratitude is our acknowledgement of the gift of birth and the privilege of life. Georg Simmel, the German philosopher, described gratitude as the moral memory of mankind. There can be no better expression of gratitude – and morality – than a campaign to revitalize the divinity of the trinity: air, water and soil. They constitute the source, soul and sustenance of all life on earth.

The path of restoration and revitalization is not only courageous but it is also ennobling because the benefits lie in the future, well beyond the horizons of our generation. But it is our role and moral responsibility as empathic trustees and guardians of the future to ensure that our descendants inherit a healthy planet. We must make our hopes a reality for them.

** reprinted with the author's permission

Many good quotations about climate change can be found here

Interesting George Monbiot column here about how the super-rich keep action on climate from happening.

'Quote of the day' used with this post: “The message, so firmly, is – don’t give up. Don’t hang with the cynics, the angry-hearted, the whiners, the blamers, the negative minded. Hang with those who believe in love, hope, and beauty – and then work with them to make this a reality. This is our planet. This is our time. This is our call to action.” -- Guy Dauncey, author of "The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming"