How can we be hopeful in the age of climate consequences? How can we be positive about the future now that we are living with the reality of climate disruption? With 2014 the hottest year on record and with weather-related disasters threatening lives with increasing frequency, these questions are becoming more urgent. To respond to them, we first must consider what we mean by hope. Mostly, this ordinary one-syllable word rolls off our tongues without much thought. We blithely say things like “I hope you feel better soon” or “I hope it’s sunny tomorrow.” The Compact Oxford Dictionary defines hope as “the expectation of something desired,” and Webster’s says it is “desire with expectation of fulfillment.” This type of hope is based on a particular outcome or result that we want. I call this extrinsic hope because it’s about wishing for a change in our circumstances. Let’s apply this to the climate crisis: we hope that our society cuts its greenhouse gas emissions, prevents the polar ice caps from melting, and halts rising temperatures. These are extremely worthy goals, but can we expect to achieve them? In other words, is our hope realistic, or is it based on wishful thinking and naïve optimism?
The history of environmentalism is replete with dashed hopes that have left activists feeling fearful and frustrated and the public feeling disillusioned and cynical. The more we hope to achieve a particular outcome or goal, the more painful it is when we don’t succeed. Author Meg Wheatley recognized this when she wrote:
“Contrary to our belief that hope and fear are opposites where one trumps the other, they are a single package, bundled together as intimate, eternal partners. Hope never enters a room without fear at its side. If I hope to accomplish something, I’m also afraid I’ll fail. You can’t have one without the other.”
Perhaps it’s time to get real and contemplate the terrifying thought that we may not succeed in preventing catastrophe. Climate blogger David Roberts went further and succinctly described our predicament saying: “we are caught between the impossible and the unthinkable.” If he is right and we are trapped between the likely impossibility of stopping climate disruption and the unthinkability of what this means for the future of life on Earth, must we abandon all hope? Or is there another way to think about hope? I believe there is.
Hope as an Orientation of the Spirit
The alternative is basing our hope on what Vaclav Havel called “an orientation of the spirit.” This type of hope does not depend on achieving a particular outcome or result. Rather, it derives from a deep, abiding faith in whatever happens and in the human capacity to respond to it. I call this intrinsic hope, and it is not a new idea. Both the Concise Oxford Dictionary and Webster’s provide secondary, archaic definitions of hope as “trust.” Close to Judeo-Christian hope, intrinsic hope emphasizes resilience and agency.
Intrinsic hope accepts whatever happens and does whatever needs to be done. Here’s an example: Say your child is dying from cancer. Do you abandon her because there’s little or no hope of recovery, or do you care for her with every fiber of your being? The choice is obvious. In fact, there is no choice. You alleviate her suffering and make her life easier because of your love for her. Similarly, we can take action on climate disruption because of our love for life. As Susan Murphy and John Stanley said in their recentTikkun article: “Love is the connection that makes a future possible.” We act because it is the loving and caring thing to do, rather than because we expect to succeed. We can be hopeful without expecting victory. We can ask what the Earth requires of us in this very moment and just take the next step. In this way, intrinsic hope is never a passive statement of well-meaning intent or a bystander exhorting others to do something. It is always fully engaged in life.
Intrinsic hope accepts the facts of the situation but it doesn’t see them as the whole truth. Instead, it believes that another world is possible. Not certain or assured, but possible. Theologian and philosopher Rubem Alves put it this way:
[Hope] is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality is less real than it looks. It is the hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress us is not the last word. It is the suspicion that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe. That the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual.
Intrinsic hope is not limited to the human species—it is inherent in all life. To quote Cicero, “While there is life, there is hope.” Hope is the maple tree that scatters millions of seeds even though none may germinate. It is Pacific salmon, heavy with eggs, straining to swim up their natal rivers to spawn even though they will die. And it is a dandelion sprouting between the cracks in a downtown sidewalk, even though there’s no soil, little sunlight and lots of pollution. One might say that intrinsic hope is life’s desire for itself.
Four Strategies for Cultivating Hope
Although everyone is born with this type of hope, we desperately need to cultivate it so we can respond to the emerging climate crisis as whole human beings. Here are four strategies I find helpful:
- Facing our Feelings: We need to face our feelings about what human beings are doing to the planet, no matter how painful or difficult they are. Different people experience different emotions. Mine include intense fear about the future, profound sadness and grief, as well as guilt at my own lifestyle. If we continue to ignore our feelings, they will drag us into despair and hopelessness. On the other hand, if we have the courage to face them, they can lead us toward hope. This sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. As anyone who has been in therapy knows, acknowledging and expressing our emotions enables us to engage with life in more constructive and effective ways. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone commented on this phenomenon in their book Active Hope: “It is our consistent experience that as people open to the flow of their emotional experience, including despair, sadness, guilt, fury or fear, they feel a weight being lifted from them. In the journey into the pain, something foundational shifts; a turning occurs.” This turning is the realization that underneath our difficult feelings is an ocean of love for future generations and the Earth. If we did not care, we would not experience despair and other negative emotions. Facing our feelings and recognizing that they come from love cultivates intrinsic hope.
- Living in Gratitude: Living in gratitude builds intrinsic hope because it enables us to face troubling information more easily. When we hear about the latest drought, flood, wildfire, or superstorm, gratitude reminds us of the blessings and gifts we have received. It’s not that the bad news or the painful feelings go away, but they become easier to bear. Gratitude also increases intrinsic hope by strengthening our relationships with others and the sense of community. The more we acknowledge our interdependence on each other and on the Earth, the easier it is to be hopeful. And there is so much we can be grateful for. We can be grateful for life itself. We can be grateful for our family, friends, and colleagues. We can be grateful for our health and well-being. Take a moment to think about what you feel grateful for. Remembering to be thankful can transform any situation, however dire, and make us feel more hopeful.
- Taking Action: Taking action fosters intrinsic hope because it takes our attention away from our feelings and puts it on something else. When we feel sad about the state of the world, there’s a tendency to turn inward. We shut down to others and to life itself. The more depressed we feel, the more withdrawn and inactive we become, and the worse we feel. Taking action breaks through this downward spiral and feeds hope. Intrinsic hope is always active and engaged. As author Rebecca Solnit says, “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky… [it] is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door.” However, taking action can be a double-edged sword because many people avoid dealing with their feelings by staying busy almost 24/7 and never slowing down to acknowledge what their hearts are telling them. And avoiding our feelings keeps us stuck in them.
- Persevering: Having hope means persevering for the long haul and never, ever giving up. It means making a commitment to stop climate disruption and then patiently doing whatever we can in our own lives, day after day and year after year. Whether we decide to reduce our personal carbon footprint, become climate activists, or something else, perseverance requires dedication and hard work. It means not being distracted or swayed from the cause and always keeping a positive attitude, no matter what. Although we may not be successful in our lifetimes, we can persevere so our children and grandchildren can enjoy a livable climate. We may never see the fruits of our efforts, but future generations might. This possibility can nurture intrinsic hope.
These strategies, and others like them, can help to cultivate hope in the age of climate consequences. As dark and foreboding as the future appears, it also offers unique possibilities. We know more about the environment than ever before, we know what is causing the climate crisis, we already have many of the tools we need to resolve it, and there is an emerging worldwide social movement demanding political action. These are excellent reasons for hope. Ultimately, though, intrinsic hope—that positive feeling that comes from the deepest places within us—doesn’t depend on outer circumstances and it doesn’t depend on success. All it depends on is our love for each other, other species and the Earth. And I pray that this love will guide us through the transformations required of us—today, tomorrow and every day we draw breath on this exquisitely beautiful planet.