Today we kick off a series of posts where CEM Core Group members consider what various “big emotions” mean to them in the context of the Climate and Ecological emergency.
We would welcome any responses to these posts, be they published here or elsewhere.
First up – Hope.
As I’ve got older and especially as I’ve learnt more about global heating, my feelings about hope have changed quite a bit. I am on the older edge of a generation described as millennials so was fed hope in abundance by parents, teachers and politicians through the 90’s and early 00’s with fables of this era being ‘the end of history’ as well as unlimited economic growth and opportunity for all. It can be an intoxicating emotion and something that many of us rely upon in some form to get us through the day, month or year. As the years have passed, the more sceptical I’ve become to rely on or use hope as a way of coping with the world we see around us today and especially with the things that concern me most.
I now try to approach hope with a lot more caution and to work through it rather than rely upon it in any large measure for the decisions I make or think about making. I find relying on hope can be dangerous if you try to use it to justify your existence on this planet and your actions, as it can cause a lot of self-loathing when that hope evaporates. I think we’re seeing a lot of creative-destruction of hope right now. There’s a lot being written and said about hope and what could come from this pandemic. Some are hoping to not return to normal when this pandemic passes and that we can change society to reduce the fragility of the systems that are collapsing before us, whilst others see their immediate hopes evaporating before their eyes. I want to be grounded in reality and truth so I’m still undecided on whether hope is something worth dabbling in. Maybe used as a garnish in small measures – just enough to give you the courage and grit to make a bold decision on something that matters to you – or like heroin should be completely avoided.
In December 2018, I was experiencing what I have come to call “The Descent” – the point when your brain’s self defence against all the dire warnings crumble, and you confront the full horror of where humanity is, and the likelihood we will do anything meaningful about it, and the implications of that for all our futures.
Coming out of that state was a grieving process that has changed the way I think about our future, and about concepts like hope. One of the articles I encountered along the way contained this quote:
“…hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless…
A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems — you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself — and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.”
I therefore try my best to avoid “hope” in the usual form – not through a nihilist attempt to avoid caring, but in recognition that it must be earned through our own actions. Unless a great many people recognise the agency we could have, and make use of it to dramatically change the direction we are taking, we have no right to hope, because it implies we expect someone else to “sort things out”.
I will add another quote, this one from the phenomenal essay by Erika Spanger, “The Miraculous Hope of Climate Realists”:
“In English we say “hope springs eternal”. In Russian it’s “hope dies last”. In The Kalevala, it’s what sends the woman back into the black river. They’re different vantage points on the same human impulse: if you love something, you hope. You move. You keep. You rake. You don’t even get to decide.
However poorly we tend it, however fragile we think it, this hope thing will not – really, cannot – quit. We might feel anguish, but despair just won’t stick because it’s not over. Maybe it’s an evolutionary impulse to save our own skin and our loved ones’; to quote a friend “hope is a discipline for survival”. But I’ll call it love. I’m not sure they’re different. And therein lies hope’s unstoppable power: if you love – anything – you hope.
And sisu, that untranslatable term – to me it’s how that unstoppable power shows itself. It’s both a question for dark times: what wouldn’t you do for what you love? And its own answer: nothing”
To me this points to the same answer – to hope should be to feel compelled to act, to defend our planetary home, and all the life on it, in whatever way you can – no matter what the outcome might be.
I have time for and experience plenty of emotions that you might label ‘positive’. But hope is not one of them.
My main difficulty with hope is that it reduces agency. Hope – holding out for something to happen, wanting something to happen regardless of how likely that is – tends to be used at moments when we feel we cannot make a difference in any other way. Colloquially, we hope it will be sunny on the day of a picnic or hope that someone gets well soon. Neither statement seems to attribute the desired outcomes, for better or for worse, to our own actions. They are a form of finger-crossing, almost superstition.
Seeing hope as a driving force can therefore gloss over the struggles of the past, hard-won battles. I like to remember how we got to where we are now, and what previous efforts our work is built on, rather than to fall back on a sense of (positive or negative) inevitability.
Hope can also sit uneasily with some groups, and I’m cautious about telling others to have hope. There’s a particularly great segment in the 2016 James Baldwin documentary ‘I am not your Negro’ which recounts an exchange between RFK and Baldwin in 1963. Kennedy talked about his hope of seeing a black president in 40 years’ time. Baldwin, ever-astute, mocks this as a very emancipated hope. Even the boldest, moon-on-a-stick proclamations offered little comfort to African-Americans in the here and now.
Hope gets used in the vaguest of ways, and in ways that can prey on or mislead. Speaking of American presidents, Obama’s 2008 campaign poster was ridiculed from the outset, memes within the hour. ‘How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?’ – there’s a reason this taunt is one of the few Sarah Palin lines that stuck. Of course, it didn’t work out. The disillusion set in. Which brings me to my final difficulty with hope: it’s an upper. When hope fades, the come-down can be all the more crashing. I’m not sure I’m up for those kinds of cycles right now. For the climate crisis, we need emotions that help with the long-haul.
I grew up during the second cold war – 99 Luft Balloons
and the threat of an accidental nuclear war. My main hope was for a quick death if it came to it, because the survivors were going to envy the dead. As that faded, environmental disaster – extinction, deforestation, irradiation, ozone depletion and ‘the greenhouse effect’ – became the new reasons to think the human project would end badly. So, hope for our species has never been unalloyed for me.
In fact, hope and optimism seem to me to be dead ends, both personally and also for campaigning. Personally because, well, we age, friends and family die – in the words of the great philosopher Billy Joel, “so many faces in and out of my life, some will last, some will just be now and then. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I guess it’s time for goodbye again.” Goodbye to all those species, killed (by us) in the sixth great extinction. Ooops. Yeah, and that happy chappy Sisyphus thing too.
For campaigning, because the need for ‘reasons to be cheerful’ means you have to focus on small ‘gains’ – and resolutely refuse to see the scale of the challenge ahead of us. “Ooh, look, renewables have doubled in size in the last 5 years.” Yes, but what was their baseline (tiny) and how does that matter as a proportion of energy demand, and of fossil investment. So, campaigning bodies needing to give the latest hit of endorphin-y “hope” end up lobotomising their supporters, “bright-siding” them so they never understand that the latest shiny thing is a false hope, a false optimism.
Because they are so focused on mobilising (getting people to go on a demo to bite down on the gnawing sense of irrelevance of their Social Movement Organisation (aka “activist group”), or fill in a direct debit to keep their hopelessly compromised NGO afloat) rather than organising. The latter, which is infantile and infantilising, can get by on false hope. The latter requires treating people like intelligent adults – bright-siding is not an option.
So, I am with Kate Marvel: we need courage, not the hopium pipe. We need to see things as they are, not as we wish they were, or as they could have been but for a lack of courage and clarity over the last half century. So it goes.
For whatever reason, I feel like I often hear people passing comment on the kind of attitude I have, and amusingly there tends to be a duality to them- people either seem to think that I’m determinedly optimistic, or surprisingly cynical “for one so young” (the latter may or may not be a direct quote from Dr Marc Hudson). Whilst I’m being more than a little self-indulgent in thinking about this, in truth I don’t think I’m actually either of these things in extremity, but actually that I’m more relentlessly idealistic- I’m always striving or hoping for the best circumstance or outcome in a given situation, which is where a lot of my motivation comes from, but the downside of this is that when things don’t go to plan, or meet the often ludicrously high ideal I’ve set for myself, I can find things pretty difficult.
It goes without saying that both the coronavirus pandemic and the impending threat of climate breakdown are both situations that are far from ideal. I think it can feel easy to conflate the two within climate activism- one of these dire situations is something that some of us have been living with for a long time, the other is equally dire but a new threat. There is also a difference in this however- those who have acknowledged climate breakdown as a threat have also accepted that they are in this for the very long haul. This acknowledgement can start to feel like you’re living in the eye of a storm, with the knowledge that at some point this spot of relative calm might narrow. It’s evident that myself writing this and many others in similar situations are in positions of immense privilege, based among other things on the fact that we can live in relative safety in the global North, but this current situation of global pandemic is clearly another threat that we also have to live through for the foreseeable future.
This probably isn’t soundly overly hopeful yet, but I’m getting there. In spite of what I’ve said about my reactions to less-than-ideal situations, I’ve wondered if any of my acknowledgement of climate breakdown has anything to do with my own internal approach to coronavirus. If I can once again be a little self-indulgent, I worry about my future and climate change on a daily basis, but that hasn’t amounted to me thinking that my future isn’t worth experiencing. The ideals I hope for are to still be able to experience as good a future as I can, even if it’s not the future I’ve previously wanted or foreseen, and I suppose in a slightly twisted way that brings me some kind of hope. And now we’re currently in the eye of a pandemic-induced storm (and we’re incredibly privileged to be in the eye of it), I feel as though my outlook’s the same- I’m striving to make the best of a bizarre and horrendous situation, and in this instance I’m hoping for the time when the storm’s passed over. I’m waiting for the days when we can experience the things that I at least think constitutes a good future- mainly, being around family and friends- and I’m finding some hope in the interactions I see between people in the shared confusion and grief of this situation. It may not feel like the most sensical approach, but I do wonder if idealism can bring some form of hope.
Our views are not individually or collectively our “last word” – our thoughts on these emotions are a momentary snapshot in time and always open to revision, reflection.
Some of the reading here may be of help in dealing with “big feelings”.
If you’re really struggling, and we’ve opened a can of apocalyptic worms, please get help – preferably from a professional. There’s zero shame in that at all. We’re living in a very challenging time.