Today we are posting the second response to our post “On Hope” from Robbie Watt. Thanks Robbie for taking the time to write.
Come back tomorrow for our next post in the series – Fear…
I think hope takes different forms, and that hope can be understood as an element of the encounter with climate grief.
The classic stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The middle three are perhaps simplest to recognise. Anger at those who are not fixing it or making it worse. Witness: Greta Thunberg’s ‘how dare you’ speech. Bargaining as if we could fix it through minor tweaks, like recycling more, or turning off lights. Witness: Earth hour. Depression, resignation and lethargy can set in when the bargaining seems futile, but the crisis is not forgotten. Depression is suffering, so we want to escape it. Where to turn for the anti-depressant?
Denial is the simplest pill to swallow. Not necessarily an anti-science right-wing climate denial. Denial can come about simply through quiet lines of self-deception: ‘maybe it won’t be so bad after all’. The most useless hope, the hope that someone else will sort the problem, can be reinforcing here. The useless hope becomes a faith in the system of authority, in the ‘big Other’, trusted to protect. Such faith can even be maintained through bouts of clarifying anger erupting when ‘they’ appear not to be fixing it. Denial also commonly exists as an act of forgetting, where people know all too well, but store the thoughts away to avoid self-harm and mental illness.
Hope can play a more valuable role in alleviating the depressive stage of climate grief by offering a ladder out of the pit of despair that does not lead straight to denial/forgetting. Instead, the hope can lead to renewed bargaining: if I publish this paper, hopefully then people will realise and then…; if I join this protest, maybe then; if I … hopefully then; if we… maybe then. The hope of bargaining can take people to action. But the risk is that the hope fuses to politically ineffective bargaining strategies that are only sustained through denial of their limitations. ‘Hopeful bargainers’ may engage in self-deception born of worry: afraid that accepting critique leaves them unsure what to do; scared of a relapse to depression.
What then of hope and acceptance? In his quick-fire response book, Pandemic, Slavoj Zizek suggests that the trauma of ecological crisis, like coronavirus, can be processed through grief-as-acceptance by recognising both the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives (his philosophical commitment) and the need for radical change to our entire way of life (his political commitment). Zizek’s philosophy appears to conflict with his politics: if life is so meaningless, what inspires the need for radical change? The answer is to recognise that elements of self-delusion are inevitable, and constant: that we can never escape ideology. Life is at-bottom meaningless, and we will remain attached to (ideological) visions of a better life. If we accept this, plus the contingency of life as we know it, then maybe our attachments to principles like solidarity and basic fairness will prepare us for the more radical changes that are needed to transform a capitalist system bent on pillaging the earth.
So I recognise that hope can be useless, but I also think that hope can inspire action on climate change; what matters now is to link hopeful bargaining with acceptance, to help people act with more reflexivity and more radicalism than before.
A bit more about Robbie:
“I’m a Scottish migrant who moved to Manchester in 2012 to study for a PhD at the Uni of, now to be found working for their Politics department and walking the dog along the Mersey, thinking about environmental politics and climate change and how to train the dog, etc. “