Hope against Hope

Change is occurring faster and faster. What should we try to save – why and how?

Hope is a slippery concept. It frames a cluster – or spectrum – of emotions. And so we often use qualifiers to make our use of the term more precise. We speak of ‘a forlorn hope – a realistic hope – our sincere hopes – our high hopes – our fondest hope – our wildest hope’, because at different times and in different circumstances we tether hope to a concrete, material reality and at others, unleash it as utopian and untethered optimism.

We need to consider – meticulously – how we in the environment movement uses ‘hope’, this slippery emotional notion, to get a handle on whether or not that usage is a help or hindrance in our climate campaigns. It is understandable and necessary for us to find those points of light – those emblems of hope – that can guide us, those stories which sustain, empower and encourage us.

Yet I think, that while we in the environment movement use the term hope as a mobiliser we also, paradoxically, use it as a pacifier. We locate hope in a simple binary relationship, in which it is intended to serve as a speculative antidote against its polar opposite – despair. I am opposed to utopian hope – to optimism based on a denial of likely realities. I think such hope is a dangerous emotional distraction from the tasks of recognition and perhaps grieving, from the generation of anger as a mobilizing force, and the tough-minded strategic thinking that this crucible then forces.

Let me use two specific examples to illuminate what I’m trying to say:

The first is personal. Like many of us, I spend time at the beach in summer. In fact, I have been holidaying at the same surf beach in Victoria, on and off, for over 30 years, at a small beautiful forest-swathed town called Wye River. Last summer, much of Wye was destroyed in a bush fire and increasingly, in recent years, its small crescent beach has been scoured by storms at high tide, leaving a diminishing fringe of sand on a jagged rock shelf. I know that the not-distant future of this wonderful place is to be burnt more frequently and, as sea levels rise, for its beach to be lost. This makes me angry and sad. My hopes for future summers at Wye are preemptively infused by the feelings of loss and grief that that future will bring. I mourn for the place I love even while I still enjoy it. And I am driven to action by this dissonance of hope infused with despair.

My second example is about environmental activism. In recent years, we have campaigned fiercely to stop new coal mines – especially in the Galilee Basin – often by talking about the need to save the Great Barrier Reef. These campaigns have mobilized people around a false hope for we know that, if global temperatures rise to between 1.5C and 2C, ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification will destroy much of this magnificent ecosystem. We also know that current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases have locked-in warming of at least 1.7C – barring the use of untested forms of geoengineering – and that current emissions trajectories are likely to take us to 3C or more by the end of this century.

The Great Barrier Reef is a zombie ecosystem. The mass bleaching we saw at the start of this year was another step in its decline. So how do we explain our messages of false hope about ‘Saving the Reef’? What do we think those messages say, both to those we are mobilizing and about ourselves? And what do they do to the trajectory of our campaigning?

It seems we cannot bring ourselves to talk clearly about inevitable extinctions and loss. I think we hope that avoiding such discussions will sustain our emotional capacity and will support new scenarios that limit that prospect. We tell ourselves we must keep the ‘hope quota’ high.

And so I think that much of the environment movement is in denial. It is a very different sort of climate denialism than that of the Right, but nevertheless it too leads us to carefully cherry-pick the science, to pull our punches.

In doing so, we do ourselves and our supporters a grave disservice. This approach lacks emotional and political courage. It denies the powerful mobilizing opportunity that contemplation of our stolen futures offers us. It also blurs the purpose and diminishes the urgency of our actions… to avoid further losses and destruction.

What will we say once certain inevitable outcomes reveal themselves? That we didn’t know? That we thought that ‘false hope’ was a clever tactical manoeuvre? What of our future credibility as ‘honest amplifiers’ of environmental concerns?

In a practical sense, too, this persistent bright-siding of the future also means we are less prepared to engage with some tough emergent issues. Here are two, relating to two different types of adaptation:

Climate change is already profoundly disrupting those ecosystems and species we have tried to save in a more or less stable Holocene environment. The growing turbulence caused by warming, changes in rainfall, in the frequency and extreme events, is throwing previous ecological patterns out the window. Change is occurring faster and faster. What should we try to save – why and how? We are not equipped, as a movement, to talk either about the underlying ethics of preservation or the institutional mechanisms for negotiating the salvation of a selection of species and ecosystems. We are so ill-prepared because we are ignoring the evidence and hoping that things won’t be so bad.

We are locked into warming of over 1.5C and rapidly approaching lock-in for 2C or more and so, even if only temporarily, we may have to consider using one or a suite of geoengineering technologies to hold temperatures down and pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement has geoengineering written into its heart where it talks of achieving a balance between emissions and sinks in the second half of this Century. Yet we in the movement still avoid considering this problematic prospect because we hope the techno-fix of geoengineering won’t confront us. It already does.

To conclude…. Facing losses, grieving for our future while “hoping for the best”, makes it harder to define ‘wins’ and ‘gains’. Even if we manage to hold warming to close to 1.5C, this will entail significant cultural, economic and ecological transformations. How should we define hope then? What will we offer ourselves as rewards in the face of these changes? With what measure of honesty – and what language – will we communicate our reasonable expectations for the future? We need a new, honest narrative of hope, one shaped by what the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci once called a pessimism of the intellect set alongside an optimism of the heart. At present, the toughness required to balance this combination of impulses is too often absent from our work.

Image nature_art_09 by perceptions (off)