In 2018, a 30-minute documentary was premiered in San José, Costa Rica’s capital and my hometown. The film followed the early efforts of a handful of marine biologists who are fighting coral bleaching. They grow tiny bits of coral in underwater nurseries and once they’re big enough move them back to the reef, hoping to restore it.
Their pace is slow, possibly too slow to keep up with bleaching due to climate change. Warming waters swipe entire reefs in a matter of weeks. The biologists need months to nurture enough corals to restore a couple of square meters. Reef restoration seems like an impossible task, but they are relentless. It must be done to give corals a chance, so they are doing it.
It’s the same principle guiding young climate activists, atmospheric scientists and climate essayists. As author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016: “We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”
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In the dark movie theatre, I felt a new bond with the scientists carrying baby corals and the filmmakers chasing after them. We are, indeed, losing this battle. They understand that, I believe, but in a tropical gulf thousands of miles away from where diplomats and politicians decide our carbon policies and international accords, a group of stubborn biologists and documentarists were refusing to give up. They were earning their own hope, one coral at a time.
I think of these dogged coral reef scientists whenever I’m asked, “What gives you hope?” in the context of climate change.
It’s a question full of nuance. Weighing it up, you have to consider the slew of recent record-breaking heatwaves, but also the indomitable force of schoolchildren protesting for their futures. It acknowledges our dire situation, yet suggests there might be a way forward. As climate change awareness goes mainstream – along with the feelings of anxiousness, pain and grief that come with it – this question has quickly become code for: “Where can I find hope?”
It may be a losing battle, but taking every step possible to stop the damage of climate change is one route to hope (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty/Alamy)
The answer, coming from both the climate movement and psychology, is clear: within yourself.
Several months ago, teenage activist Greta Thunberg scolded European MPs for failing to understand this. “You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come,” she said last February in Brussels. “Then you are acting like spoiled irresponsible children. You don’t seem to understand that hope is something that you have to earn.”
That was a new concept for me: earning hope. Years of environmental campaigns trained me to believe hope existed somewhere out there, and I only had to look for it. For instance, Al Gore’s Climate Reality tells us that 2018 gave us teenagers striking, new advances in solar panel technology and entire nations announcing divestment from fossil fuels. Meanwhile the Green New Deal is gaining traction in the US.
But Thunberg was suggesting that these developments are not cause for hope. Nothing we’ll read about online should make us hopeful, because scrolling for hope by browsing through social media from your sofa won’t cut it. I think that’s even selfish. Those achievements are the result of exhausted youths, overworked scientists and grieving activists. For each green bill presented in a legislative body, there’s an anxious, underslept staffer who needs backup. Can one hope from the sidelines?
“A lot of times, when I hear people say ‘Yeah, I'm hopeful or I'm optimistic’, they're basing their hope and their optimism on someone else's back, someone else's actions,” says climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar.
Scrolling through social media showing other people's efforts on climate breakdown can give a false sense of optimism (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty/Alamy)
Real, good, useful hope has nothing to do with positive news. Instead, it is profoundly linked with action: both ours and that of others alongside us. It’s a sentiment that resonates with me. There’s only one way to earn hope, and that’s rolling up our sleeves.
Hope, not optimism
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit argues that hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It’s something restless, alive. “It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency,” she writes.
This matches the mainstream psychological understanding of hope. Psychologists believe it emerges out of two elements: personallydetermined goals and pathways to reach them. It can be a driving force, but it has to come from within.
“Optimism is a more general expectation that good things are going to happen,” he says, “even if you don’t know how they’ll happen.” Hope, meanwhile, has positive expectations about the future but is driven by our capacity to identify goals and set strategies to achieve them, he says.
There’s little reason to be optimistic about climate change. We are set to overshoot our self-imposed temperature targets and carbon emissions started creeping up again in 2018. The transformation we must undergo is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The case for climate pessimism, and why it’s useful, is actually stronger.
And for the people in the frontlines – the Arctic communities, the small-town fishermen in the Tropics and the displaced people of colour in coastal America – hope is not even on the horizon. When survival is your number one priority, the future you need to solve is today. Hope is a luxury.
Many people gain hope from seeing how the younger generations are leading the efforts in making society sustainable (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Alamy)
But we want to know everything will be OK. Ours is a techno-optimistic society where electric cars are touted as a solution. That addiction to optimism has made the climate movement increasingly distrustful of hope. “I don’t think hope is a super motivating emotion,” says Heglar, who feels environmentalism has over-relied on it. “I think anger drives you to action, but hope puts you back to sleep.”
This is something I can relate to. If I believe falling solar panel prices and new international agreements will carry the day on their own, why should I bother to cut my own carbon footprint? Heglar and others are warning against this unfounded, passive hope. “We need courage, not hope,” writes Nasa scientist Dr Kate Marvel.
Despite this, the search for hope still has an extraordinary pull. Because we often use hope and optimism interchangeably, scholars have come up with another distinction that is perhaps easier for dinner-table conversations. “There are different kinds of hope, because hope is a very complicated emotion,” says Jennifer Marlon, a climate researcher at Yale.
Her team surveyed hundreds of Americans about climate change and came up with a two-type taxonomy: false and constructive hope. People who rely on false hope believe God or nature will make this problem go away, and that humanity need not take the lead. People who adopted a mindset of constructive hope, in contrast, believe that transformation must emerge from us.
Engaging with like-minded groups with a common goal is one way to build collective hope (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty)
But on climate change, automatically expecting a better world because society acts in a certain way isn’t enough. We defeated Nazism, eradicated polio and reversed the hole in the ozone layer, right? Why not climate change?
Because it’s not that simple, writes Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes. Overestimating society’s powers can be as dangerous as false hope, because we start telling Disney-like stories in the midst of a global crisis. “[We expect] Star Wars’ sixth movie, where the little bears [ewoks] show up and together we defeat the evil empire,” he says.
His antidote is healthy skepticism. Stoknes argues we should settle our hope in our values – in what we believe is right and needed. Our actions can’t be based on the expectations of a happy ending. That outcome is outside of our control. If emissions keep rising, we risk deflation and action can dry up. Our values, however, persist.
This view of grounded hope embraces the unknowns and accepts uncertainty as the natural habitat of hope. “You’re no longer dependent or addicted to optimism,” says Stoknes. “You can be pessimistic and yet full of hope.”
In her 2004 essay The Art of Good Hope, Princeton philosopher Victoria McGeer brushes away both wishful thinking and wilful stubborn determination. She warns that wishful hopers depend on external forces, while wilful hopers overestimate their own powers. One pathway she suggests is to balance these extremes through communities.
Our earliest lessons of hope and agency were provided by our parents, our very first clan. With them we learned that we can walk, read, ride a bicycle or swim ten feet. But learning to hope as adults in our increasingly individualistic societies requires new scaffolding, argues McGeer. It involves empowering ourselves in part through empowering others with the energy of a responsive hope. In this way, hope is a deeply social phenomenon.
“If you’re feeling hopeless about climate change, get involved with people who are actively involved in doing things,” says McGeer.
One of the most visible groups at the moment are school strikers. Even adults are rallying around them in search of hope. Atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe was asked what gave her hope so frequently that she decided to start polling the audience at her talks with the same question. Six months and 500 responses later, the top answer was young people.
In some cases, the drive to praise youth activism might be a case of “scrolling for hope”, which comes with the risk of falling back into passivity. But Hayhoe believes those already engaged see youths as fellow comrades, not as others to lay the burden onto.
“When you see a new voice enter the arena you don’t put down your sword. “You say: ‘Oh, my goodness, there’s a little bit of help’,” says Hayhoe. Those already engaged are not leaving the burden to the kids, they're “redoubling their efforts because of the children.”
Genuine, grounded hope comes from rolling up one's sleeves, rather than watching other people do the work (Credit: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty)
Personally, I would not call myself hopeful. “There’s so much science and so little will,” read my final dispatch from my first climate conference, six years ago. Not much has improved since 2013. Writing about the climate crisis often seems futile. I’m guessing the same goes for forest firefighters, flood planners at coastal cities and progressive lawmakers.
But after reading and talking about hope for months, I have a different view. Hope hurts, and feels at times pointless, yet we have to keep doing it. It’s the only way. “Hope is meaning-focused coping,” says Maria Ojala, senior lecturer in psychology at Örebro University in Sweden who did her PhD in how hope and doubt permeate kids’ environmentalism. She believes positive and negative emotions about climate change are not mutually exclusive. “It’s ‘and’ instead of ‘or’,” says Ojala.
No individual will bend the emissions curve alone. No writer, modelling team, no forest firefighter, no environmental lawyer will carry the day. But if you’re looking for hope, there might be a space in constructing something together – in responsive hope. No single coral restoration programme will heal the wounds inflicted on reefs around the world, but perhaps networks offer a way forward. That collective goal, and the space of uncertainty in that “perhaps”, is our hope.
Climate change is harming the planet, and it may be harming our mental health too.
From fear and anxiety to hope and healing, BBC Future’s Climate Emotions series examines our complex responses to climate change, and how those responses will shape our ability to deal with the environmental challenge we face.
Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future. He is @arguedasortiz on Twitter.
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