“Hope” is a tricky concept. My husband, who approaches the climate crisis through his work with The EcoPsychology Initiative, recently observed that because “hope” can mean so many different things, he now prefers to talk about “engagement” instead. 

I understand his desire to avoid the term. We express hope for a sunny day and also hope for a better future, after all. And, when it comes to the climate crisis, hope is particularly complicated. Are we hopeful that we will somehow turn this whole thing around? Or are we hopeful that humanity will find a way to mitigate the worst-case scenario while creating regenerative ways of being as we face the now unavoidable impacts? Furthermore, because the climate crisis involves so many unknowns, is it even possible to be hopeful when the future is not clear?

Some argue that hope is naive. How can we possibly hold hope in the face of the very harsh realities so evidently present? And does hoping for something actually distance the hopeful from action?

I appreciate why my husband favors engagement. Engagement is the goal, after all. And yet, what inspires engagement? Why do we lean into challenge; why do we work for a better future? Hope must be part of our inspiration. Without a belief that our actions matter, that something better is possible, how could we possibly stay engaged?

Hope and the climate crisis

I’ve thought a lot about what hope might mean when it comes to the climate crisis. I certainly want to encourage hope in my children, but not just any hope. This moment requires a hope deeply tied to action, agency and, yes, engagement. This is a muscular, robust hope that is the opposite of naiveté. Instead of an escape from reality, this hope begins rooted in reality. This hope sees harsh realities as an invitation to creativity, rather than despair. This hope gets curious about those realities and their causes and imagines reworking the underlying systems to create better possibilities. This hope does not need to know exactly what will happen. Fueled by a belief in possibility, this hope is embedded in the belief that action matters and that it has always mattered, whether we see the direct impacts before us or not. 

Hope in the face of climate change is also not hope that we will turn this whole thing around. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Consequently, we cannot be talking about a hope that deals in black and white scenarios. Instead, this hope finds possibility in the murky waters of complexity. Are we working for it to be “all good”? Nope. Life never has been and I cannot fathom how it ever will be. We are hopeful for, and therefore working for, the best possibilities that exist. This hope recognizes that possibility is born from within the unknown and the murkiness, but only through hard work.

In other words, hope is essential if we are to stay engaged in this moment of climate crisis, even as we recognize that we cannot turn this whole thing around. In order to chase after other positive possibilities, we must hold a hope that they exist.

The philosopher John Dewey recognized an important link between hope and despair. Rather than seeing despair as the antithesis of hope, Dewey believed that hope begins when things go wrong, when our habitual way of doing things is disturbed – in other words, in moments where despair is likely. Hope enables us to stay engaged in such moments of uncertainty, carried forward by a belief that our efforts can make a positive difference in the necessary transformation to a newer, more useful way of being.  (Fishman, S. and McCarthy, L. (2005) The Morality and Politics of Hope: John Dewey and Positive Psychology in Dialogue. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 41, No. 3. pp. 675-701)

Hope in our daily lives

While hope is clearly important in moments of challenge and crisis, hope is also an essential ingredient in everyday life. Hope motivates us to engage in our lives, including our relationships, our work and our communities. Studies have demonstrated a significant link between hope and happiness, health, productivity, success and even longevity of life. Hope is also essential in meeting everyday goals. 

Research has shown that students with high levels of hope enjoy greater academic success, stronger friendships and exhibit higher levels of creativity and problem-solving skills. At the same time, these students demonstrate lower levels of anxiety and depression. Research also links hope and productivity. Workplace studies have found that hope accounts for 14% of productivity, which is more than intelligence, optimism or self-efficacy.

Studies have also shown that hopeful people have a greater sense that life is meaningful. Of course, these findings make sense. If you believe both that a better future is possible and that you have agency in realizing that better future, your life suddenly fills with purpose. 

Hope, goals, agency and pathways

Most psychologists studying hope focus on the definition and measurements developed by the late Charles R. Snyder, PhD. A leading researcher on the topic, Dr. Snyder and his colleagues developed “Hope Theory” focused on three key components of hope: goals, agency and pathways. Goals are fairly self-explanatory. Agency involves our ability to shape our lives and incorporates both the belief that we can make things happen (self-efficacy) and motivation to reach our goals. Pathways are the route we take to get to those goals and the planning that helps us along the way.

Cultivating hope in the face of climate change

How is hope cultivated? Because hope intertwines with goals and the motivation to develop and implement strategies to reach those goals – even when obstacles occur – Snyder emphasized that hope is best cultivated when young people are given the freedom to identify goals that hold meaning to them, not goals set for them by others. When goals align with our values and passions, we are much more motivated to do the work needed to realize those goals. 

To help young people realize their sense of agency, it can be helpful to work with them on identifying specific goals, both on a macro and micro level. It is best if these goals focus on what one wants to accomplish, rather than something to avoid. The next step is to identify not just one, but several pathways that might be taken to realize these goals. Having several pathways to choose from is helpful because when an obstacle occurs, another route can be attempted. In this way, obstacles become invitations for creativity, not signals that the work should be abandoned. It can also help to identify steps on the way to the overarching goal, especially if the goal is on a macro level, and to celebrate achieving each step along the journey. 

All this being said, because the climate crisis calls for a more complex form of hope, a more complex process is required to cultivate that robust, muscular hope. We must develop a strong belief in possibility in and of itself. This is essential because, when it comes to the climate crisis, we face a challenge so massive and complex, with so many variables in play, that it can be difficult to know exactly what the comprehensive solution will look like. Yes, we know we must lower carbon emissions through energy conservation, renewable energy production and lowering consumption – but exactly how we will do this worldwide and exactly what the resulting systems of living will look like is a pretty massive picture and dependent on so many variables. 

In short, we must begin acting for a better future before we know exactly what that future will look like. Yes, we have goals. But those goals may change as we face the variables in play – variables like international interactions and adapting to the already guaranteed impacts of climate change. We must act for a better future, in other words, because we believe in the possibility, in and of itself. 

To cultivate that type of belief in possibility – and in humans’ capacity to realize unforeseen possibilities – I suggest turning to history. Stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, driven by their belief in better possibilities and a commitment to values like respect, kindness, equality and justice – these are stories young people need to hear right now. Time and again, dedicated people have turned the tide of history. We must remember this is possible. 

When considering what is required to develop the type of hope required in this moment of climate crisis, I was drawn to the work of philosopher Patrick Shade. In Habits of Hope, Shade focused on three key habits that underly our capacity to hope: persistence, resourcefulness and courage. When we understand the habits that provide the supportive structure needed to maintain hope – whether individually or socially – we can cultivate those habits, thereby cultivating our ability to hope. Through this process, hope can sustain us as we engage in the work needed to realize the possibilities towards which our hope is directed. (Shade, P. Habits of Hope: a pragmatic theory. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. 2001.)

If we look at Shade’s habits of hope – persistence, resourcefulness and courage – we quickly see that Shade is talking about the exact type of muscular, active hope most needed to engage with the climate crisis. Persistence, which Shade further breaks down into patience, commitment and consistency, allows us to stay engaged through challenges, even those that seem endless. Resourcefulness, which Shade understands as the connection of means with ends in action, helps us creatively chart and progress along the path towards our goals. And courage enables us to face the necessary risks as we move along the path of engagement, growing and changing as we work towards better possibilities. 

Celebrating possibility

Because hope is fundamentally a celebration of possibility, work driven by hope, while certainly work, ideally also includes a celebratory component. In this moment of climate crisis, may we engage in collaborative, creative solutions, let purposeful action fill our days and join with others to celebrate the existence of possibility and the belief that action matters. I don’t know about you, but even if success is not guaranteed, I’d much rather look my children in the eyes and say, “I did everything I could.” 

I leave you with two sage statements on hope, one from philosopher and activist Rebecca Solnit and one from teacher, activist, writer and Buddhist Joanna Macy

Hope is not about what we expect. It’s an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world. Hope is not a door but a sense that there might be a door….It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand….It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.

From Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark – an exceptional read on the topic of hope. This essay came first, and the book followed.

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. 

Joanna Macy

Categories: Tools for the Future


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