What place hope?
In the latest of her series on the climate crisis, Linda Aspey revisits
hope and the many different opinions people hold around it
“Hope is the most evil of evils because it prolongs the torments of man”
In the last column2 (Aspey, 2022), I asked how we could stay in touch with hope. Here, I explore it further, inspired by conversations with activists, climate scientists, sustainability champions, politicians and parents about their thoughts and day-to-day experiences of hope. Very different opinions abound. It seems our relationship with hope is a very personal one, and like all emotions, fluid and adaptable.
Some think it’s wrong for us not to have hope because we can too easily tip into despair, a privileged place to be for those in countries, societies and generations that have so many options and have done so much to inflict damage onto others; damage that’s often rendering them hopeless. ‘How dare we think it’s OK for us to give up?’ they say.
Conversely, some view it as wrong to have or give people hope (particularly the already privileged) because that keeps reality at bay, and is a form of denial about the unprecedentedly tough times ahead.
I’ve found that people who’ve been raising the climate alarm for years are more likely to express this view, perhaps because they’re embittered and battle weary. Others I meet aren’t averse to hope but have different ways of describing how we can work towards some kind of future, without needing it to be a shiny and bright one, for example, those with a Deep Adaptation philosophy. As Bendell (2023) describes, this encourages us to respond to likely collapse with “positive pessimism” and in “kinder and wiser ways than if we didn’t pay attention to it”.3
Then there are those who think there’s lots of to be hopeful about and can cite any number of restoration and regeneration projects where change is happening, at pace and at scale. Personally, I’m finding a great deal of hope from following legal challenges from around the world, where the powerful and mighty are being called to account through mass actions, as in the Niger Delta, where 13,000 residents from two Nigerian communities are seeking damages from Shell for residual oil and devastating environmental damage4 (Meredith, 2023). I love a David and Goliath story, particularly when lots of Davids rise up together. Imagine that: 13,000 hopefuls, all with a shared intention to rise up and heal the earth.
Here the word ‘intention’ feels particularly significant. Macy and Johnstone’s (2022) work on Active Hope5 invites us thus: “Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.”
I’ve been at many ‘sustainability’ type events in recent years – some in commercial sectors, some in not-for-profit – where the intention and hope for change has been palpable. I’ve come away feeling enlivened and rather guilty that I’d allowed myself to sink temporarily into doomism. Hope is contagious when it’s sincere.
Hope as a placebo?
Amidst all of this we’re bombarded with ‘greenwashing’ – attempts to make people believe that an organisation is doing more for the environment than it really is. Perhaps it goes beyond just an organisation. Perhaps it’s deeper rooted when it acts as a placebo to soothe us while tapping into our desire to carry on a consumer-drenched life that’s only for our convenience and benefit.
For example, a piece on “8 reasons not to give up hope – and take climate action” (United Nations, 2022) cites, as its first reason: “Electric vehicles are on the rise”. There’s no explicit reference to the reality that our finite planet doesn’t have the capacity for infinite growth. Or that replacing one form of individualised and often inefficient and wasteful6 form of transport with another isn’t the answer. Or that poorer people and degraded lands will continue to be exploited by wealthy nations who sweep in and take over. It just allows us to remain more in thrall to conserving our exploitative way of life than to conserving life on earth itself.
As Sally Weintrobe says in Holding the Hope: reviving psychological and spiritual agency in the face of climate change: “I am wary of hope these days. I ward it off and direct it to stay in the corner where I can keep a beady eye on it. I certainly don’t want to be infected by it. I believe this response is healthy and lively, given how much hope has been exploited and played with. We are in great danger of getting caught up in predatory delay when we entertain hope. I find it useful to remind myself that not struggling with hope has its pitfalls – it can lead to cynicism, bitterness and a lack of curiosity.” 7
She is right. And if I allow my cynicism to take over, it not only leads to a lack of curiosity, it can lead to disengagement. Yet here I am with a roof over my head, food in my belly, and money in my bank. I can’t easily imagine what it is like for those who don’t, yet I owe it to them to make sure I do try to imagine. And to stay engaged.
What about optimism rather than hope?
One of my favourite thinkers was Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi and professor of Judaic thought who wrote (Sacks, 2010): “Optimism is all very well, but it takes courage to hope.” 8
He described optimism as “the belief that things will get better…a passive virtue” and hope as “the belief that if we work hard enough, we can make things better. Between them lies all the difference in the world…it needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope.”
The need for balance
I’ve learned that hope is not an either/or issue. It’s much more complex and nuanced than that. We need to consider ‘yes-and’ or ‘both-and’. As climate psychologist and engagement strategist, Renee Lertzmann (2017), wrote: “It’s not about hope or despair or solutions versus warnings. It’s about openly acknowledging that climate change is a classic both-and situation. Yes, things are very bad, and yes, things are likely to get worse; and yes, many people are working on mind-blowing innovative solutions; and yes, humans have tremendous capacities; and yes, it’s also really hard and frustrating; and yes, you yourself as a citizen and an individual have a vital role to play this unfolding mess… . The surprising thing about such a both-and approach is that it helps us move through the harder stuff much faster and more readily than if we deny or keep at bay the scarier feelings that can come up. The task of telling the climate change story actually becomes easier, not harder.” 9
The need for both the actual and the imagined, or hoped for, is reinforced by seasoned climate communicator senior research scientist and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Anthony Leiserowitz’s (2022) “Climate change summed up in 11” words meme:
But there’s hope.10
Sarah Jaquette Ray (2022) cites journalist I F Stone’s response when asked why he kept writing critically about the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war when no one was listening to him. He said: “If you expect to see the final results of your work, you simply have not asked a big enough question.” 11
So what’s the big question about hope for coaches to ask ourselves, and when relevant, our clients? For me, it’s how can I hold on to ‘yes -and’ so that I don’t fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking? How can I hold ambivalence and uncertainty with courage, and help my clients to do the same?
Many of us have observed that it’s often untrue assumptions that hold people back from change. And that if we test an untrue limiting assumption and replace it with a true and liberating one, people frequently move forward to a place of possibility. So, for example, ‘I might fail’ can become ‘I have succeeded before’ and then we might ask a question like, ‘If you knew you have succeeded before, what would you do now?’ That sounds like a hopeful response to me.
But given the scale of the crisis we’re in, and my need to stay grounded in reality, while staying curious, open to ambivalence and uncertainty, I find it helpful to reframe that question for myself. My clients have found it helpful too. To amplify the invitation to let courage expand into something even greater.
“If you knew that we have succeeded before, and that we might or might not succeed this time, what would you still do?”
References and further info
1 W F Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. George Allen And Unwin Ltd, p82, 1924: http://bit.ly/3EN12tB
2 L Aspey, ‘Rising to the Challenge’, in Coaching at Work, 17(5), 2022
3 J Bendell, 2023: https://jembendell.com/
4 S Meredith, CNBC, February 2022: http://bit.ly/3xso7xr
5 J Macy, and C Johnstone, Active hope – How to face the mess we’re in with unexpected resilience and creative power, New World Library (www.newworldlibrary.com) 2022, p4
6 United Nations, April 2022: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/04/1115512
7 S Weintrobe, in L Aspey, C Jackson, D Parker (eds), March 2023: Holding the hope; reviving psychological and spiritual agency in the face of climate change. PCCS Books, foreword, p2.
8 J Sacks, ‘Optimism is all very well, but it takes courage to hope’, in The Times, 30 April, 2010: www.rabbisacks.org/archive/optimism-is-all-very-well-but-it-takes-courage-to-hope/
9 R Lertzman: How Can We Talk About Global Warming?, 2017: www.sierraclub.org/sierra/how-can-we-talk-about-global-warming
10 A Leiserowitz, 2022: https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/weve-got-climate-solutions-now-we-need-movement
11 S Jaquette Ray, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, University of California Press, p59, 2020
RAC Foundation, ‘Cars parked 23 hours a day’, 8 July, 2021: www.racfoundation.org/media-centre/cars-parked-23-hours-a-day
This will now be an occasional series