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Hope is not a noun.
Answering the question of whether we should feel hope in the climate crisis.
Welcome friends, this is Climate Psyched, a newsletter where we write about all things related to how we act and react in the climate and environmental crises.
Working in the climate psychology field inevitably entails encountering the following questions:
“What gives you hope?”
“Should we feel hope?”
“Does feeling hope hinder us from taking action?”
These questions become especially present in the wake of new, alarming climate reports, drawing us closer to the scariest one of them all: Does this mean we should give up hope?
We thought we’d dig a little deeper into the concept of HOPE: what it is, if hope is something that we’re able to catch if we just happen to be lucky enough, or if it rather is something that we need to nurture by the work we do?
Last week, several heavy news dropped. WMO could record that current levels of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide are sky high. Especially methane gas saw the sharpest rise in one year since they started measuring the levels back in 1983. The UN Gap Emissions Report was released, saying that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5 C in place”, and that current pledges lead us toward a warming of ca 2.5 degrees. That is if the world meets its insufficient pledges. To top it all off, a new report from Systems Change Lab that has looked at 40 climate indicators concludes that none of the indicators are on track, and five are headed in the completely wrong direction. And that’s not even mentioning the upcoming COP27 meeting choosing the world’s top plastic polluter, Coca Cola, as a sponsor.
So, is there any reason to feel hope?
We’ll get back to that question, but first, let’s talk a little about our emotions. Those things we feel, that are felt in our bodies, triggering thoughts and behaviors, motivating us to take action or to avoid taking action.
Emotions are an inevitable part of being human, and definitely an inevitable part of being a human with insight of the ongoing climate crisis. Hope is sometimes framed as an emotion, as is hopelessness. But there seems to be more to hope than the impermanent nature that signifies feelings.
As humans, we have the beautiful capacity of feeling vastly different feelings all at the same time. In other words: we don’t have to choose between feeling worried and hopeful. This was explored in a study from 2017, where the researchers looked into what factors influenced people’s perception of hope. Students from South-Eastern USA got to answer a survey that looked into whether they had an overarching understanding of climate change, believed that lay people and society have the capacity to act on climate change, and whether they believed that actions they undertake can make a difference. The results showed that students tended to be more hopeful if they had enough understanding to make sense of the causes of climate change, believed that human society has the ability to solve the problems and that there are actions people themselves can take to make a difference. Interestingly enough, there was an association between feeling concern for the climate and feeling hope.
In other words: hope isn’t the absence of worry. On the contrary these emotional states can exist parallel to one another. Which makes sense: if there’s no need to doubt the success or survival of something, why would there be a need to actively feel hope? We don’t feel hope that gravity will work again tomorrow, there’s no need to doubt that it will.
In what’s called “Hope Theory”, hope is seen as part of positive psychology, with a clear cognitive aspect to it. In Hope Theory hope is related to having a goal that our actions strive towards. What influences our ability to feel hope, accordingly is influenced by our capacity to both feel agency in reaching that goal, but also perceiving that there are different pathways forward.
In a study from 2019 researchers wanted to explore if fostering more pathways would make a difference in people's experience of hope and in their tendency to engage in climate conversations at their jobs as environmental educators. The participants went through a communication training program, aimed at increasing their sense of agency (determination to hold a successful climate conversation) and pathways (the perception that they were able to find different routes towards the goal of holding climate conversations). After having completed surveys before and after the training, plus a six month follow-up, researchers could conclude that changes in agency didn’t lead to increases in discussion. But increases in pathways thinking did mediate the effect of the intervention on increased discussion.
It seems as though when we ourselves have more available pathways, more potential solutions or more ways of engaging in conversations, then the chance of actually starting a climate conversation increases. So hope may be the ability of keeping our minds open enough to explore various paths forward.
In Joanna Macy’s and Chris Johnstones widely used book Active Hope, hope is defined by two meanings: hopefulness and wishing. Where hopefulness relates to something that’s likely to succeed, wishfulness relates to that which we wish for. Knowing what we hope for and really wish to experience. According to Macy and Johnstone, that is the difference between passive and active hope: becoming active creators of the world we wish to live in, treating hope as a conscious action, as something we do, rather than something we have. In that way hope doesn’t require optimism, but it does require us to radically accept reality as it is, in order to begin taking action towards the reality we want help create.
Hope certainly is something more than a feeling, it rather resembles a skill. While feelings are something that come and go in us, much like waves crashing into shore and then receding back into sea in an ever changing impermanent process, skills are something we can build up with practice and carry with us as a toolbox to help deal with difficult situations, and to regulate whatever feelings we may be feeling.
But is hope enough to make us take collective action?
Well, the research is mixed. One study has found that inducing hope in terms of stating that it’s possible to stay within 2 degrees warming, did not lead to a higher collective action intention, which led the research to believe that hope is more a way of coping emotionally than dealing with the problem itself. This study did, however, not investigate people’s perception of their own agency and pathways in dealing with climate change. Another study, that looked at both hope and doubt, could see that what’s called constructive hope (seeing others act or believing that collective action is rising) and doubt predicted both policy support and political engagement. It seems that having hope that humans will reduce climate change, in combination with acknowledging that we’re still not doing enough is predictive of taking political action.
In a 2015 study by Maria Ojala, investigated teachers’ emotion communication style. She found that constructive hope was positively associated with engagement, as well as a perception that teachers respected student’s negative emotions. If the hope, on the contrary, was based on denial then students were less inclined to engage in pro-environmental behavior, and they also perceived their teachers as not taking their emotions seriously. Not all hope is equal, and for it to be constructive it needs to relate to the current state of reality.
So maybe hope is the ability to see reality for what it really is, whilst managing to stay open and flexible enough to investigate multiple paths forward, and - even though the present situation seems dire - continue to take conscious steps forward, toward the future we wish to help create.
With all that said, should we feel hope about the climate crisis or not? Well, sometimes that question is tossed around without any further specification, as if hope were a ball to be played on any court without establishing the basic metrics of the field.
When dealing with big, complex problems, we need to work together, aiming at action that has high and long term impact. Which means engaging in thousands of intertwined actions over long time.
If our hope only relates to us eventually “making it”, we’re definitely out on thin ice.
Hope is, in one way or another, related to achieving a goal. But in the field of climate work there can never be just one, main goal. Instead there are thousands of different goals that numerous people are working towards. Which means thousands of different things that we can be hopeful for, where we can find agency, pathways and that we can continue to take conscious action towards.
Read the sentences below and notice how they make you feel:
I’m hopeful we’ll make it
I’m hopeful we will be able to continue living as we’re used to
I’m hopeful we’ll be able to make the climate transition
I’m hopeful my contribution of going vegan will send a strong message to the politicians
Then read these ones, notice how they make you feel:
I’m hopeful at least twenty people will attend our meeting tonight, since I’ve worked in various ways by marketing the meeting and motivating people to come.
I’m hopeful our direct action blocking the entrance to the fossil fuel company will get media exposure in at least ten different media outlets.
I’m hopeful our campaign writing to our local politicians will lead to them prioritizing making our city centre car free.
I’m hopeful we’ll make people have a good time at the introduction to our climate organization, increasing their motivation to come back for the follow-up-meeting.
I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to find joy in the midst of future hardship
Seeing people work towards a sustainable future gives me hope, especially knowing that I’m one of them.
We need to specify what we’re hopeful for, and how that hope relates to the action we’re taking, or that we see others take.
Hope can exist next to our worry. Hope can be nurtured by our actions, but also by our willingness to encounter everything that this reality entails, good and bad, scary and comforting. In the climate crisis there are things that have already been lost, for which hope has run out. And there are things that it’s already too late to save. But if we treat our hope more nuanced we can begin to see that there are always things to be hopeful for. And if we allow our hope to exist parallel to our doubts and worries, it can provide a buffer for us. A buffer that we can continue to nurture, keeping us on track as we put one foot in front of the other.