Is It Time to Abandon Hope?
18 October 2022
Reporting and commentary on the climate crisis seems to be increasingly fixated with the idea of hope, or the lack thereof. Articles covering the issue seem to pop up wherever you look: Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope (The Guardian), Don't panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report (Conservation.org), How to find hope in the face of the climate crisis (Deutsche Welle), and on and on it goes.
What these reporters and commentators are doing is addressing a growing concern within the climate justice movement, especially evident among young people. Given the growing urgency of the climate crisis, the failure to sharply curb emissions, the continued expansion of irresponsible fossil fuel extraction, and the embarrassment that was COP26, is there any hope to be found? Can the crisis be averted? Even if we do eventually begin serious mitigation efforts, how could we possibly do so in a short enough time period to avert a catastrophe?
With hope in vanishingly short supply, an entire generation of climate activists may simply collapse into either a state of total ambivalence or a paralytic case of climate despair. It’s as understandable as it is widespread. Speak to any climate activist, scientist, or communicator, and I guarantee they’ll admit that they themselves struggle with exactly this problem. In a world in which catastrophic climate change seems increasingly inevitable, how does one keep enough hope alive to keep going?
I recently had the fortune to attend a talk by one of India’s greatest living writers, Amitav Ghosh, during which this issue came up. Following a comment he made about what he considered the limited life expectancy of our global civilisation due to continued inaction regarding climate change, Ghosh was asked the following: Given such a bleak outlook, how can we possibly find hope? How do we hold despair at bay? His response profoundly affected how I think about the crisis we now find ourselves in.
Rather than rolling out some feel-good but actually deeply ineffective bit of motivational wisdom, Ghosh argued that it was in fact supremely unhelpful to focus on the hope-despair narrative. Instead, we should be directing ourselves towards a foundational element of our communal existence: duty. We have an inescapable duty, Ghosh pointed out, to our planet, to each other, and to our children. Forget about hope and despair. When it comes to the climate crisis, we must simply do what needs to be done to the extent that we’re able, regardless of what the final outcome of our efforts may be.
It was perhaps fitting that Ghosh presented this argument to us in Amsterdam’s Singelkerk, a centuries old Menonite church, because it evoked for me a well-known Christian passage: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Believer or not, both this passage and Ghosh’s response challenge us to confront a child-like tendency within many of us: “Only if I think that there’s sufficient hope will I be moved enough to continue my fight against climate change.”
I’ll be the first to admit that, when given to honest reflection, this is more or less the line of thinking going through my head. And I’d wager you and I aren’t very different. But is this not a supremely selfish, child-like outlook for us to have when we consider the planetary scale of the challenge we face? Forget the luxuries of hope or despair. Do we not simply have a duty, an obligation, an unavoidable responsibility to address the challenge, whatever the actual state of the crisis? I believe we do.
It seems helpful to me then, when it comes to the feelings of hope or despair in response to the climate crisis, to employ something called a philosophical epoché. Rather than pretend they aren’t there or disavow them entirely, we should simply bracket both hope and despair, thus permanently suspending our consideration of them. Instead, we should revert to that principle which is fundamental to our membership of a communal species and our place within a planetary biosphere: duty.