“It felt like a punch to the gut,” wrote a friend after reading the first chapter of a best-selling book on climate change. And another friend, who stopped reading the same book, wrote, “I choose environmental reading very carefully. If I don’t, I get immobilized into complete inaction.” In fact, my entire book group, for the first time in fifteen years of reading together, decided not to finish the book. It was too overwhelming and depressing.
All of these women are progressives, deeply concerned about injustice. Yet like so many of us, they often feel helpless and filled with despair in the face of climate change. It feels like we’re all in this canoe together on an unstoppable river, moving toward a Niagara Falls of an unspeakably frightening future without paddles.
“We choose hope because the alternative is unacceptable,” says Naomi Klein. But how do we choose hope? What if we become a world of Pollyannas?
I think that choosing hope involves at least three interconnected actions: creating a mindset, seeking knowledge, and taking action.
Creating a Mindset Of Hope
The world is divided, some say, into glass-half-full and glass-half-empty people. But what if we saw this more as a circle with two axes and four quadrants, with a certain amount of freedom to move around in the circle? One axis is the “nature” axis. Happiness research shows that half of a person’s happiness is determined genetically, so it’s likely that hopefulness has a significant genetic component, too. But the other axis is the “nurture” axis. Neuroscientists are now telling us that we can actually change the structure of our brains to some extent. We can move ourselves to a different quadrant of the nature-nurture circle. How do we do that?
My guess is that we choose hope, in part, by controlling, to the extent that we can, what we put into our brains. What do we read, watch, listen to? Who do we surround ourselves with? And how often do we stop to reflect on what has gone into that 3-pound organ and drag some of it into the trash?
Avoiding Pollyanna-ism means staying within the realm of the real – basing hope on knowledge. Taking off the dark glasses, and the rose-tinted ones, and facing the facts. And some of the facts regarding climate justice, it turns out, are hopeful.
Just before the Paris climate talks in December 2015, for example, Stanford University reported the results of research showing that shifting to a renewables-based economy by 2050 is possible, assuming the political will exists to do so. Yes, that’s a big assumption, but there’s some evidence that political will is growing.
Renewable energy is quickly gaining momentum. Just this morning, I read that “a new industry report warns investors, governments and regulators that renewable forms of energy could outcompete high-cost and high-risk liquefied natural gas projects.”
The swell of support for climate justice is growing, at both the grassroots and political levels. The People’s Climate March in New York in September 2014 brought 400,000 people together, from many peace and justice streams, to march in that city’s streets, with 2,646 solidarity events occurring simultaneously in 162 countries. It was the largest climate march in history.
On the political front, the talks in Paris in December 2015 – the 21st meeting of the UN Framework on Climate Change – appear to have had qualitatively different results from those of the first 20 meetings. The countries of the Global North, finally and without precedent, acknowledged the climate debt owed to countries of the South and agreed to a legal obligation to provide financing to countries of the South to deal with climate change. The lack of this acknowledgement was what had caused previous climate talks to collapse.
Getting the facts, of course, isn’t an easy feat. They are usually filtered through bias, so the fact recipient must be skeptical – which doesn’t mean cynical. A skeptic applies critical thinking to determine the validity of a claim, while a cynic holds an attitude of jaded negativity, a general distrust of others. Cynicism is seductive. It licenses passivity and fosters inaction. Skepticism is hard work, pushing us to ask questions, to explore, to learn.
And so we ask questions. What news media do I access? Who is producing the news I attend to and what is their agenda? And what’s being left out, often deliberately? Negative news sells, so the many positive stories often remain unreported or are relegated to the back page. Negative news tends to paint a bleak picture of humanity and feeds cynicism.
Despair about a bad situation often decreases when we take some control over it. Despair and depression immobilize me. The darker my interior night, the less motivated I feel to crawl out of my cave and look up at the stars.
We all know of the personal actions needed to begin to move toward climate justice: fly less, eat less red meat, consume less material goods. The list goes on. And many of us try. But does this achieve anything at all? Am I just sacrificing things I enjoy while most others go on blithely consuming, flying, chewing? Maybe.
But sometimes it comes down to simply doing what we believe is right and trust that it will someday bear fruit.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
– Archbishop Oscar Romero
Taking action, however small, can lead to increasing our awareness and involvement in climate justice, if we let it. It can also, of course, simply assuage our climate guilt and stop us from going to the next level – helping to change the economic and political system in which we live, which, most climate activists agree, has to happen if climate justice is to be achieved.
Psychologists tell us that there is “a clear link between political activism and a person’s sense of well-being, . . . that even a very small engagement with political activism can boost one’s sense of vitality.” Taking some control, being active in the struggle, is part of choosing hope, part of getting us out of our cave of despair.
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These three aspects of choosing hope feed each other. When we take action, we increase our well-being and nurture our mindset of hope. Seeking knowledge about climate change, about both the challenges and the increasing momentum toward climate justice, encourages action. Getting involved connects us with others whose understanding and knowledge increases our own and fosters collective hope and action.
In the November 2015 National Geographic, titled “The Climate Issue,” writer Robert Kunzig refers to the “unmistakable trace of hope in the air.” I’m going to do my best to ride this ripple of hope. Maybe someday soon, we can call it a wave.