What does it mean to hope today?

In connection with the current acute human health crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic – it is relatively easy, and realistic to have hope. We hope that the crisis will be over soon, that a vaccine will be developed, and that in the meantime, not many more people will suffer or die. Certainly not those we know personally. We also hope that societies or economies do not collapse in ways that would make us all worse off in the shorter, but especially, in the longer run.

As one of the consequences of humans taking reckless advantage of the rest of nature, the corona crisis is in fact closely related to the other, long-term existential crises that humanity faces, the climate and ecological crises. In the face of these, hope can be a much more difficult concept. It is in principle a positive emotion, yet it can keep negative emotions, such as anxiety, hidden from view. Further, instead of spurring us into action, it can do the opposite, making us more passive. Hope can feel empty, or it can feel energizing, all independent of the factual situation we are in. We can try to find hope in others, or we can create it ourselves. Sometimes we can feel empowering hope even in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. This text is, in a way, a short recap of the journey I have made myself through different ways to hope in relation to our existential crises.

The enormous and unprecedented human-made crises affect everyone at some level. In this situation, many rely on hope, as if having hope would relieve them from having to do something more in order to help solve the crises. By stating that we are hopeful, we, in a way, place responsibility on those who will (hopefully) do something soon. The activists, the scientists, the politicians, the others. Those who have more time, energy and abilities to do something than us, the (passively) hopeful. As Jem Bendell, the man behind the idea of Deep Adaptation, says, this actually means giving up our own agency for change.

At the same time, we are hiding our anxieties, as surely, as long as we can be hopeful, there is no real reason to be anxious? But anxious many of us are, nonetheless. Even those who on purpose try to stay away from facing the situation may do so exactly to not feel the anxiety that may be hiding somewhere deep inside. This kind of hope is actually disempowering, as when we don’t face our potential fears, we also don’t face reality. And when we don’t look reality in the eye, we are not motivated enough to act. So, in fact, this kind of hope can keep real change from taking place.

Others, such as many activists or scientists, rely on hope as something absolutely necessary for any real action to take place on a larger societal scale. Science has tried to determine whether hope and optimism, or worry, or perhaps even anger, would be the most efficient emotion in changing behavior towards sustainability. There is no consensus on this yet, but it at least seems that hope is not clearly better than some other basic emotion, and that different emotional appeals may work on different groups of people. However, all of us who argue that system change is our primary goal dislike this let’s-influence-ordinary-people-to-change-their-behavior approach. Some in the climate movement have actually lost hope in hope driving action.

Some, however, argue for different, stronger and much more active versions of hope. The concept of earned hope seems appealing. It is based on Kant’s philosophy, whereby we must first act based on awareness or knowledge of our predicament in order to have a right to hope. Action keeps this kind of hope alive. In her speeches, Greta Thunberg has talked about the need to earn hope. Psychology has studied hope a lot, and the so-called hope theory argues that true hope rises from the combination of personal goals and strategies to reach them. Such constructive hope comes from within ourselves and is closely linked with action, ours and that of others. The social aspect of such hope is important here, acting together as a group is not only more effective, but also feel much more positive, and hopeful.

But what if all our actions still don’t produce results? How can we not lose hope? Some psychologists argue that we can maintain our hope by connecting it to our values - values that, instead of separating us from the rest of nature, connect us with it and with each other. Our values will persist, no matter what happens to carbon emissions. This is called grounded hope (grounded in values) whereby uncertainty, or even pessimism is accepted. “Hope hurts, and feels at times pointless, yet we have to keep doing it. It’s the only way”, Diego Arguedas Ortiz, a BBC science reporter says.

Similarly,American writer Rebecca Solnit sees hope rising from the uncertainty we are currently facing, in opposition to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. She uses a rather strong metaphor when she says that hope is “an axe you break down doors with in an emergency”.

Jem Bendell does not believe in active hope that is mainly based on our imagination of what should be, and what we want to strive towards, as he sees that it can too easily be less real than intended, and sort of magical hope instead. He prefers the idea of radical hope from philosopher Jonathan Lear, whereby both action and connection to values are necessary even when we accept the dim reality. Radical hope is “empowered surrender to a situation”. It is also hope for humans to awaken and realize what our collective situation truly is, and to realize what is most important right now: to live, love and connect with others, while doing what we can to lessen the impact of what will come.

Instead of being based on illusions and wishful thinking, radical hope is enduring and courageous because it comes from being able to face the worst. It is also directed towards something positive – after the worst has arrived - something we can’t currently know. It is, in the words of Lear, directed towards “future goodness… that transcends the current ability to understand what it is”.

In relation to the corona crisis, some form of radical hope may in fact also be relevant. It might be that societies will have to go through some fairly far-reaching, and yet unknown changes as a result, just to try to ward off such far-reaching crises in the future. We may not have any idea of what will come, and we may actually fear some of the consequences. However, while practicing physical distancing, looking after our local communities, taking care of our loved ones, and continuing our activist and other lives more virtually, we need not only hope for life to return to normal soon. Instead, we can exercise some radical hope for societies to learn and take a leap to a yet unknown, but better world, where the climate and ecological crises are taken for what they are, long-term pandemic crises of nature, including humanity.

With radical hope, I would plant that apple tree today, without knowing what the future will bring.