Hope! It seems to be everywhere these days. According to Psychology Today, hope is one of the “top 10 positive emotions” . As individuals and citizens, we routinely hope for many things: easy-to assemble IKEA furniture, a vaccine against COVID-19, a new (or old!) U.S. President, a solution to global warming.
Some believe we’re born with an “innate” sense of hope, and that “when hope dies in a person, physical death is not far off” .
In short, hope is good, and its only a small conceptual leap to the conclusion that you gotta have it.
Hope is expected to do some particularly heavy lifting among conservation workers, environmental activists, and those concerned with the climate crisis. A Google search on “Hope and Paris climate targets,” returns 14.5 million results in 0.58 seconds. In a title straight out of Star Wars, the top result declares: “From ‘lost decade’ of climate action, hope emerges” . Google “Hope and conservation,” and you get a whopping 157 million results in 0.37 seconds. In the top result, The Guardian’s Jeremy Hance asks “Has hope become the most endangered species in conservation?” .
There’s a common narrative about hope shared by Hance and other, like-minded commentators. Hope, according to this line of thinking, is needed as a bulwark against the despair that would be an all-too-natural reaction the constant spate of environmental bad news [5, 6]. More than this, hope “is the elixir of (environmental) action” . To feel hopeless is therefore to be paralyzed into inaction . Gregory Balmford and Nancy Knowlton, architects of the Earth Optimism movement, even argue that hopelessness (among conservationists) could become “a driver of extinction” .
Hopefulness status? It’s complicated
These strong claims for the power of hope might seem like self-evident truths. And many of us, no doubt, can attest to the numbing effect of feeling hopeless. You may therefore be surprised to learn that hope has not always been seen as a universal good.
In the ancient world, hope was “Elpis,” the one good thing to remain in Pandora’s box after she unwittingly released all the evils of the world. However, Elpis remained locked in Pandora’s box, and most ancient Greeks portrayed hope as a refuge for wishful thinkers, the gullible, and those who were in dire trouble, but haven’t realised it yet .
The Old Norse seemed to take an even more jaundiced view. To them, hope was the River Ván—the stream of saliva flowing from the toothsome maw of the cosmic wolf Fenrir after he’d been bound by the gods . The implication was that if you followed your hopes, you might end up in the jaws of the wolf.
Enlightenment thinkers sought to inject some positivity into this bleak picture. Hope could be a religious virtue. Hope also graduated from being a general expectation of good things to having a tangible objective, like a favourable outcome to a business undertaking. The philosopher Hume foreshadowed the modern view of hope by stating that the favourable outcome had to be uncertain. That is, the probability of it happening was neither 100 per cent nor zero .
Modern definitions of hope build on Hume’s description. In positive psychology, hope is defined as “a positive motivational state” (not an emotion) enabling people to exercise agency (goal-directed energy) in the pursuit of objectives that are possible but not 100 percent certain .
This type of “active” or “authentic” hope is what conservation biologist David Orr had in mind when he described hope as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up” . It emphasizes pragmatic, achievable goals and the actions needed to realize them. You may not know how to save the world, but you can hope to conserve a watershed . It turns out that the conservationists are on to something. Studies in fields as diverse as athletic performance and psychotherapy associate active hope with beneficial outcomes .
But there’s more.
For a start, don’t go confusing hope—especially active hope—with optimism, which is best thought of as a sunny expectation that “everything will turn out for the best.” There’s also passive hope, in which individuals hope for favourable (but fuzzily defined) outcomes, such as a solution to climate change. There’s absolute hope, the refusal to despair in the face of an inevitably bad future, like a terminal illness . Then there’s radical hope. Radical hope makes unsatisfactory or disastrous present circumstances tolerable by hoping for future redemption or deliverance. You can have radical hope without knowing what such redemption would look like or how to achieve it [16, 17].
Related to radical hope is the idea of “positive reappraisal,” in which individuals re-evaluate negative outcomes as opportunities or even as being beneficial. Naturalist and blogger Phil Barnett is clearly practicing positive reappraisal when he says: “…if only for the sake of our mental health, we can accept the reality of a globe, everywhere sullied by man’s footprints and perhaps even learn to love it” . And both radical hope and positive reappraisal lie behind the “hail Mary” plan to clone the functionally extinct northern white rhinoceros, now down to two individuals, both of them female .
To hope or not to hope.
Passive hope, radical hopes, and positive reappraisal seem unlikely to achieve success in most environmental battles. And optimism certainly won’t cut it since optimists don’t feel obligated to act in the world to make their expectations real.
No, it’s active hope that is the gold standard. Only active hope provides the inspiration, agency, and pathways to success that are needed for environmental action to succeed. Furthermore, active hope may provide environmental workers with a buffer of resilience against the repeated pain of environmental loss.
However, not everyone buys into the hope agenda. Environmentalists like Paul Kingsnorth and Derrick Jensen accuse environmentalists of buying into false hope. They charge that false hope leads to unattainable goals, illusory expectations, and inept action strategies. To Paul Kingsnorth, “false hope is worse than no hope” . Derrik Jensen seems to describe both false hope and radical hope when he says hope is a “longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless”.
So, to hope or not to hope? Should we let Elpis out of Pandora’s box and spread hope across the world, or should we, like the Old Norse, avoid hope because it leads to the wolf of disappointment? Realistic hopes can inspire environmental workers to great efforts in the face of enormous challenges, while pessimists like Kingsnorth and Jensen believe these endeavours are impotent to stem the rising tide of environmental degradation and extinction. What happens when hopes—even active ones—are disappointed? When the dams get built, when CO2 just keeps rising, when treasured species go extinct? The literature on hope is mostly silent on this point.
This blog post is adapted from a peer-reviewed article: Park, A., E. Williams, and M. Zurba. 2020. Understanding hope and what it means for the future of conservation. Biological Conservation 244: Article 108507. Thanks to Pippa Wysong for useful editorial comments.
By: Andrew Park
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