Radical hope is not just about determination and courage in the face of darkness, writes Paul Hoggett - it is also about love and a re-finding of all that is benign in the world. And this is the spirit we need to muster to confront the serious challenges that lie before us.
By Paul Hoggett
Apr 14, 2015
The hope that comes from facing the worst is enduring because it is not built upon a scaffolding of illusion and wishful thinking. It is defiant and courageous and refuses to capitulate.
Although resilience has become an over-hyped word, the need for campaigners around climate change to be resilient should not be underestimated.
The chances of achieving substantial emission reduction targets, let along legally binding ones, at December's Paris summit seem slim. But we cannot afford the dip in morale and activity that followed Copenhagen.
Together with Ro Randall of Carbon Conversations I have been talking to climate scientists and activists about what, to quote Samuel Beckett, enables them to "keep going, going on".
Neither denial nor despair
If there is one thing that scientists and activists have in common is that they don't do denial, if they have a problem it is that they think about climate change too much not too little.
In contrast, in my experience of giving talks and workshops to mostly affluent adults and students, the so-called ‘educated' British public does not give climate change a lot of thought. Indeed, why would you want to torture yourself by thinking about it?
I admit that at times I have to drag myself kicking and screaming towards the research evidence on climate change because I know that reading this stuff can make me despair. This is what we mean by denial, turning a blind eye to what we know is there but prefer not to think about.
And what is the point of despair, surely it just renders us powerless? Absolutely right. And so that's our predicament, how do we avoid flipping over from denial to despair?
This predicament isn't unusual to the climate change movement. In earlier years, when I was a political scientist, I was fascinated by how little attention my colleagues paid to the role of despair in politics. I think it was largely a consequence of the overwhelmingly male nature of the political science community that they simply didn't recognize the role of feelings in politics.
So instead of recognizing the presence of despair what they saw was something they called ‘apathy'. Renee Lertzman makes the same point in her book Environmental Melancholia, people are often apparently apathetic about the environment not because they don't care but because they care too much but feel there is nothing they can do.
Despair and powerlessness
So despair and powerlessness go together. If people feel that they have some power in a situation they are less likely to feel despair. Ultimately despair comes from the feeling that you simply don't have the resources (e.g. the determination, the courage, the knowledge, the skill, the support from others) to do anything about the destruction all around you.
Despair is a form of inner defeat. But strangely enough hopelessness does not necessarily lead to despair, it can be liberating.
Vasily Grossman based his stunning novel Life and Fate on his experiences as a Red Army war correspondent. He was present at the battle for Stalingrad, witnessed Nazi ethnic cleansing in the Ukraine and was one of the first journalists to enter Treblinka.
He notes the paradox that whilst hope often "gave birth to a pathetic obedience" the most courageous struggles, such as the Warsaw Rising, "were all born of hopelessness." His fictionalized account of the fighters in ‘house 6/1' at Stalingrad, fighters who know they will not survive and yet struggle on with tenacity, humour and integrity, is his testimony to the power of hopelessness.
As a psychotherapist I often work with people in despair. Take the example of a woman whose partner has suddenly left her after many years of a good marriage. In her despair she looks around and everything in her life seems to be in ruins. The good times had together in the past now seem like an illusion.
Photographs, memories and events have lost all of their meaning. Her very sense of self as a partner, lover and even as mother, has been destroyed. Of course one is tempted to pass lightly over this despair, to turn a blind eye to it in a well meaning effort to help the other mitigate the pain they feel.
But what I have learnt is to have enormous respect for people's capacity to face the worst when they feel they have the permission. It might sound odd to say this but more often than not people need to be given this permission, they need to feel that they can visit the despair with someone who does not need to be protected from it.
And to really face the worst in this way paradoxically often brings relief. By naming it, what had previously been a source of internal terror loses some of its sting. One thinks of Roosevelt's famous phrase: "there is nothing to fear but fear itself."
Optimism of the will
The social critic Christopher Lasch once said that the worst is what the hopeful are always prepared for. Facing the worst (pessimism of the intellect) and yet sustaining an optimism of the will, now there's a challenge.
Facing climate change, species extinction, global conflicts and poverty, allowing ourselves to be disturbed by them, moved by them and yet remaining sane, is no easy thing.
It is difficult to rethink what a cultural intervention might be that would facilitate more people to feel safe enough to risk facing into the difficulties rather than reacting to the felt threat. Ro Randall and Andy Brown have set a precedent with their book In Time for Tomorrow?
This builds on their Carbon Conversations work in which groups were supported to take this risk to really look at their carbon use. The crucial factor here was the containment that facilitated the conversations.
The hope that comes from being able to face the worst is an enduring hope because it is not built upon a scaffolding of illusion and wishful thinking. It is defiant and courageous and it refuses to capitulate to what might seem like hopeless odds.
"Active hope is something we do rather than have", so say Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone in their book Active Hope, and I think this is exactly what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci meant by "optimism of the will", that resilient keeping on going on.
Let's face it, we don't know what the future holds. When people begin to emerge from the ruins of a life they can see painfully what has been lost but ahead is only an uncharted sea. But move on they do, and without false hopes. Some kind of elemental confidence about life is slowly restored.
In the depths of evil, believe still in the world's deeper good
In his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation Jonathan Lear depicts a whole community, the Crow Indian in late 19th century North America, coming to terms with loss of a way of life in this fashion. Lear calls this "radical hope", a commitment to the idea that the goodness of the world transcends one's limited and vulnerable attempts to understand it.
So radical hope is not just about determination and courage, it is also about love and a re-finding all that is benign in the world.
Returning to the Paris summit in December, we would be fools to get our hopes up about what is going to be achieved here. Who knows, maybe it will help us inch forwards but, like nearly all previous COPs, we are more likely to remember it for what it failed to achieve than for its success.
Maybe its failure will strengthen us, refocusing energies towards controlling the activities of the few thousand fossil fuel producers rather than the emissions of billions of individual consumers. If Samuel Beckett can provide the inspiration for Silicon Valley and Stanislas Wawrinka, then why not us.
As he puts it in Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
This resilience is what we call radical hope.
Paul Hoggett is a psychotherapist and Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance. He is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of the West of England.
Paul's books include 'Partisans in an Uncertain World' and 'Politics, Identity and Emotion'.