“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”
– Pablo Neruda
Most of us like to think we’re smart. We like to think we’re highly intelligent people and even better, members of a highly intelligent species. We celebrate our cleverness at every opportunity and speculate about even more audacious acts of intelligence yet to come. We look down on the other animals and pity them for their limited cognitive capacity. Surely they must long to be like us, the greatest species in the history of life on Earth.
But we’re wrong about all of this. In fact, we are deeply irrational animals. Research in cognitive science and behavioral economics consistently shows that we’re easily swayed by suggestion, hormones, culture, placebos and nocebos. We like to think that we make well-reasoned, calculated decisions about what to do in our lives, but mostly we act on impulse and out of habit. We delude ourselves in things both great and small.
Our ancient bodies are running the show, but from their Paleolithic perspective the world is still a wild and dangerous place. Carnivores lurk in the shadows and safety is illusive. Life is mysterious and wonderful, but it’s also precarious, unpredictable and insecure. We do what we can to survive, but we’re always on alert for omens that will tell us about the future. And when times get hard, we turn to hope to get us through.
In modern conversations about the state of the planet, hope has become a surprisingly controversial topic, especially in the circle that some now call the “doomosphere.” A small but growing community of environmental realists are urging us to see the future for what it is, without illusion or distortion. These authors decry our widespread addiction to “hopium,” a psychological cruch that leads us into delusion, denial and passivity.
As the doomsters see it, the problem with hope is that it’s often used as a substitute for action. Hopium seduces us and lets us get away with life and business as usual. When we’re under its influence, our sense of urgency fades and we lapse into habit, convention and reliance on the status quo. As they see it, the solution is to give up hope and get to work creating a functional future. Hope is for dreamers, not for people who’re intent on making a difference.
The doomists make a good point but I fear they go too far. The call for realism is vital and welcome, but to suggest that people give up hope is a gigantic, almost unimaginable ask. For most of us, hope is essential to survival and even sanity. As far as we know, the drive for hope is a human universal, common to every people that have ever lived. And not surprisingly, a substantial body of research shows that hope is a powerful force in health and recovery from illness. Asking people to give up hope is tantamount to asking them to give up life itself.
But the doomists are right about one thing. For many, especially those of us under the influence of mass marketing and consumer culture, hopium is little more than a narcotic that sets us up for denial and inaction. Hoping, after all, is so much easier than doing. And in this sense, hope actually diminishes our prospects for a functional future. Most notably, hope enables our inaction on climate change, a cultural passivity that writer Kim Stanley Robinson describes as “the great dithering.” We aren’t actually doing anything to remedy our situation, but we’re hopeful that things will be better, so we relax. In this sense, wishing is worse than nothing. If all we do is hope, there isn’t going to be much hope for any of us.
This is not to say that we should give up. Without question, hard times are ahead. Our environmental and social future looks dark and we’re going to need every tool, skill, orientation and attitude that we can lay our hands on. The trick is to make our hope relevant and meaningful. That means coupling it with action, engagement and courage. Instead of using hope as a substitute for action, we use it to make our action stronger. Act first, redouble our efforts and then at the end of the day, hope for success and a better tomorrow.
This book won’t give you hope in the conventional sense. It’s not written to bolster your confidence in a utopian future or to put a glossy layer on a looming planetary catastrophe. Rather, it’s a call for a more sophisticated, sapient kind of hope, a hope based on seeing clearly and acting with resolve. The objective is to look for hope in the most vital and powerful places, especially the incredible adaptability of our bodies, the immense resilience of the biosphere, and our endless capacity for cultural creativity. When we couple this kind of hope with radical realism and the courage to truly face what we’re doing to this beautiful planet, we put ourselves in a position to lead healthier, more meaningful lives. Couple hope with action we’ve got a fighting chance to do some good.