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The space between hope and despair
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Pass it on
I'm reading
The space between hope and despair
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The space between hope and despair
Pass it on
Pass it on
13 January 2020

The space between hope and despair

Senior Psychologist, Dr Susie Burke, explains that hope comes in myriad forms, each one the catalyst for a different response, and some more useful than others. Ask yourself, what hope do you have?

Written by Dr Susie Burke

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

I was standing on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition Street with my camera trained on thousands of chanting children marching up to the top of town on the first mass school strike for climate on the 30th November 2018.  A woman came and stood next to me and put her hand on her chest and said “It’s so beautiful. I feel like crying – they give me such hope”.  I sensed the complexity of what she was trying to express. In the midst of our shared fears for the planet, our anger at woefully inadequate Government climate policies, and our guilt at our own complicity in being adults already, with a lifetime of profit from a fossil-fuelled century, our hearts well up at the clamour and energy and passion of hundreds of thousands of the world’s children fighting for a safe climate. Joy, sadness, beauty, horror, hope and fear – these are only some of the many paradoxes that we need to make room for as we come to terms with the climate crisis and summon our strength to stay engaged and effective.

Allowing herself to feel hopeful didn’t mean that this bystander on the street was handing over the job of fighting climate change to the children. Nor did it mean that she thought now that everything would work out ok. Maybe she felt hopeful at the sight of future decision makers loudly articulating and owning their environmental values and was envisioning this next generation of leaders in society finally doing the right thing.  Maybe she sensed that the moral authority of our children demanding a safe climate for their generation would be a tipping point for good climate policy. Maybe she felt hopeful that children who defy the Prime Minister’s exhortation for them to stay in school, will do everything they can to make the government change. Whatever she meant, we all do well to notice these moments of hopeful solidarity and to use them to realise that we’re not alone in our fear and distress, and to believe that, together, change is possible.

My daughter Milou spoke that day on the steps of Treasury Buildings as one of the three children in Castlemaine who were first galvanised by Greta’s quiet and persistent protest in Sweden, and began the upswell of noisy, activated children in Australia. She said in her speech, ‘Wherever you come from, whoever you are, you’re here because you believe like me that a safer world is possible and that we’re prepared to do what it takes to create this world’. With these words, Milou helped to expand our group identity as people who not only attend a rally, but who are prepared to do what it takes to create a safe planet.  She expanded the group of enlightened people to include people from all walks of life. This is an extremely useful strategy in social change movements. The bigger you make the group of enlightened people demanding change, the more this view becomes the social norm, and the more people want to join in, because people, generally, want to be like everybody else. Additionally, it reminds our leaders that when they take strong action on restoring a safe climate, millions of us will support their policies action and accept the necessary changes to our economy and lifestyle that we need for a safe climate.

The children of Castlemaine have been learning about social change, non-violent direct action, and joining environmental protests for many years now. When Milou first heard about Greta’s protest, it made immediate sense to her.  This was direct action that children could do.  It was not hard for her and her friends Harriet and Callum to inspire scores, then hundreds of children in Castlemaine to join the school strikes in front of their Federal politicians’ offices. From there, the momentum has built and built, with an estimated 350,000 people around Australia joining the last mass strike on 20thSeptember 2019 – Australia’s largest ever climate protest!  Feeling hopeful?

The climate emergency is an extremely hot topic now (pun intended!), and it inevitably raises the issue of hope – and despair. A journalist asked me the other day if I thought we would get on top of climate anxiety before we got on top of climate change. How am I meant answer that! Seriously, though, I think the two go hand in hand.  The things we do to take action on climate change play an important part in reducing our anxiety, and other distressing feelings.  Psychologists call this ‘problem-focused coping’, where we learn to cope with our uncomfortable feelings by doing something to reduce the problem that is distressing us. In this case, action on climate change is an antidote to despair. I show the footage of the children marching and chanting up the street when I give presentations on coping with climate change. I show it at the end in a section about the importance of cultivating hope. Usually people wipe away tears at the end. Again, that mixture of grief and joy, fear and hope; the paradoxes we need to make room for. The children are directly addressing their fears with collective action, and using creative, fun, cheeky messaging.  Maybe this is another part of what that lady on Bourke Street was calling hope.  The spirited, feisty, fun loving collective passion gives a glimpse of a hopeful future where we band together and the grass roots flourish into fresh forest of carbon sequestering trees.

Cultivating hope is an example of what psychologists call ‘meaning focused coping strategies’, where the meanings that we attribute to climate change can help us to stay engaged with the problem, as well as helping us to manage the difficult feelings.

The concept of hope always turns up when the going gets tough, whether we’re dealing with personal challenges like illness or great loss, or enormous societal challenges like climate change.  We wonder if there’s ‘any hope’, or if it’s ‘hopeless’, or whether we’re just ‘indulging false hopes’and so on.

We get that hope is a good thing to have, and that having no hope is pretty miserable, but why is hope useful, and  what exactly is it (it’s a very abstract noun), and how can we cultivate hope on something like climate change without just being naïve, or underestimating the severity of the problem, or ‘brightsiding’?

Let’s start with why we need it.  Hope is an integral part of being human.  It’s what gets us out of bed each day and gives us the reason to go on when faced with adversity, trials and threats.  Social scientists like psychologists have found it to be a contributing factor in helping people recover from disasters, illness, trauma, and tragedy.  Hope is one of the five key elements that we promote in psychological first aid, and in helping people recover from floods, cyclones, bushfires and other natural disasters.

Without hope we risk becoming depressed. There is a considerable body of research looking at the relationship between being depressed and hopeless.  Being depressed isn’t good for anyone.  (Unless, as George Monbiot quips in his introduction to Heat, you get so depressed that you go to bed and pull the covers over your head and stay put – thereby drastically reducing your carbon footprint burn fewer fossil fuels in the process).

Without hope, we also risk resigning ourselves to disaster, focusing only on adaptation and no longer putting efforts into mitigation.  Without hope, some will turn towards nihilism, we risk people deciding to just enjoy the riches of fossil fuels and no longer making efforts.

So, what type of hope is most helpful?

Norwegian environmental psychologist Per Epsom Stoknes (2015), identifies four different types of hope.  The first two types of hope he describes are variations of optimism.  Passive optimism he also calls“Pollyanna Hope”, after the little girl in the classic children’s story who always maintained that there was a positive side of any problem that befell her.  The person with passive optimism tends to believe that a positive future will simply come about on its own, or as a result of someone or something else, like ‘mother earth’, or a silver bullet solution, (otherwise known as techno salvation).

Next, Stoknes describes active optimism.  With this attitude, the person has a similarly positive outlook but knows that he or she needs to put in a big effort to make this positive outcome happen. He refers to this as heroic hope. People with this attitude say things like “We’ll make it happen” and “There’s no end to human ingenuity”.

For both of these, says, Stoknes, you have to believe in the likelihood of good outcomes, and there has to be a pretty good reason for the optimism, either because things are going to end well all by themselves or because we will be able to make them come out well.  Also, to be optimistic in this way, we are attached to the likelihood of certain favourable outcomes and of things ending well.  So far so good, until, of course the outcomes start to look not-so-positive.  Then, this type of optimism quickly turns to pessimism. We are very vulnerable to this happening in our work on climate change.  We are exposed all the time, in the media and elsewhere, to stories of our inability to do what it takes to solve the climate crisis, to set adequate emission reduction targets, to get off our addiction to fossil fuels, to change the economics of capitalism. This means we risk swinging a lot from being hopeful, to having these hopes dashed, and feeling hopeless and despairing and very pessimistic.

Stoknes also points out sensibly that where climate change is concerned, optimism has a weak case. Is that it for hope, then?  Stoknes argues that there is another types of hope, sceptical hope – which can also be useful, and goes beyond optimism and pessimism.

Passive scepticism is a hopeful perspective in which the person isn’t sure that the future will be ok, but believes that not much needs to be done to change the course we’re on, because it will be bearable.  “We’ll weather the storm” and “Afterwards, we will rebuild”. This form of hope is often called stoic hope.  One of the problems with this type of hope is that we are becoming increasingly unsure as to whether we will be ok, and whether we will be able to cope with the forecasted climate altered world.  When we use extreme weather events as a proxy for climate change, we risk adopting this form of passive scepticism.  When we see extreme weather events as a proxy for climate change, we are inclined to take our attention away from the urgency of mitigating climate change, because this is familiar territory.  Bad weather events have happened before, and we’ve been able to rebuild and recover. We know how to do this.  It will be bad, but we can do it.  The problem with this approach, however, is that climate change is way more than extreme weather events. It threatens every aspect of our lives: economies, infrastructure, landscapes, livelihoods and our very way of life. It is foolhardy to adopt a perspective of passive scepticism.

The most useful version of hope that Stoknes has identified is that of active scepticism.  This is the type of hope needed by climate reality leaders. With active scepticism the person is realistic about the threats, sceptical about it turning out ok, accepts that there’s perhaps no reason to be optimistic, but is determined to go for it anyway and chooses to do whatever she or he can to bring about the best possible outcome, because standing by is an unacceptable and unethical option.  Stoknes calls this ‘grounded hope’. “It’s grounded in our being, in our character, and calling, not in some expected outcome”. Yes, says Stoknes, grounded hope is to say ‘it’s hopeless and we’re going all in.”

As the mother of three children, all perched near the edge of the nest ready to take flight, I think about climate change a lot. I am acutely aware of all the paradoxes of being a parent tasked with raising a child for a climate altered world – of being joyful and sad about their future, and hopeful and optimistic to sleep at night. Hope comes in myriad forms, each one the catalyst for a different response. Greta has hope, my daughter has hope, the lady on Bourke Street has hope, and all of them are using it to take action and be resilient in the face of crisis. Ask yourself, what hope do you have?

Dr Susie Burke

Dr Susie Burke is a Psychologist, researcher, therapist, climate change campaigner

Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

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