My relationship with hope has been an uneasy one and that uneasiness is only exacerbated by the relentless onslaught of the climate crises. Without a doubt, it is hard to be hopeful when it hurts to breathe the smoky air or the intense heat keeps us pinned in our air-conditioned homes (if we’re lucky).
Climate activist Mary Annaise Heglar has been skeptical of hope for a long time, making the case that hope has not created the change necessary to address the scale of the climate crises. On the other side, the countervailing argument suggests that turning our backs on hope is the same as giving up, a state of being that will definitely not achieve the desired results.
So what is hope, anyway?
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hope as desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment, which suggests that hope is about more than fantastical wishing. Where we get tangled up, and where my discomfort with hope lies, is in the conflation between hope and optimism.
Optimism is entangled with hope. When we have hopes for the future, they suggest positive, optimistic outcomes. Unless one is a nihilist, one doesn’t hope for a comet to strike the Earth or for climate change to worsen. Optimism is encapsulated within our hopes. Despite this, they are not the same. In fact, relying on optimism as a key component of hope may close down the possibilities, restricting, rather than enhancing our ability to achieve the future we hope for.
Which brings me to the art of hoping well. This phrase was coined by researcher Victoria McGeer as a way of distinguishing between wishful hope that is grounded in fantasy and responsive hope, which leads to action and results. McGeer’s work suggests that a lack of agency is a key factor that leads to wishful hoping. When people feel helpless, they rely on external forces to deliver the outcome they want to see.
This aligns with Mary Annaise Heglar’s perceptions of hope as well. “A lot of times, when I hear people say ‘Yeah, I’m hopeful or I’m optimistic’, they’re basing their hope and their optimism on someone else’s back, someone else’s actions.”
If hoping well is connected to our agency over the outcome, how do we cultivate that ability in the face of the immense challenges we face? McGeer suggests that hoping well is not something that happens passively. It is a practice that requires cultivation and it cannot be done alone. She uses the term ‘scaffolding’ to articulate the idea of a mutually responsive community that reinforces a joint sense of agency towards a hopeful outcome. In short, we’re all in this together and supporting each other is most likely to create the conditions for a better future.
There are a couple of ways we can cultivate a community that supports good hope. First, we need to talk about it. For an issue like climate change, fear too often takes over, limiting our ability to build a supportive community. Second, evidence shows that connecting to nature, and in particular, engaging in conservation activities, enhances our ability to hope for a better future for our planet (and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to extend this to other areas as well.) Engaging with the things we care and are passionate about fuels our ability to hope and gives us the agency to act.
Hope without action isn’t enough and to take action, we need to find agency, no matter how small, over at least part of the problem. That’s the art of hoping well.
Parts of this post reference Sputtering Candles: The Labour of Hope in Southern Albertan Environmentalists an Undergraduate Honour’s Thesis by Rebeca Spencer from March 2023 that is not currently available online.