Hope in a Tailspin: Why we need different conversations in the midst of ecological crisis

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct displeasure of talking to a former senior executive of a leading European fossil fuel company. Our conversation, if that is what it was, started out amiably enough, only to descend into a shouting match. Not that I was doing a lot of the shouting. I didn’t get the chance. But nor was I an innocent party, having resorted unhelpfully to a number of sarcastic broadsides.

I started by airing several gripes about those multinational energy companies that, despite being fully aware of how greenhouse gases have contributed to the climate crisis, continue to make stratospheric profits, especially in the wake of the Ukraine war.

After listening intently for several minutes, the obviously irritated former executive could no longer contain himself, intervening at every turn, jabbing a pointed finger in my direction. This was designed to throw me off balance. It succeeded. My sentences began to fragment. I spluttered and babbled. It felt like an interrogation. I gradually gave way to his lengthy exposition on the merits of European fossil fuel companies which, I was told, were far more committed to clean energy than their North American counterparts. My interlocutor added that they (the European companies) are comprised of good, decent folk who, apparently, ‘do not have horns on their heads’. I was further informed that these stalwarts also fretted about the future and what their kids might face. More than anything, apparently, they wanted a ‘sustainable’, ‘clean’, ‘green future’ for their offspring, but definitely not one overseen by ‘green extremists’.  My silence was read as tacit submission to such views and I was urged, or rather, instructed, to ‘read and get your facts straight’.  

Despite my irritation, I was intrigued by the comparison between European fossil fuel companies and their American cousins. Are the former enlightened progressives and the latter cynical laggards when it comes to emissions reductions?

According to a team of well credentialed Japanese energy analysts, it seems this is a crock. In an essay aptly titled, The Clean Energy Claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A Mismatch between Discourse, Actions and Investments, the authors set about investigating the claims of European companies, in this case BP and Shell, contrasting them with two US producers, Chevron and ExxonMobil. In focusing on marketing rhetoric, pledges, production, expenditure and earnings relating to fossil fuel and clean energy outputs, the authors found plenty of ‘greenwashing’ among the Europeans as compared to US companies. The authors’ sobering conclusion was that ‘the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse. Until actions and investment behaviour are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded’ [my emphasis].

This is a depressingly familiar story. Reflecting on the most recent IPCC report, written by hundreds of scientists and agreed to by 195 countries, the UN Secretary General António Guterres aired some strident criticisms of governments and businesses who, since 2010, have presided over rising greenhouse gas emissions. Guterres said that emissions had increased ‘across all sectors, globally’, adding that the IPCC report revealed ‘a litany of broken climate promises’ and a ‘yawning gap between climate pledges and reality’. Under current emissions trajectories, he said, the planet was heading for up to three degrees or more temperature rise by the end of the century, if not sooner. Guterres, along with policy advisers, activists, scientists and others proceeded – once again – to warn of the dire dangers of further inaction. We’ve heard these warnings so often that they sound like well-worn cliches. No amount of talk about ecological destruction and the prospect of extinction leads to the concerted global action that is so desperately needed. Choose your metaphor: the boiling frog, the ostrich’s head in the sand, the cliff edge, the twelfth hour—they’re likely to escape notice, especially among denialist politicians and fossil fuel executives.

The fact is that we’re facing surreal cognitive dissonance on an epic scale: endless warnings, pledges, promises and declarations of hope pitted against the escalating realities of ecological destruction. It has been like this for decades. The global transition should have happened years ago. The sad fact is that when it comes to biosphere pollution we’re in a worse position now than a decade ago. The effects of this are being played out in umpteen ‘unprecedented’ extreme weather events around the world. A recent, well-publicised report on Greenland’s melting ice cap is a powerful signifier of what we are facing—cataclysmic changes that are beyond our control. Even if greenhouse gas emissions cease tomorrow, the Greenland ice cap will melt. We have, in effect, entered a world of the unknown and unknowable. Existing climate modelling is already out of step with real-world events.

Lest I be accused of being a doomsayer or alarmist, I’m simply echoing what a lot of climate scientists are saying. The intention is not to terrify anyone or to invite abject despair. But I’m also not inclined to climb aboard the hope bandwagon. Currently I’m ploughing through books like Tim Hollo’s Living Democracy, Joëlle Gergis’ book Humanity’s Moment and Claire O’Rourke’s Together We Can—all amazing, life-affirming books about emergent possibilities. They’re right to valorise the great global justice and ecological movements that are promoting life-enhancing, regenerative cultures. I laud this.

But I wonder too about the conversations we’re not having, and how we’re hanging onto what sounds increasingly like insistent, sometimes desperate, narratives of hope. I’ve just read Olivia Laing’s article ‘Enough with dystopian stories. We need more hope and less gloom’ which laments the ‘mass paralysis’ that arises from an excess of fearful climate information. She thinks art may have a role to play in stoking a new coping imaginary. I think she’s right: art, literature, music; all co-creative forms of expression, will no doubt prove vital in elevating our spirits and giving voice to our deepest worries, passions and desires.  We’ll need all this, and more. Psychologically, there’s no hiding from what’s unfolding.  It’s how we choose to respond and adapt that surely matters here, and that may require a whole new swathe of nuanced, deliberative conversations.

One thing is for sure—recent climactic events in Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, China, North America, continental Europe and Australia are alerting us ever more insistently to the unfolding realities of biosphere transformation. For the over 30 million displaced people of Pakistan, hope may seem a very remote emotion indeed. The same applies to those living in drought-stricken parts of Africa and the Middle East, and to those facing permanent inundation on atoll islands and low-lying coastal areas. For them, the conversations occurring in the more privileged, emissions-rich nations may seem spectacularly belated and indulgent.

The sad fact is that the global changes required to stabilise the biosphere are probably beyond us. Of course, the so-called ‘advanced’ industrialised nations should and must do what they can to mitigate the worst; adaptation funding should be allocated urgently to the most impacted nations, and, yes, there should and must be a moratorium on all new gas, oil and coal projects. But the required response at a global level simply isn’t there. Relying on good will, non-binding agreements, promises and pledges doesn’t cut it, and the allure of a geoengineering miracle is simply magical thinking, or worse—gigantic uncontrolled experiments on systems too complex to control. Years ago, Clive Hamilton wrote the book Requiem for a Species. It was truly scarry. Yet, as he notes in a recent Guardian opinion piece, his book was greeted with a ‘wall of silence’, as if the earth-shattering predications associated with the climate emergency didn’t matter when compared, say, to economic growth and GDP. Even though I disagree with some of Hamilton’s work, I think he’s generally right on the question of the climate. He gets the nature and scale of what we’re facing. He doesn’t mince his words or hide behind the veil of hope. Climate scientists were ripping their hair out back then (2010) when Hamilton wrote his book, now there’s no hair left to pull.

So where to now? There’s no doubt that more concentrated and targeted activism is needed if we are to avoid the very worst. Emission reductions at scale will not be handed to us on a platter, however noble the intentions or promises (like those of the European fossil fuel companies). Rapid and wholesale adaptation, especially for the world’s most vulnerable (already going through hell) is imperative. Millions, perhaps billions, will not be able to adapt. This fact alone will have huge geopolitical, social and economic ramifications. Ultimately, no country on Earth will be spared. Little has changed since the publication of Hamilton’s book except that things are happening much faster than anyone anticipated. Some scientists, like Bill McGuire, are honest enough to tell us exactly where we’re headed, that we have probably gone beyond tipping points, and that geoengineering is unlikely to come to the rescue. It’s already too late for many of the world’s most at-risk populations.

I think we need to revisit the notion of hope. Why?  Because ultimately, attachment to this emotion may prove deeply unhelpful. Put bluntly: it can get in the way of meaningful action. It can stop us from thinking about some pressing existential questions. It can be self-serving, and disregarding of what is already happening to millions of people around the world who have contributed little to the crisis. Disengaged hope can distract us from the conversations we need to be having about life on a radically altered planet and what this means for each and every one of us. Our everyday lives, our moral and ethical frameworks, our emotions and spiritual lives will become the stuff of routine deliberations. Trauma, grief, terror and anger will be attendant emotions as time goes on. These feelings may well intensify and hope may rapidly melt away. The spread of psychological harms has already ushered a new industry of mental health experts focused on various ‘conditions’, as if these are transitory and fixable. It won’t be so easy. We may need another approach.

Writing in Arena Online, Mark Furlong argues that, ‘if we are able to achieve a deep form of recognition—an acceptance of climate collapse that is able to contain, and to meaningfully process, a tumult of primary emotions: grief, horror, anger, despair, terror—a complex precondition might be realised’. Furlong goes on: ‘personal and collective rituals need to directly address loss and articulate gratitude as well as contrition. It is only in this scenario that it is possible to envisage forms of rational public and private thought that lead to planned, civilly minded action’. The foundation for this, of course, is a new form of social engagement in which human connection is validated as a means of dealing with challenges through mutual aid, talk, reflection and collective, organised action against destructive corporate and governmental power. And as Tim Hollo rightly notes, we need to further invest in new ecologies of being. Rather than relying on hope, this prompts a reversal of the dehumanising individualism that has flourished under the rubric of neoliberal nihilism.

Given all this, it is clear, as psychotherapist Leon F. Seltzer argues, that we should view hope with caution, perhaps as metaphor reflecting a range of complex responses to current and unknowable, dark events. While there are various articulations of hope, the most egregious sorts sugar-coat the present and deny the possibility of adjusting to, and facing up to a new reality. Better perhaps to have our eyes wide open than be constantly stalked by disappointment and pain. There are, says Seltzer, ‘many situations in which a realistic acceptance of a possibly (or likely) negative outcome is more beneficial than clinging to a hope counter to what is quite probably (if not certainly) going to happen’. This invites us, he argues, to ‘moderate our perspective so that it’s more in line with real-life eventualities’. This is sound advice.

To state the obvious, we’re in an age of hyper-transformation and radical uncertainty. There are things we can do, and things we can’t. It’s human hubris to think otherwise. Trying to sort out what is possible, or not, is the window to perhaps co-creating, at least for some, ways of being that are grounded in what Tim Hollo refers to as ‘living democracy’—the routinised engagement of citizens in all aspects of communitarian life. This requires forms of ecological reconnection that run counter to prevailing trends of social atomisation. As Hollo observes, there are countless examples of people and communities around the world working together to fight economic, gender and racial injustice, and actively promoting ecological democracy.

But again, even this may not be enough. ‘We are heading in the wrong direction’, according to a subtitle of the recent World Metrological Organisation’s  report United in Science, with governments and businesses falling well short of the actions required. The end result is that we’re likely to breach the desired 1.5 degrees temperature increase in a few years and that extreme weather events will become the norm. This is why, as Catherine Ingram argues in her essay ‘Facing Extinction’, we should seek to invest emotionally in the complex spaces between hope and despair, where there is acceptance and courage: acceptance of what the scientific evidence is telling us about the limits to our interventions, and courage to live a life of service and care, anchored in love, kindness and compassion. There is an imperative too of remaining active participants in helping to prevent the worst and recommitting to the pursuit of peace, justice and human rights, an approach consistent with Joanna Macy’s idea of ‘active hope’.  Yet, as Seltzer states, ‘though putting your trust in hope can be extremely tempting, diligently applying yourself to what you most care about is a much more reliable way to prosper in life’.

To ‘prosper’ here means committing and recommitting to reinvigorated forms of activist politics that target the sources of power—corporations, governments, banksters, lobbyists, sections of the corporate media, shareholders and so forth—who relentlessly and selfishly encourage profiteering as the planet burns, melts and drowns. As Jeff Sparrow notes, the cynical attempt by corporations to deflect blame for the climate emergency to citizens, or who greenwash, or who push ‘micro consumerist bollocks’ campaigns, is to evade responsibility for escalating levels of atmospheric pollution. It’s worth remembering that one hundred or so of the world’s leading fossil fuel companies emit over three quarters of all emissions. Building effective alliances to counter apocalyptic power requires the strengthening of intersectional networks and communities so as to continue mitigation campaigns as well as adapting to new climate realities. It also means, particularly in the super-consumptive, carbon-intensive nations, pushing for systems of consumption and production that are regenerative rather than destructive, and promoting, as philosopher Kate Soper argues, new forms of ‘post growth hedonism’ that celebrate social connection, collective wellness and inter-being.

*       *      *

I’m edgy when writing about the limits of hope. I’ve read many accounts that more or less insist that without this emotion there is nothing but bottomless despair. I don’t buy that. I’ve had friends looking deeply into my eyes insisting, despite my counter views, that I must have hope, that without it I am destined to give up altogether. The idea of active hope—if we really have to use the word—is perhaps nearer to my orientation, which is that we take a tempered, dare I say rational, look around us, then act, with others, on what we think we can achieve within the limits of our capabilities. I understand that for many people the absence of hope is unfathomable; it has, after all, long been credited, as Viktor Franhkl argued, as an indispensable, life-saving emotion. Despite all I have said, if you need to hope, then hope, but it’s also helpful at this time, as Jem Bendell and others have pointed out, to begin to explore the unthinkable—the very ideas that run counter to entrenched assumptions of permanence and rescue. As Britt Wray argues in Generation Dread, if we don’t have those conversations, we will be less prepared than we are to face what is coming.

I think she’s right, and so is Brigid Delaney, who in her new book Reasons Not to Worry quotes the words of James Stockdale, a captured US serviceman in Vietnam who endured seven years of cruel and brutal incarceration. Drawing on the principles of stoicism, Stockdale chose to attend to the things, the particularities, over which he had some control, like getting through the day in the best way he could, retaining his dignity and self-respect, and not focusing on his possible release. The latter, he found, like Primo Levi’s experience of a concentration camp, only led to more suffering. In fact, the inmates in both cases who invested in hope soon found disappointment, then despair. Reflecting years later on his wartime experiences, Stockdale wrote: ‘You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end…with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.  Stockdale was able to survive in part because he chose life over abstract hope. As Delaney points out: ‘Stockdale did not spend time in captivity living in hope that he would be freed; he just tried to live in dignity and respect in the small area that he could control’.   It’s a message worth heeding as we confront the realities of the ecological crisis.

*Sincere thanks to Arena’s Tim Strom and Alison Caddick for useful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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About the author

Richard Hil

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Adjunct Professor at Southern Cross University and Convenor of the Ngara Institute. Richard is the author of numerous books, the latest being The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (with Ross Caputi and Donna Mulhearn).

More articles by Richard Hil

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“I gradually gave way to his lengthy exposition on the merits of European fossil fuel companies which, I was told, were far more committed to clean energy than their North American counterparts.”
That may well be the case. There is a certain defeatism abroad in the denialist camp, which I can attest to firsthand. I used to be a subscriber at that ‘conservative’ site ‘Quadrant Online’ (See https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/public-health/2022/09/the-covid-end-game-its-time-for-answers/?unapproved=139032&moderation-hash=f3ecc86d0dc419d790f9ab5eb43773c6#comment-139032 ) with whose articles I did in part agree. (I particularly like the Poetry of Suzanne Edgar, regularly featured there.) But soon it became clear that QO was the mouthpiece of the Tony “the future is coal” Abbott extreme Right of the Liberal Party, and fully into climate (and then covid) denialism. Both climate change and covid threatened business-as-usual. My comments critical of their climate denialism rapidly saw me attacked from all quarters, then banned outright; despite their pretensions to ‘liberalism’. (See “Quadrant accepts unsolicited, previously unpublished articles that fit within its general profile of a journal of ideas, essays, literature, poetry and historical and political debate. Although it retains its founding bias towards cultural freedom, anti-totalitarianism and classical liberalism, its pages are open to any well-written and thoughtful contribution. Some of our writers are internationally renowned; some are previously unknown.”
https://quadrant.org.au/submissions/ )
It clearly emerged that the site was the mouthpiece of fossil-carbon interests bent on converting the one-off, precious and never-to-be-repeated fossil carbon stores of the planet into $$$$ in their own private bank accounts as soon as possible. Moreover, this cause led them to hostility and opposition to all renewable sources of energy, and opposition to the Turnbull wing of the Liberal Party, which was not so inclined.
But we live in interesting times. It seems that even a leopard can change its spots, and a denialist ostrich pull its head out of the sand.

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