We’re stepping into a new year in the climate fight. The turning of the year is a milestone both for stoking our resolve, and for noting how deep we now are into climate overtime. In 2018 there was a lot of talk of diminishing odds and despair, and not without reason. So if, like me, you’re heading into 2019 discouraged or even despairing, I have three things to say: you’re not wrong; the fight from here on out is not the one you signed up for; but there’s more to hope, even your own, than meets the eye.
A climate scientist and dear friend told me back in 2008 that she had moved into a “post-hope” stage of her life. She wasn’t despondent, more matter-of-fact, as she left her job here at UCS for a 6-month “breather” in Antarctica. I didn’t understand her at the time; what comes after hope? A few months later, though, through my work analyzing climate impacts and following climate science, I had my first paralyzing run-in with climate grief and since then have gone a few times round the grief cycle. And today, we have the latest science and most recent abdications of leadership underscoring how dire things are. I understand better now.
But I think she misunderstood hope.
I don’t have some hopeful gospel to preach to you; I’m not even going to encourage you to be hopeful. But since my teens, through my work and personal passions, I’ve been wandering a path from climate awareness to climate anxiety to climate anguish and I couldn’t help but learn something about the true nature of hope after all these years of running it over with a bus. That knowledge – not optimism or determination, or any virtue on my part – has become my superpower over climate despair. In recent years, in fact, I’ve realized that I’m just immune to it; it lands but can’t stick. You may be the same, though you might describe it differently or not even know it yet.
You’re not wrong
You’re not wrong: it’s bad. There’s this great, intricate weaving – the one we’re all walking around on – and someone’s been snipping intermittent threads that attach it to the loom. Things are starting to unravel in obvious, abrupt patches, sending us scrambling. Other changes are coming through gradual but widespread loosening of strands. We race about hastily tying threads back together, but we’re not as good as the weaver. The patterns are starting to become disorderly. How many more strands can be cut before they’re unrecognizable? And why haven’t we taken away the scissors?
But who needs metaphors when we have science. As 2018 wound down, science walloped us. The IPCC 1.5 degree report, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and other scientific works were released with stark assertions about the things that are all but lost, the things we can fight for if we bring our strongest ambitions to bear, and the waning gap between such ambitions and where we are headed. We saw the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) come and go in Poland with progress made, but vastly insufficient to the long-term goals.
If you’re a realist, and you’re absorbing these things and where it’s all pointing us, you’re apt to feel some despair. Aldo Leopold wrote that if you study ecology, the price you pay is to walk through a world of wounds. But wounds are for healing. Today, if you follow the changing climate, you walk through a world of ghosts – creatures and places and, today, even people whose claim and foothold in the future is now fatally undermined. Coral reefs are fading before our eyes, an Arctic food web is fading with the summer sea ice, and delta and island homes are fading into the sea.
At some point in our climate awareness many of us begin to grieve (and maybe to rage or panic; more than once, I’ve had this momentary visceral urge: how do I get off this ride?) And the grief we feel cycles between the poles of acute anguish and resignation, but it never really lifts. Many of us, understandably, have felt our hope grow thin. At some point, we lose a climate fight we really needed to win and we feel hope tear. And at another point, we reach for its comfort and we don’t feel it at all. It’s gone, sublimated like vapor from ancient Antarctic ice. We might think the despair we feel has taken its place.
But here’s the thing: it’s not that easy to lose hope.
The true and gritty nature of hope
When people think of hope, personified, it’s usually a butterfly, or a dove, or a sapling sprouting from the ground. Yes, and. That’s not the hope we’re talking about. Bring it along, but it’s not the kind of hope we’ll be using so much where we’re going.
In Finland, there’s a word, “sisu”, which gets crudely translated as determination, grit, and courage. The Finnish side of my family liked to celebrate it. But it’s meant to be more; something like extraordinary resoluteness and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity. The Finns also have an epic poem, The Kalevala, handed down in the oral tradition for over a thousand years, and finally captured on paper in the 1800s. Like most myths, it is pretty nutty, but myths endure for a reason and I found one in the story of Lemminkäinen’s mother, a nameless woman who, for me, defines sisu and redefines hope. Let me tell you the short version: