The Courage to Hope by Jonathan Foley

By Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy)| Published on The Macroscope | 2017 | Syndication made possible through Patreon | Photo: Rocky Mountain National Park. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Foley.

Hope is a verb. It’s an active frame of mind, an active frame of heart. It asks us to act, not just receive. To work, to sweat, to love, to risk it all.

By Jonathan Foley

Out of the Darkness

Rising temperatures… Increasing extreme weather events… Collapsing ice sheets… Destabilizing patterns of climate… Acidifying oceans… Coral reef die-offs… Tropical deforestation… Widespread environmental pollution… Countless species extinctions… Degraded land and water resources… Threats to global food security… Increasing risk of emerging disease…

It’s very easy for us to feel despair today, especially when it comes to the environment.

Every week there’s more news, most of it bad, about how we’re destabilizing our climate, degrading our ecosystems, and leaving a crippling mess for future generations. There is some good news too, but most days it feels like the bad news vastly overwhelms the good. What’s even more disturbing is that we are knowingly doing this to our planet. It’s impossible for the world’s leaders to say that they “didn’t know” this was happening, and that we didn’t have the power to prevent it all along.

Facing this barrage of bad news, it’s so easy to give in to darkness — and feelings of despair and fear. Many of us are feeling that way right now. And cynical politicians and media voices are making it far worse, wielding fear as a weapon, using it to divide us and paralyze us from action.

But let me tell you something about darkness: for every moment of darkness in the world, there are two moments of light. For every reason to despair there are two reasons to hope.

But let me tell you something about darkness: for every moment of darkness in the world, there are two moments of light. For every reason to despair there are two reasons to hope.

Hope and light are always — always — more powerful than despair and darkness. And they are always there. You just have to look for them. You have to have an open mind, be brave, and they will present themselves to you.

Hope is a Verb

I believe in the power of hope, but we need to be careful to understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Hope is not the same as blind optimism, or some naive belief that everything-will-turn-out-okay if we just sit still. It’s an active frame of mind, an active frame of heart. It asks us to act, not just receive. To work, to sweat, to love, to risk it all. It challenges us to build a better world, against the real possibility of failure, not merely to expect that others, or invisible hands, will do the work for us.

Hope is not the same as blind optimism, or some naive belief that everything-will-turn-out-okay if we just sit still. It’s an active frame of mind, an active frame of heart. It asks us to act, not just receive. To work, to sweat, to love, to risk it all.

In other words, hope is really a verb, while optimism is a noun. Don’t confuse the two.

Rebecca Solnit, as usual, put it best:

“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.”

Fueling Our Hope

But maintaining a hopeful stance is difficult, and it needs fuel to rekindle it.

Here are some recent developments that help power my sense of hope:

  • Tropical deforestation — a majorcontributor to climate change and global biodiversity loss — has dropped markedly in Brazil during the last 10 years. While it is still increasing elsewhere, Brazil reduced deforestation by nearly 70%, something no one thought was possible, through innovative partnerships between policymakers, businesses, scientists, and environmental groups. This is a huge win for climate change, protecting ecosystems, and maintaining healthy watersheds. And it gives me hope. If they can do it, why can’t other nations?
  • S. greenhouse gas emissionspeaked in 2007, initially due to the recession, but they continued to decline even as the economy recovered. Today, we have more people in America, a more active economy, and substantially lower emissions. It shows how our economy can thrive while we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, largely by replacing coal with cleaner fuels, accelerating the deployment of renewable energy sources, and driving more fuel efficient vehicles. If we can do that, why can’t we go further?
  • Global greenhouse gas emissionsappear to have peaked in 2015, largely due to reduced coal use in China, and the continued decline of emissions in the U.S. and Europe. In fact, global emissions have been basically flat from 2014 through today, even as the global economy has grown by roughly 8–10 percent. Naturally, we need to lower emissions, fast, but the first step is to stabilize them, and then aggressively lower them in every sector — including electricity, transportation, industry, agriculture, and forests.
  • Dramatically lower prices for solar cells, LEDs, etc.Solar panels cost less than half of what they did 8 years ago, and this has helped spur a dramatic increase in renewable energy deployment. For example, 2016 saw over 14.5 gigawatts of solar power installed in the United States, compared to 7.5 gigawatts installed in 2015 — a near doubling. As solar panels, high-efficiency LEDs, batteries, electric cars, and other technologies get cheaper, it will help drive the shift to a low-carbon energy economy faster than anyone imagined.
  • The rising leadership of cities, states, companies, and non-profits. As the federal government’s leadership on climate change and the environment has dramatically declined since January, we have seen impressive leadership on these issues emerge from American cities, states, corporations, universities, and non-profits. In fact, a large fraction of the United States’ population and economy has committed to the Paris accords on climate change, even through the federal government is stepping away from it. In a strange way, President Trump’s decision to disengage from the global climate agreements may have ignited even moreclimate leadership in America — but leadership that will happen in towns and cities, states and corporations, and non-profits across the nation.

These are just a few of the signs that the world, in fact, can get better — but only if we work hard at it.

Hope as a Strategy for Changing the World

There’s another reason to hope. It’s a good strategy if you actually want to change the world, mainly because no one follows a pessimist. Sure, pessimists who strike fear and despair in the crowd are good for rallying the base, whether the extreme left or extreme right. But it doesn’t work for most of us. It simply doesn’t inspire people to act. It paralyzes them with fear and despair. Maybe that’s why so many politicians use fear and despair as tools?

But if you really want to inspire people to change the world, hope is a necessary ingredient.

Martin Luther King didn’t say he had a nightmare, he said he had a dream — a dream of a better world. A dream that he, and many others, worked to make real. That’s hope. And it changes the world.

So, let us dream together of a better world, a world that we want. A better world for our children, regardless of background. Republicans. Democrats. People of all colors. Of all nationalities. Of all genders. All of us.

If we hope for that world together, there is a chance — a fighting chance — that we can build it. But without hope we have nothing.

Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is a world-leading environmental scientist who has worked on climate change, global ecology, and sustainable agriculture. He is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, where he leads the greenest and most forward-looking science museum on the planet. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the Academy or any other organization.

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