Is Hope Overrated?

By Jennifer Atkinson

Many consider hope to be essential to maintaining social movements where change is slow, setbacks are frequent, and the odds aren’t good. As Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” But when it comes to the existential threats of climate change and mass extinction, what if hope is part of the problem? What if it obscures the enormity of our crisis, or makes us complacent, allowing the public to defer responsibility onto other people or the future?

When you look at the scale of our climate emergency and the inadequacy of society’s response, hope can feel like a throwaway term, a cheap neon sign we dutifully switch on at the end of climate rallies. But those reservations about hope are not the whole story. Research shows that environmental discourse has long fueled public hopelessness by perpetuating apocalyptic narratives and the sense that it’s already “too late” to act. That hopelessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as those who believe we’re already doomed – or that solutions don’t exist – chose not to act, thus ensuring the very outcome they imagined. Episode 5 explores the complicated role of hope in the fight for a livable planet, and the different forms it takes in environmental debates: hope as complacency or “cruel optimism” (an ideology to keep the public in line) as well as more subversive versions like active hope, intrinsic hope, and critical hope.

(Top image by Ruedi Häberli via Unsplash.)

Facing It is a podcast about climate grief and eco anxiety. It explores the psychological toll of climate change, and why our emotional responses are key to addressing this existential threat. In each episode of Facing It, I explore a different way we can harness despair to activate meaningful solutions.

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Dr. Jennifer Atkinson is an Associate Professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her seminars on Eco-Grief & Climate Anxiety have been featured in the New York TimesWashington Post Magazine, the Los Angeles TimesNBC News, the Seattle Times, Grist, the Washington PostKUOW and many other outlets. Jennifer is currently working on a book titled An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Crisis (co-edited with Sarah Jaquette Ray) that offers strategies to help young people navigate the emotional toll of climate breakdown.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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