Let’s have faith in reality and humanity, not the tired hopes of modernity

The owners, sponsors, advertisers and editors of popular publications are trying to convince themselves and the rest of us of that the system they benefit from doesn’t suck: to spin the perspective that it is not responsible for ecocide, the many millions now going hungry and the catastrophic climate disruptions to come. Therefore, they are promoting an establishment narrative on climate change, which goes something like this:

“the situation is bad but solvable by the authorities if we, the general public, do what we are told while supporting subsidies for unproven technologies and criticising anyone who doesn’t share a faith in technology, enterprise, authority and obedience. This narrative means we should never become so worried as to drop what we are doing to challenge the system and its elites.”

One part of that narrative has a moral tone, and it relates to the idea of hope. The story is that we have a moral duty to hope and to admonish those who don’t. Because if we no longer believe that the future will be OK and no longer respect or grudgingly accept the dominant systems in our societies, then we will be radicalised in unpredictable ways. We might even give up our jobs to take up full time activism.

Faced with this threat, the establishment is recruiting ever more talented communicators and influencers to promote our moral duty to hope. They are even getting influential environmental campaigners to associate their name with empirically baseless, theoretically vacant and emotionally violent arguments. You will see such arguments in publications ranging from the New York Times to the New Stateman, to even Open Democracy and the Ecologist magazine.

Typically, such articles cherry-pick information to posit a rule for all human beings and all societies. The fact one person succeeded, or that one person felt bad, is used to illogically claim that this must be true of everything everywhere, thereby ignoring actual scholarship on psychology and social change. The aim of such cherry-picking is to provide a basis for making, now standard, accusations about those of us who don’t hope in the way they do. We are described as wrong, counter-productive, arrogant, cynical, selfish, and, conveniently, we are also to blame if we turn out to be right.

The commentators rarely ever specify what they are hoping for. That sidesteps whether they are implicitly hoping for their own privileges to continue for longer, even if that means greater exploitation and destruction at the base of the supply chains that prop up their lifestyles. A more recent tactic of these Western middle-class commentators is to presume to know the views and needs of the most affected persons in the world, so they can use their suffering to invite some self-righteous disgust at those of us who refuse to hope exactly the way they do.

As we will continue to see such emotionally-averse solipsism masquerading as an allegiance to science and as a belief in moral agency, I thought to summarise for you the standard ‘hope-or-be-dammed’ arguments and how stupid they are. But first, let’s remind ourselves of another beautiful way of being as we face reality. Which is how to live creatively and helpfully without needing a hope of fixing the environmental crisis and sustaining current consumer societies. It is the more resilient activist orientation that I described in the Extinction Rebellion handbook and in my speech to launch their International Rebellion. It is a deeper commitment to social contribution, coming from a deeper love of truth, humanity and nature, and which is resilient because it doesn’t rely on desperate fairy tales about fixing things.

One thing I appreciate about the Reverend Michael Dowd, who was my most recent Q&A guest, is that he has moved beyond hope to reassert a faith in a greater story of reality and a deeper power in humanity. The greater story of reality is beyond our full comprehension but is the wondrous and eternal ebb and flow of creation and destruction, of which we are a small part. The deeper power in humanity is the capacity to love others and cherish nature, including other life forms, no matter whether there is a clear utility to ourselves or a definite legacy from our actions.

I believe this is the kind of hope that is invited from us by a range of religious traditions. That’s not a material hope for a better life for you, me or the human race. But it’s a deeper knowing of things being OK at a cosmic level, even if not in our own lives, societies or the world at large. That knowing is described in all the spiritual traditions I know of. Next to me on the shelf of the Sacred Space Foundation is a book from Ram Dass. Just now I opened a page randomly and read one line from him. “Each act of Hanuman is to lay a flower at the feet of Ram.” I take from this a reminder that devotion is key to life. The ‘divine’ of existence is within the love, lover and the beloved. One phrase from Mother Teresa stuck in my mind from childhood. “It’s not what you do, but how much love you put into doing it.” That doesn’t mean we don’t try and do what will help achieve an outcome. But it means that not only are we not attached to the outcome, but we don’t let a focus on outcome distract us from being fully present and engaged from a loving intention. It is something I will keep in mind in the coming months as I help care for a member of my family.  

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Despite the experts wanting to stay focused on parts per million and on fractions of degrees, the climate crisis is increasingly recognised as a spiritual crisis – as it arises from humanity’s separation from each other and nature. That is why it is so unfortunate that basic psychological insights are systematically ignored by many people who comment on the need for hope in responding to the environmental crisis. But the establishment will keep paying people to pump out PR for the tired and deluded hopes of maintaining modern societies. So in the remainder of this blog, I provide some short statements that eviscerate the intellectual basis for their arguments. They are all supported by professional research on psychology and social change, some of which I refer to in my paper in a psychotherapy journal and some of which is cited in African activist-scholar Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau’s recent essay on the misplaced positivity within the climate professions.

  • People don’t need a sense of certainty to act in prosocial ways. Indeed, people don’t even need a sense of possibility to act in pro-social ways. To assume they do is to assume a consequentialist ethics that reveals the assumer’s ethics not those of other people. 
  • Psychological research finds that whether people act pro-socially or not has very little to do with their perception of the future. Research finds that even catastrophic imaginaries can be more motivating than not. Instead, being attached to consequentialist ethics is the Achilles heel of activism and pro-social action, as it can lead to a sense of defeat leading to giving up, or even a turn towards violent extremism and support for authoritarianism.
  • As hope is a vague and composite word – relating to a wish, a plan, an expectation, a certainty – to not specify what one means with ‘hope’ and why is to spread stupefaction. People might feel reassured by thinking they have been informed, when actually the opposite has occurred. 
  • A collapsing of societies and the ideologies they involve (such as ‘hope’ in progress or the predominance of consequentialist ethics) can provide new opportunities for significant change which might reduce some forms of suffering. Given the cumulative failure of myriad forms of past social change strategies to deliver a peaceful, equitable and sustainable world, the cracking of old systems could be regarded as a painful opportunity as well as a crisis. 
  • Going beyond rejecting evidence for a forthcoming collapse to even demonise and marginalise those who anticipate it could undermine efforts to soften the impact, to learn, and to create possibilities for the future. 
  • The most affected persons in the world are not helped by the hopes of the privileged and they should not be used as props for admonishing people who hold more difficult outlooks and analyses. Instead, the views of the most affected people can be heard directly (just not in Western middle-class magazines, apparently). For instance, Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau says misplaced positivity in the West is undermining the reckoning and allowing incrementalism to continue. She also argues it means privileged people ignore the guilt of the societies they benefit from which then reduces potential for humanitarian action 
  • The key issue for us all to consider is what kinds of pro-social action are suitable for us, and how to do that without attachment to outcome being part of our motivation. Some of us will focus more on local practical action, while others will focus on national and international advocacy. Both kinds of action, amongst many others, can be motivated by an aversion to the emotional pain of accepting the predicament. But both kinds of action can be done in a spirit of devotion to life and a non-attachment to outcome.

When I look at climate activism today and compare it to the new uprising that was occurring in 2018 and 2019, I wonder what has happened. It appears many technocratic experts on environmental issues joined the radical civil disobedience movements and diluted the radical message. The raw commitment to ‘Love and Rage’, and to right action in the face of annihilation, has been muted by a desire to accommodate environmental experts whose worldviews and identities are wedded to modernity. To counter that degradation of the revolutionary potential of an awakening to the environmental predicament, it would be useful for more climate activists to stop being silent in the face of the establishment narrative on climate. As a cofounder of XR explained in an article we co-wrote: our power comes from acting without escape from our pain. It doesn’t come from pretending the climate crisis gets fixed or placating those who do.

The Q&A with Reverend Dowd follows below. Visit my youtube channel for many other Q&As with other people who engage from a variety of spiritual traditions (e.g. Joanna Macy, Reverend Wright, Sister Jayanti, Henk Barendregt). You may also be interest in sessions on “hope” offered by Meg Wheatley, happening in December. My speech on hope in a time of climate chaos is also online. Discuss this issue in the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s have faith in reality and humanity, not the tired hopes of modernity

  1. Thank you Jem, listening to this interview with Michael Dowd has helped me in re-configuring a path onwards through the MA I’m doing… One of my greatest challenges and sources of tension lately is how I talk to my inquisitive 11 year old about the world in a way that doesn’t generate too much confusion for him in light of the fact he is going through a very main stream secondary education, which isn’t addressing the reality of these times with the honesty and dignity required. If you have any comment about the education system please feel free to share. I’ve just resigned as a school governor after 3 yrs. Be Well, and thank you for sharing this today so so much. Big love, Grace

    Grace Rodgers

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