It’s easy to get anxious and depressed when thinking about the overwhelming challenge presented by climate change – and with that can come panic and inertia. That feeling of hopelessness, according to environmental scholar Elin Kelsey, is one of the biggest threats to solving the crisis facing our planet. In her new book, Hope Matters, Kelsey – who began her career studying oceans and marine life – reminds us that while climate change remains a very real menace, it’s easy to miss the glimmers of good news amid the drone of doom-filled headlines. And she asserts that hope is not about feeling cheerful: “Anger and hope are not opposites," she says. "They have a symbiotic relationship. Both anger and hope are mobilizing emotions. Hope is what sustains us to keep fighting for social and ecological justice.” Globe Books talked with Kelsey about how to change the narrative around climate change, where she finds inspiration and the books that have helped shape her world view.
What got you started on this line of thinking – that we need to change the way we think about climate change?
I definitely had an “aha” moment in 2008 about the critical need to shift the narrative beyond doom and gloom. I was leading a series of workshops at the United Nations Environmental Programmes Conference on Children and the Environment in Stavanger, Norway, and I met with children between the ages of 10 and 14, from 92 different countries. When I asked them what words or feelings came to mind when they thought about the environment, I was overwhelmed by their expressions of fear, anger and despair. The focus on a solutions orientation evolved more gradually. Some key influences include meeting with Bill Laurance in 2011 when I was a fellow at the Cairns Institute in Australia. Bill created a program called ALERT that mobilizes scientists to respond to critical conservation issues and media stories as they’re unfolding. His focus on mobilizing expert knowledge in real-world, real-time contexts was pivotal to helping me see the difference between problem identification and solutions generation. I also spent time with Patrick Meier in 2013, a leader in digital humanitarianism, at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center. I began to recognize the opportunities that might emerge if I could crowdsource environmental successes and solutions. This led to #OceanOptimism, which I co-created with Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London and Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian. The tag was launched on Twitter in 2014 and has reached more than 100 million shares.
How do you ensure this message of hope isn’t somehow used as a way to not do anything?
There is a fear among activists that politicians and others may not want to move on something if they hear that that, for example, the South Atlantic humpback whales have jumped from 440 in the late 1950s to around 25,000 now. Or that the Monterey Bay in California is now healthier than it’s been in 200 years. But these stories show the resiliency of ecosystems and the diversity we have on this planet, and we should be using that to show that it’s not all “the end of the world." We can make a difference. We can change. The news story is always that we didn’t reach the global deforestation goal of 50 per cent, but you don’t hear that we actually made it to 30 per cent. Sure, that means we have work to do, but we need to realize it’s not a blanket horror show.
When did you start working on this book?
I’ve been developing the major ideas and themes within the book for more than a decade. I went through a convoluted series of rewrites on a proposal for a book about hope about five years ago, with a major agent at a literary agency. When she eventually lost interest in the project, I put it on hold and continued to research, give keynotes, and to work with students and other academics. In the winter of 2018, I spent a month in Finland as a writer-in-residence at the Arteles Creative Center. Instead of taking all my various drafts of the proposal with me, I gave myself the freedom to write whatever I felt like. To my surprise, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night with fully formed poems in my head. I left Finland with almost 100 poems and a sense that even if I never got my non-fiction book published, I had said what I wanted so badly to say about hope. Less than a year later, I picked up one of the drafts of the book proposal, reworked it to say what I wanted to say (rather than trying to please an agent) and sent it off to Greystone Books. Each chapter of Hope Matters begins with a poem that emerged during that breakthrough time in Finland.
Could you take me through what a typical writing day is like?
When I was writing Hope Matters, I relied on a trick I had taught myself while writing my PhD thesis. I’d get up before dawn, take a shower and write as long as I could. When I started to get tired, I’d take another shower and change my clothes as if I was just beginning the day again. It’s amazing how helpful a “whole new day” can be when you have too much to write in the time you have available.
Whether I’m writing to a super-tight deadline or just developing ideas, I write almost entirely outside. I’m lucky to have a covered deck where I can tuck in out of the rain. I also love to hunker down in big coats on windy days on one of the wooden chairs that someone has kindly placed on a rock by the edge of the ocean in Victoria. Writing outside keeps me connected to the environment. Because my work is informed by first-person interviews with scientists, and because I focus on emerging trends and specific contexts, I have an insatiable hunger for time-stamped content and gathering ideas that are new to me from across many disciplines.
What books have inspired you, and what would you recommend to readers?
I am a big believer in using big data sets to identify important trends and to challenge our existing assumptions. A brilliant example of why this is so valuable is shown in Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund
I’m also inspired by writers who challenge dominant narratives and help us to see other species – and their capacities of agency and resilience – from new perspectives and diverse world views. Three favourites are Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer; Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuisen; and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal.
I personally believe in hopeful futures, but for those who may be experiencing trouble doing so, I have found the palliative care literature rich in terms of reconceptualizing hope in terms of a meaningful present – for example, Joan Halifax’s Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet. I appreciate writers who reveal embedded narratives that keep us in the status quo. Kelly McGonigal turns our assumptions about stress, for instance, upside down in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at it.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.