Thomas Homer-Dixon holds a University Research Chair in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo and is executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. His new book is Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril.
It seems hard to believe. Just 20 years ago a feeling of exuberance still animated many societies. After the Soviet Union collapsed and before the war on terror, political, business and intellectual leaders in the West told us that a fusion of capitalism, liberal democracy and modern science would create a future of near-boundless possibility for all humanity. Now, we’re at a perilous juncture. Problems such as economic and social inequality, climate change and the risk of nuclear war have become critical. COVID-19 has hammered societies around the world. International scientific agencies are issuing report after report declaring that a global environmental catastrophe is imminent. Meanwhile, reason and scientific fact seem impotent before entrenched vested interests, worsening social polarization and rising political authoritarianism. In country after country, freedom and democracy are under siege.
As our prospects seem to diminish by the day, some of us retreat inward to focus on things close to us in time and space, such as our friends and family, in person and on social media. Others try denial, maybe by claiming that the evidence for problems such as climate change and even pandemics is invented by people who benefit from scaring us. Or we become fatalistic, declaring we can’t do anything about the problems because we’ve gotten used to a way of living, or because the problems are the fault of the rich, or the poor, or immigrants, minorities, or “them over there” – anybody but us. Some of us rally to autocratic leaders who tell a simple story about what’s wrong and declare they can make things better with bold, harsh action.
Anxiety about the future, detachment, self-deception, and feelings of resentment and helplessness – this is a perilous psychological state, the starting line of a fast track to the end of hope. It also makes the future we fear far more likely to happen, because the best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems is to believe we can’t.
To believe in the possible and to make the possible real, we must recognize that the right kind of hope can be a tool of change, and we must give our hope the muscle it requires in our present crisis. We need a potently motivating principle that’s honest about the gravity of the dangers we face and about the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to face those dangers; that’s astute about the strategies we can use to overcome those dangers, given the viewpoints, values and goals of people around us; and that’s powerful because it galvanizes our agency, our capacity to discern our most promising paths forward and choose among them.
Particularly in the West, hope has a bad rap in popular discourse. As fear, frustration and anger become evermore dominant social emotions, many people seem to regard hope with evermore disdain.
Critics fall into three main camps. Some think hope is vague and naive, because often it doesn’t have a clearly defined object – a vision of a desirable future. This was the gist of former U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s barb in 2010, when she asked of president Barack Obama’s program: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?” Others think hope is inescapably false, because even when it has an object, it rests on a belief in the mere possibility of that desired future, which then just encourages wishful thinking about that future’s likelihood. Patrick Henry, one of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States, expressed this sentiment in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775: “It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts.”
And a final group of critics argues that hope is a dangerously passive response to the world’s challenges, because it distracts us, keeps us from acting to change the world, and thus diminishes our agency. The late U.S. rear admiral Gene La Rocque provided a striking example of this view in an interview in the early 2000s:
“I spent seven years in the Pentagon trying to find better ways to kill people, destroy things. I was a strategic war planner. I tried to find more ways to kill people all over the world. I spent seven years in war colleges teaching people how to kill people, destroy things. I never once let myself think about hope. There was no hope. I was looking for certitude. … If we want a better world, we as human beings ought to do what we can to bring about the change. Hoping is a futile mental exercise.”
Mr. La Rocque was a remarkable person – a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and more than a dozen battles in the Pacific theatre and, despite this cold-blooded statement, later in his life a tireless advocate of nuclear détente and civilian control over the military-industrial complex. Still, it’s easy to see how, for a military man like him, hope could appear to be a frivolous, even deadly, distraction. In the midst of combat, just hoping for a good outcome is apt to get one killed. What one needs to do is rapidly and accurately appraise what’s happening, weigh available options and then act.
Mr. La Rocque’s kind of skepticism about hope – that it encourages passivity – has deep roots in history. Hope indicates “a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind,” said the Dutch rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a pioneer of Enlightenment thinking. “The more we endeavor to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavor to be independent of hope.” And recently, the American author and radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen has written that:
“The more I understand hope, the more I realize that … it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.
“Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. … [It] is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.”
So, should we just give up on hope? Some great philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism, have argued that hope only leads to unhappiness. The Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca emphasized the close association of hope with fear. “Both,” he wrote, “belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”
Today, as our future grows steadily darker, relinquishing hope and focusing on the present appeals to more and more people. The English writer Paul Kingsnorth wanted to help people relinquish hope when he co-founded the Dark Mountain Project – an international network of people trying to make better sense, through shared stories, of the emotional and moral import of humanity’s environmental crisis. Everyone wants hope, he notes. “Hope, all the time. Hope, like a drug. Do not look down – look away.” He and others began the Project because “we needed to look down, and not to flinch as we did so.”
“This Project was created to build a place, a scene, a space, where people could mass to, among other things, talk openly about what they saw when they looked down and, if necessary, share that sense of despair without feeling that they had to leaven it with talk of hope, campaigning for change, goals, movements or activism.”
In sum, Mr. Jensen argues that relinquishing hope can enhance our agency, by helping us break with the dominant power system, so we can better challenge that system and get on with the work of actively finding solutions. Mr. Kingsnorth stresses that relinquishing hope can allow us to acknowledge our despair more completely. Both Mr. Jensen and Mr. Kingsnorth say that despair is an entirely reasonable reaction to the crises humanity faces, and I agree. I’d also say that we need to consciously recognize and accept this despair, because it’s unhealthy to bury emotional trauma deep in our psyches.
A precious gift
But all these critics are mistaken, I believe, in their disdain for hope, because they’re not considering the qualities of what I call “commanding hope.” First, to keep our hope from being vague and naive, it must have a clear vision of a positive future. Then, to keep it from being false, we must avoid wishful thinking about the likelihood of that future.
Our hope isn’t necessarily false because it rests on a belief in the mere possibility of a desired future. It becomes false when we ignore or select evidence to convince ourselves that the outcome is more likely than it actually is. And we can choose not to do this: We can have an exciting possibility in our mind but still be ruthlessly realistic about its likelihood, drawing on the best evidence and predictions we have available. False hope doesn’t arise from imagining we’ll win a lottery; it arises when we convince ourselves – despite evidence to the contrary – that our chances of winning are significant and then use that wrong estimate to make winning an object of our hope.
So while I’m sympathetic to the critics’ insistence on reason, realism and honesty about likelihoods, I also think they’re profoundly wrong when they imply that we should entertain in our minds only those future outcomes that seem highly likely, given what we see around us – that, to paraphrase Mr. La Rocque, we should always seek certitude. If we adopt this approach, we won’t use our imagination to explore the broad range of less likely outcomes, some of which could offer us the chance of a much better future. Nor will we imagine how we might use our agency to make some of those positive but less likely outcomes real. And that just ensures those outcomes will stay less likely. This argument holds, I believe, even in harsh, cold circumstances such as those of military decision-making. While at some point, particularly in war, the exploration of alternative outcomes must stop, and final decisions must be made, a general unwillingness to imagine better futures can bring closure far too soon.
Our capacity and need for hope, as long as we keep that hope honest, is a precious gift, because it encourages us to keep open a space for possibilities, and to use our imagination to create possibilities in that space. That hope thrives on mere possibility is not a weakness but its greatest strength.
And finally, we can keep our hope from being dangerously passive by making sure it’s “hope to” not “hope that.” When Mr. Jensen declares that hope is “a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency,” he’s talking only about “hope that.” And when he further says that hope’s object is always a vision of the future created and sustained by society’s power elites, he omits the possibility that we can, as active agents, hope to create a future in which the current system is replaced. There’s no reason why our compelling vision of the future – the object and goal of our “hope to” – can’t help us recognize the ties that bind us today to the ideas and ideals of dominant elites, give us an alternative future to strive for in our political struggle with those elites, while at the same time guiding how we allocate our limited resources to maximize the chances we’ll win.
Rather than disdain hope, as these critics do, we should treasure it. Psychologists have shown that few of us can flourish physically and mentally without hope. Our reasonable and necessary despair mustn’t displace our hope, making despair the final stage of our response to the world’s crises. That would be capitulation – as if we’re kneeling before fate and baring our neck for its sword.
Courage beyond the edge
Mr. La Rocque was also wrong to imply hoping is a sign of cowardice – or in Spinoza’s words, “a weakness of mind.”
On that point, the skeptics have it exactly backward: Courage and hope often go together, as do despair and cowardice. Aristotle keenly observed that “the coward … is a despairing sort of person; for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand, has the opposite disposition; for confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition.”
In coming years, our hope for a good future will face evermore severe trials. As we experience ferocious droughts, storms and wildfires; dying ecosystems, declining economic security and political stability; and immense migrations of desperate people in search of better lives, we’ll need to push back against despondency and fatalism, all without lying to ourselves. It will take all our courage to hope honestly and never to give up trying to make things better.
Hope always draws its power from operating along and beyond reality’s edges. But to realize that power, we’ll need the courage to learn how to hope well – to exercise and strengthen, in a sense, our muscle of hope to succeed in that liminal environment. “The work of this emotion,” the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote in the 1950s, “requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.”
Mr. Bloch was saying, I think, that we’ll need courage to use our imaginations to travel beyond the present’s boundary into an unknown future, and to see how, beyond that edge, we might produce the sharp shifts in our societies that will create a better world for all. We’ll need it, too, to accept the magnitude of the problems we face, while seeking the right balance between imagined possibility and reality. And we’ll need courage to admit our own ignorance while at the same time retaining the belief that through our agency, individually and collectively, we can still make a difference.
Most importantly, we’ll need courage to hold on to the possibility of a good future for our children and to the conviction that they, too, can have some reasonable hope. If we aren’t willing to give up, to say it’s all pointless, but we also refuse to escape into ignorance, denial, or magical thinking, then we should get to work with our imaginations to find a way out – to identify good yet realistic futures and ways to reach them.
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