For many people around the globe, hope—that “thing with feathers” Emily Dickinson found perched within the human soul—may be as everlasting as the poet declares, but it has clearly seen better days. In a world scarred by a pandemic inexorably consuming lives and livelihoods, ongoing racial and Indigenous injustice, 25 million refugees adrift from their homes, and escalating climate change, despair can be a force as powerful as a fifth horseman of the apocalypse. “Many of us have come to regard hope with disdain,” writes environmentalist Thomas Homer-Dixon, one of the most prominent public intellectuals in Canada, in his new book Commanding Hope, “a state of mind that’s naive and irresolute at best, delusional at worst.”
It’s an understandable reaction to the climate crisis and what may accompany it, he believes. The tides that are rising in the contemporary world—resistance to science, deteriorating climate, increasing authoritarianism and inequality, entrenched economic and political interests, the ongoing sixth great extinction of life on Earth and, yes, pandemics—point to “imminent catastrophe,” Homer-Dixon says in an interview, “probably by 2045 and possibly within a decade.” It is, Commanding Hope flatly states, “plausibly too late” to expect human civilization in the later 21st century to be “just, peaceful and prosperous.”
Small wonder then that climate despair has grown as fast as emissions and temperatures the last few years. As Renée Lertzman, author of the 2015 book Environmental Melancholia, explains it, more and more people are coming to understand climate change as a fast-approaching and deadly likelihood, while almost simultaneously realizing very little is being done about it. Some have responded viscerally. In a November 2018 TED Talk, teenaged Swedish activist Greta Thunberg described how at the age of 11, three years after first learning about climate change, she fell into a deep depression. “I stopped talking. I stopped eating,” she revealed. “In two months, I lost about 10 kilos [22 lb.] of weight.”
Others have moved beyond climate despair into “climate nihilism,” says historian Stuart Parker, a former leader of the B.C. Green Party, by which he means hope or despair don’t enter the equation at all. “People literally believe nothing about the climate crisis; they simply excise it from their consciousness so that there’s no way that it actually affects their decision-making.” And some, deep in a Dantesque inferno, have not averted their eyes but have abandoned all hope for a human species they believe to be the organic equivalent of a failed state: we made this mess, blithely refuse to acknowledge it and will perish from it.
In the face of the climate crisis, many have gone so far as to give up the next generation, says Homer-Dixon, research chair in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. He notes the decision “among many young women to not have children because of the seriousness of the situation.” Hope and children are so inextricably tied together in human consciousness—think Christmas—that the formation of BirthStrike in Britain felt both newsworthy and inevitable in 2018. The loosely organized group quickly amassed more than 300 members worldwide who have forsworn offspring because of the disaster they see on the horizon. Meanwhile, in a 2019 poll of more than 1,000 Americans aged 18 to 29, when respondents were asked if climate change “should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children,” 38 per cent agreed. “I completely understand it on an individual basis,” says Homer-Dixon, “but if people stop having kids, they dramatically reduce their incentive to care about the future.”
It may come as a surprise then to learn that Homer-Dixon himself is not pessimistic about hope. Commanding Hope is his passionate—and evidence-backed—case for it. But the hope Homer-Dixon is proclaiming is one most of us wouldn’t recognize. It’s not a hope humanity can reasonably hold right now about the near-term future—for the environmentalist, that’s vanishingly small—nor the false hope offered by those whom Homer-Dixon calls “techno-optimists.” They can rightly cite a steady improvement in significant human benchmarks—from longer lives to the absence of war between major nations to educating girls—to back their faith that human ingenuity will preserve the life we now live. But those positive metrics will necessarily be overwhelmed by the negative trends, Homer-Dixon believes, since both are rooted in humanity’s massive, unsustainable fossil-fuel exploitation. Techno-optimism is a “beguiling” false hope, “which makes me even angrier [than no hope] because it leads people astray,” he says. “It tells them they don’t really have to worry about climate change much—which is, of course, what people desperately want to hear.”
Homer-Dixon’s hope is not optimism, but rather the kind of hope brought to mind by his book’s arresting title, one that must be ordered up from within us—with no regard to how despairing we are, and long before we have tangible reasons for optimism—and then set to rule our actions. That’s the radical hope Homer-Dixon believes humanity needs, the only road that can see us through. “We are a misguided species, not a failed one,” he says, “and I don’t think our story is finished yet.”
Homer-Dixon is not alone today in holding hope up to the light and weighing anew its purpose and value in a tragic world, particularly in the context of a coronavirus pandemic that Cindy Blackstock, Canada’s leading advocate for the rights of Indigenous children, describes as having set people to “recalibrating what they think is important in life.” That recalibration very much includes hope itself, as Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. president implicitly acknowledged in his acceptance speech: “Look, I understand it’s hard to have hope right now.” That was a sentiment echoed by Vogue magazine, when it announced it was turning over the August and September issues of all 26 of its global editions to the celebration of hope, something currently “hard to find.”
That is why the magazine sought to discover hope in the stories of “inspiring individuals working tirelessly to build a brighter, better future for everyone.” For activists like Blackstock, what flutters in our chests, in her words, is the only way “what never gets done, ever gets done.” Blackstock should know: she launched her court case against the Canadian government for denying services to First Nations children back in 2007. That’s “14 years of litigation and 11 non-compliance orders [against Ottawa],” she says, “time we’ve used as an opportunity to educate and engage Canadians.” And, it goes unsaid, a length of time that required deep reservoirs of hope to endure. But hope is a quality that “doesn’t turn on probability assessments,” as Cambridge University philosopher Sandy Grant puts it. “If anything, hope goes against the evidence, arising in spite of all that has gone before.”
Hope is so central to the human condition, so foundational to our bodies, minds and souls, that it has always drawn the attention of philosophers, theologians and scientists. Hope is biological. The same brain areas, the rostral anterior cingulate and amygdala, light up in neuroscientists’ scans whether we are longing for a child’s recovery or merely crossing our fingers it won’t rain on tomorrow’s picnic. Hope is psychological. The influential branch of positive psychology known as hope theory, primarily based on the late 20th-century work of American psychologist Charles Snyder, emphasizes hope as a state of doing, a goal-oriented cast of mind that leads people out of their present pain and anxiety to a better situation. The theory itself is goal-oriented: among the evidence for hope’s benefits proponents frequently cite, according to the website PositivePsychology.com, is that “high-hope college students were more likely to graduate than their low-hope counterparts.”
Hope is spiritual. Traditional Christian theology tended to focus on it as a state of being, encapsulated in what the Anglican Book of Common Prayer called the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection” to come. Christopher Brittain, dean of divinity at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, understands the technical distinction between doing and being, but considers it essentially meaningless. “If you’re going to continue to be able to act with hope, you’re going to have to become a person who has hope as part of their being.” For Brittain, hope does arise from evidence, from witnessing the everyday acts of our neighbours during the pandemic. Not their heroism, he says—despite the courage exhibited by front-line workers whether in health care or in stocking grocery shelves—but their human decency, their display of the same instinct that motivated Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’s classic novel The Plague. “Theirs are the actions that have shown me all the kinds of relationships I’m embedded in,” Brittain says, describing vital connections normally invisible to us all, “and provide the reasons to trust that web.”
Philosophers, partly in reaction to religious believers’ certainty that divine authority will someday set all things right, have often leaned toward skepticism about hope. Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher usually considered the gloomiest of his lot, thought that hope “deranges the intellect,” leading us to confuse what we want and what’s liable to occur. The contemporary Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh goes further, detecting something tragic in hope, an illusion of what might be that makes us miss the reality and potential beauty of the present moment. But much of the Western tradition disagrees with the skeptics, and Cambridge philosopher Grant believes such thinking misses hope’s true active nature. As long as the hoped-for outcome, be it as large as wringing racism out of social and legal systems, is possible, so too are “lives that are both enjoyable and open to change.”
The hope humans think about, and have traditionally argued about, is almost always personal, swirling around themselves and their loved ones. That kind of hope does spring eternal, and is the same hope that sees weddings celebrated and newborns welcomed in times of war and famine, gets struggling people out of bed in the morning and infuses self-help books. Set a goal (a better job, sobriety), find a workable pathway to it (school, therapy) and continue to strive. Millions of people regularly embark on that journey, and often succeed, making for a world that is better and more hope-filled in individual terms, although collective progress lags behind.
Even when hope is nurtured and applied on a basis as wide as an entire nation reeling from catastrophe, it often retains its individual focus. Andrew Furey, a St. John’s, N.L., orthopaedic surgeon, founder of the volunteer medical relief organization Team Broken Earth—and, since Aug. 3, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador—also has a new book. In it, he traces the evolution of Broken Earth from its birth in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and, like Homer-Dixon, references in his title the virtue that makes all else possible: Hope in the Balance.
Asked what he meant to convey by the title, Furey replies, “When I showed up in Haiti after the earthquake, so many things were in the balance. You could see all the destruction and disparity, and the balance to all the negativity was, frankly, one little girl. I’ll never forget her.” She was “young enough to be playing with dolls,” recalls Furey, who at the time was the father of two young daughters, but she had accompanied her grandfather to the partially collapsed hospital. After an operation to repair the man’s broken hip, the surgeon told the girl he’d be okay, and “she shook my hand with the maturity of someone 20, 30 years older and I could see in her face an optimism and a hope.” That’s what tipped the balance for Furey. From then on, he says, “we all took bites of the hope I saw in her, and really, it was from that interaction that Broken Earth grew.”
But there is little akin to what galvanized Furey in the wake of the Haitian earthquake for those who hope to mitigate an ongoing man-made disaster, one of which Canadian writer Steven Heighton calls a “tragedy of intractables.” In 2015, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, Heighton went to the Greek island of Lesbos to put his rudimentary Greek, his mother’s native tongue, to work as a volunteer helping to cope with the tide of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe. One of his forthcoming books, Reaching Mithymna, is an eloquent depiction of refugees, volunteers and a seemingly endless crisis; the other, The Virtues of Disillusionment, speaks to lessons learned. In what is now “the most densely populated human settlement in the world,” writes Heighton in an email exchange about his experiences, over 20,000 refugees remain in a single, small camp on Lesbos, all of them fading from the global public eye through viewer fatigue, even before the coronavirus pandemic completed that process.
Yet the three volunteers to whom Reaching Mithymna is dedicated, Omar, Clara and Tracey, “are still there in Greece,” and are among the best at combining “the energy and resolve of optimists with the anxiety of pessimists.” That’s the “space you have to inhabit,” says Heighton, sounding much like Homer-Dixon, a place poised “between hope and hopelessness, the one place where useful, urgent action is possible.” What he told himself then and now, he says, is “while a lone aid worker or volunteer’s efforts can’t affect the fundamentals of a global crisis, they’ll make a real difference to whatever people they manage to assist, on landing beaches, in paramedical tents, in transit camps.” Hope can paralyze or distract, Heighton adds, and “hope without action is far worse than action without hope.”
In the one crisis COVID-19 has not entirely driven from the headlines—the latest moment in the Western world’s four-century-long history of anti-Black racism (centred in, but not restricted to, the United States)—the rise and fall of hope has always played a significant role. In a late July interview with Vox, Harvard professor Cornel West, one of his country’s most prominent Black intellectuals, draws a sharp distinction between optimism and hope. “Optimism for me has never been an option. Because there’s too much suffering in the world. Think of all the African bones and bodies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean . . . but hope is something else, because hope is not spectatorial. It’s participatory. Hope is a verb as much as a virtue. Hope is as much a consequence of your action as it is a source of your action.” Hope is also opportunistic, because crisis means possibility, West continued, the pandemic as much as George Floyd’s death. “When the pandemic hit, you began to see the ugliness [of life in America]. But you also see resilience. People in the streets. People waking up.”
Sandy Hudson, the founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, agrees, at least to a point. “When George Floyd was killed, I spent two days on a couch with a cousin of mine, just trying to speak to our feelings. I was profoundly sad and in despair,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles where she’s attending law school. “And then I got to work.” The hope for change spawned in crisis is more a strategic opportunity for Hudson than a real moral awareness. Her inspiration and hopes “often feel impossible to a number of people I speak to,” she says, but they derive from her reading of history. “There were things thought impossible in the 1800s and the 1960s that people brought to life.” It’s important to seize the moment, says Hudson, and 2020 is one of those, but the hope—a radical commitment unrelated to pragmatic considerations—must come first.
All those experiences and thoughts intertwine in intricate ways. Cornel West’s “hope is a verb” is echoed, in those same words, by Cindy Blackstock; Sandy Hudson and Sandy Grant feel that hope precedes hopeful action; Furey and Heighton speak of actions taken before hope that created moments that inspired hope. All of them would agree in the end with Brittain that hope demands both being and doing, and their thoughts and attitudes connect them too with Thomas Homer-Dixon’s concept of hope.
But climate activists consider their situation more dire than any other. The despair sparked by the planet’s plunging trend lines has no fast-acting antidote such as the immediate and electrifying feedback Furey’s work in Haiti brought him. And climate change’s scale, diffuse causes and multitude of agents don’t allow the possibility of helping one person at a time in the satisfying way that Heighton and his fellow volunteers could. Its rapid worsening doesn’t even offer the ability to plot hope against a long, long arc of history slowly bending toward justice that anti-racism activists can embrace.
Those realizations have taken Homer-Dixon into a deep contemplation of the functioning of hope. The hope that has emerged for him takes honesty as its fundamental principle, despite Homer-Dixon’s belief there is risk to his cause in that approach. “An honest appraisal can produce hopelessness, especially in regards to climate change,” he says. “We hate that powerless feeling.” But the risk is worth its possible reward, Stuart Parker agrees. Soft-pedalling mobilizes no one, the historian says, and “the only way to frame the climate issue is ‘We have to, and we are, converting to a new moral order—this will be how we share the losses and make the sacrifices.’ That’s what mobilizes people.”
Homer-Dixon doesn’t shy away from bluntness in his appraisal. “Given fundamental things like the laws of thermodynamics,” he says dryly, “it’s going to be pretty hard to escape [the reality of] nine to 10 billion people on the planet, most of them in the next 30 years, with the planet’s population weight moving from East Asia to Africa and South Asia, and a warming of at least two degrees. That will bring a metre rise in sea level and possibly make those heavily populated areas too hot for humans.” Against such a background, with other “multiple stresses”—including the nuclear weapons we barely think about any longer—the social and political upheaval will be severe, and the possibility of “savage violence” very real. We need to know what’s coming “without lying to ourselves,” Homer-Dixon says, if we are going to properly teach our children they are liable to inherit a world of loss, and to muster what it takes to preserve what we can. And to keep climate change, as Vice writer Mike Pearl sardonically put it, “at hell level rather than mega-super hell.”
To clarify the trend lines and the probabilities, Homer-Dixon says, is to make real the dangers—but also the possibilities of avoiding them. It demolishes false hope but also strikes at despair. Like COVID-19 modelling, climate change likelihoods carry a premise of “if current trends continue,” and the very act of predicting affects those trends. The natural systems that rule the world are so complex it’s impossible to be exactly sure of the outcomes of meddling with them. And in human systems, people’s attitudes can change and crystalize into new forms with surprising speed. “As a historian, that’s my main source of faith,” says Parker cheerfully. “I know how weird things are and how weird they’ve always been. Human beings: you never quite know what they’re going to get up to next.”
The unexpected brings hope as much as despair. “If somebody had told me in 2014 that a girl, 15 years old and on the spectrum, would sit outside the parliament of Sweden with a backpack and a little sign and thereby galvanize a global youth movement against climate change, I would have said that’s ridiculous,” says Homer-Dixon. “Yet, especially with youth, there are always things in the [so-called] adjacent possible—ignored, unseen, just sitting there—that may lead in much more positive directions.” When Homer-Dixon began speaking to young people about the ideas in his book, not sparing any details—“they’d ask me about our chances for a prosperous, humane civilization two centuries from now, and I’d reply ‘20 per cent’ ”—he was uncertain what to expect. But they would respond to his frankness more called-to-arms than defeated, “coming up afterwards and saying, ‘Yeah, 20 per cent? Okay, we’ll shoot for 20 per cent.’ That increases the probability by itself.”
In addition to being honest, hope needs to be muscular, because a better future has real enemies. “We’re looking at the probability of some kind of violent discontinuity here,” says Homer-Dixon, from established interests that will threaten violence to stop necessary socio-economic change, “and we have to think of ways to deal with that, but not like them.” Or, as Blackstock expresses it: “Don’t stand for human rights while you violate human rights.”
And hope must be astute, especially in its search for potential allies. They can only be found in significant numbers among those Homer-Dixon no longer calls climate change deniers, but contrarians. Like Brittain, he starts from the premise that “everybody has a presumption of decency, of reasonableness.” The contrarians “are struggling with the same basic fears and existential despair that all of us are, and they solve that in their own particular way.”
Honest, muscular and astute are necessary elements of a robust, even commanding, hope, but what is the object of this hope? The short answer is to change hearts and minds, and more the former than the latter. Much of Commanding Hope concentrates on the formation of world views and how to influence them in positive ways. Human decision-making is at least as “hot”—that is, emotion-ruled—as “cold” rational calculation. Our emotionally charged world views are the lenses through which we interpret reality and find meaning in our lives. They dictate the “hero” stories we tell ourselves about the right way to navigate the world, and dictate, too, our capacity to adapt to change. And since they change more quickly than the institutions and technology that have grown up to support them, “world views are where we break into the circle,” Homer-Dixon says.
That means among today’s opponents. There is no progress for activists of any stripe who speak only to the converted, as climate activists too often do. “But you have to be talking to the people who like to build stuff too, those who just wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, life is exciting. What am I going to do today to make some money?’ ” says Homer-Dixon. “That’s where a lot of these contrarians are coming from, because we’re killing their hero stories. If we want to encourage folks with exuberant temperaments—including open-minded capitalists—to create hero stories in which they see themselves inventing, exploring and experimenting with ways to solve the world’s critical problems, then our vision must provide opportunities for personal agency to flourish.”
What humanity will decide to do is necessarily still unclear in specifics, Homer-Dixon readily admits. His point is he cannot know. When the climate firestorm erupts, “it will affect everyone on earth, so there will be brand-new attitudes and brand-new ideas.” Where hope will do its work is in ensuring the attitudes, and thereby the ideas that are employed to tackle the challenge, are “powerful and humane.”
So these then are the building blocks of hope that Homer-Dixon thinks humanity needs: brutal honesty about what is coming, an astute recognition of possible friends and certain opponents, and an acknowledgment of the role of uncertainty in human affairs. Its aim is to create among a critical mass of the planetary population what Christopher Brittain calls “a readiness to take new steps, even though we don’t quite know where they will take us, because the alternatives aren’t acceptable.”
Like all those with an uphill cause to advance, Homer-Dixon has essentially put his hope in hope itself. Whether that will lead him and the rest of humanity to where he thinks we have to go is, as ever, uncertain. There will be crises that shatter complacency and apathy alike—the pandemic has proven that—so there will be chances to change course. The uncertainty itself is the hope, although the opportunities can be narrow indeed. Joe Biden’s call for hope at his party’s convention, which borrowed the words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, has deep roots in his country’s political rhetoric, a traditional call for Americans to summon the better angels of their nature and put the U.S. back to rights by using the attitudes, tools and institutions it already possesses.
But the literary source Biden quoted, the most famous lines from The Cure at Troy—Heaney’s reworking of an ancient Greek tragedy—have a far more stark view: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.” The Nobel laureate goes on, in words uncited by Biden, to write: “So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here / Believe in miracles / And cures and healing wells.”
Once in a lifetime? A 20 per cent chance? That’s radical hope.
This article appears in print in the October 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Have a little hope.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.