Hopes and Memories
Edited by Meghan Dhawan
Stubborn optimism and ridiculous, unrelenting hope: a philosophy for the climate crisis
If you’ve seen a golden pink sunrise caress the London skyline, or heard the burgeoning birdsong that accompanies the coming of Spring; if you’ve revelled in watching loved ones succeed at something they care about with eyes wide (maybe teary) with pride, or spat out your drink laughing at something ridiculous they’ve said or done; if you’ve danced unapologetically and shamelessly to your favourite song, or eaten some really, stupidly, delicious cake, then you know at least six reasons to be hopeful for the future.
But, in today’s frankly terrifying political climate, I argue that being hopeful isn’t quite enough. In the current political circumstances, we need to be stubbornly, resolutely, and quite ridiculously hopeful, as well as unshakably optimistic, because the alternative isn’t an option. The old adage, ‘[w]hether you think you can or you can’t, you’re correct’ is not always true – for example, I assure you, there isn’t quite enough belief in this mortal plane for my mere faith in the fact that I could win an Olympic medal in the high-jump to render any such occurrence close to reality – however, it has merit. I wholeheartedly believe that adopting a stubbornly optimistic philosophy and political view is the only way in which our generation can hope to succeed in dismantling systems of inequality, as well as mitigate the ecological crisis at hand. In this article therefore, I’m going to explore the concept of stubborn optimism and its relation to the ecological (or climate) crisis. I maintain that stubborn optimism is an essential tool for the sustainability of the movement to help decelerate the rate at which the planet approaches ecological collapse, as well as the sanity of this movement’s participants.
Make no mistake, stubborn optimism and hopefulness, does not mean toxic or unrelenting positivity, far from it. It is not blithely saying ‘don’t worry, everything’s fine’, no indeed. Integral to stubborn optimism is the recognition of the gravity of the ecological crisis and maintaining, at the same time, the resilience and courage to believe in and work towards a future where this isn’t the case. Dr. Deepika Chopra describes optimism as a marriage of resilience and curiosity - the ability to recognise that a situation is far from ideal, and persevere anyway, entwined with a desire and willingness to find out what happens next (2021). In The Future we Choose, Christiana Figueres explains that ‘optimism is not soft, it is gritty’, and writes that ‘[o]ptimism ‘is not the result of achieving a task we have set for ourselves. That is a celebration. Optimism is the necessary input to meeting a challenge’ (2020: 54). Such a notion is resonant with Rebecca Solnit’s musings on hope. For example, Solnit has written, that ‘[t]o hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable’ (2004: 4). Understood in this way, optimism and hope are tools we can employ in climate advocacy to resist apathy, helplessness or, worse, despondency faced with a future that is not guaranteed, but one in which we choose to believe, and take active steps to securing regardless of an assured outcome.
But why stubborn optimism? Well, because the effects of climate breakdown are terrifying, overwhelming, and complex, and progress to tackle them has (so far) been slow, and the G20 governments’ commitments to a just transition entirely insufficient! Thus, determination and no small degree of faith are needed to participate in the climate movement. Especially since the human-induced concentration of CO2 in the environment today is currently trapping ‘the heat equivalent of 500,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs’ every day (McKibben, 2022: 219), and food insecurity is fast becoming ‘the planet’s most significant human threat, leading the world to the precipice of a great climate migration’ (Lustgarten, 2022: 166). What’s more, climate-induced sea level rises are incrementally submerging whole island states, with those like Kiribati expected to be entirely below sea level by the end of the century, along with the homes of the 75 million people globally who live less than one metre above sea level. Unsurprisingly, mass migration levels are expected to rise exponentially as a result, with up to 1.2 billion people estimated to be displaced by 2050 (Oki, 2022) – the scale of this movement ‘will be globally destabilising’ (Lustgarten, 2022: 167) and intensify resource conflicts globally. From a human rights and immigration perspective this is especially challenging as the status of ‘climate refugee’ has yet to be formally recognised in international human rights law (‘refugee’ refers to someone with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” who, for such reasons, is unable to stay in or return to their state of origin - as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). Human conflicts have also been shown to be a direct cause of climate change and biodiversity loss, thus, not only are rising temperatures exacerbating trends towards violence but, in turn, they are worsening the climate crisis. Further extractive industries, especially the non-renewable energy sector, regularly destroy and pollute lands in ways that are both neo-colonial and genocidal to indigenous peoples, whose culture is often tied to the land upon which they have lived since time immemorial. This in turn is devastating for the environment since, although indigenous peoples represent only around five percent of the global population, they are ‘responsible for guarding and preserving eighty percent of the biodiversity’ on Earth (Guajajara, 2022: 177). Faced with these facts, optimism is essential, and the more stubborn the better. The alternative – assuming a position of apathetic despondency, assured that there is nothing you as an individual can do given the predominant responsibility of corporations and governments in generating these crises – is not only mislead, but has ‘become fundamentally irresponsible’ (Rivett-Carnac, Figueres, 2020: 50). System change is a ‘deeply personal endeavour’ (ibid: 46), and we cannot disillusion ourselves as to the impact that our beliefs and ideologies hold over the social and economic systems in which we live. As Ursula Le Guin once said, ‘we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings’ (2014). Stubborn optimism is recognising the possibility, not inevitability, of a ‘better’ future, and then investing courage and commitment to work towards this.
Vital to maintaining this philosophy, because let’s face it - it can be hard(!) - is access to evidence that our efforts are effective and have impact, as well as exposure and engagement to like-minded individuals, communities and global networks, because we are not alone! (A propensity for stubbornness will also help). I have previously written for Journal d’Ambroisie on the value of networks of support and information in advocacy, and I believe that their importance cannot be overstated. For example, anyone reading the news in the United Kingdom at the moment would be forgiven for failing to have heard of the incredible and essential new United Nations High Seas Treaty. Amid the maelstrom of coverage of the proposed ‘Illegal’ Migration Bill and Garry Lineker’s ‘uNhElPFuL’ comments about it (inverted commas and capitalisation, my own), this exciting new international mechanism to ensure biodiversity and ocean protection may not have registered in the collective consciousness of climate-concerned citizens. Although the High Seas Treaty is a long way from implementation, let alone regulation (it is still in the process of ratification), its being written and agreed upon after over a decade of debate, is demonstrative of the power and purpose of long term, sustained lobbying.
The last international agreement on ocean protection was over forty years ago, and given the rapid climate change-induced warming and acidification of the seas, as well as rampant unregulated fishing and mining, nearly 10% of marine species are in danger of extinction and the effectiveness of the ocean as a carbon sink is increasingly threatened. The High Seas Treaty however, agreed on March 4th, 2023, aims to ensure that 30% of international waters will be protected areas by 2030, in contrast to the 1.2% that is currently protected, in order to safeguard and recuperate marine life. This Treaty, in addition to the Paris Agreement, and Montreal Protocol among others before it, are the result of years of targeted and relentless campaigning and compromise, and are testament to the importance of stubborn optimism. And these are only examples of international regulations. On a daily basis, individuals and communities around the world campaign for local sustainability improvements and innovate small scale biodiversity and carbon reduction solutions. (Some local personal favourites I have recently discovered are The Conservation Volunteers and the Trees for Cities. Surfers against Sewage are also doing incredible and essential work to challenge the pollution of Britain’s seas, and you should definitely look them up).
In summary, whenever the threat of climate breakdown, systemic inequality, and the political intransigence we encounter in relation to these inextricably linked issues seem too overwhelming to countenance, especially in the face of a near unprecedented scientific consensus on the gravity of the issues, we must remember our successes and celebrate each of them, then take it as impetus for our next. Where would we be without the resilience and curiosity of those past advocates who refused to endure the unendurable threat of a future that was the same as the present?
A final useful thing to remember in assuming a determinedly optimistic philosophy, is that change is not linear. In any movement and process, there are thresholds, tipping points, and we cannot predict when, who, or what precisely will bring these to fruition. We can only hope and believe resolutely that they will come. Greta Thunberg has referred to such thinking as ‘cathedral thinking’, explaining: “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling” (2019). I for one am optimistic that soon, together, we might work it out.
Journal d’Amborisie | Edition VI. Hopes & Memories 12.04.2023
BBC World Service “Why are we still subsidising fossil fuels?” (inter alia) on The Climate Question. On Spotify
Figueres, Christiana. Rivett-Carnac, Tom. The Future We Choose. 2020.
Global Optimism, Most/Any episodes of Outrage + Optimism. On Spotify.
Jamil, Jameela, “Dr Deepika Chopra” (inter alia) on I Weigh with Jameela Jamil. January, 8. 2021. On Spotify.
Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark. (Canongate Books: 2004).
Thunberg, Greta (ed) The Climate Book (London: Penguin Books, 2022).
Guajajara, Sonia. “Fighting for the forest” in Thunberg. G (ed) The Climate Book (London: Penguin Books, 2022).
Lustgarten, Abraham. “Climate Refugees” in Thunberg. G (ed) The Climate Book (London: Penguin
McKibben Bill “The Persistence of Fossil Fuels” in Thunberg. G (ed) The Climate Book (London: Penguin Books, 2022)
Oki, Taikan. “Water shortages” in Thunberg. G (ed) The Climate Book (London: Penguin Books, 2022).