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Start with (Just) Action, Let Hope Follow

We are living through an era of ecological devastation and climate breakdown, with its immense injustices against people and places for the short-term benefit of a few. Many of us have already been directly impacted, some of us haven’t yet, but all of us will be in some way. 

It’s a lot to process. 

There are a number of valid ways to respond. Dissociation and disengagement are common, understandable self-protective responses. So are guilt and anger; guilt at our own contributions to the climate crisis and anger at the industries and their accomplices in power who have caused it. Yet another response is to look for hope.

These are just a few responses. And I know them all too well. As I’ve learned more about our ecological troubles, I’ve cycled through each of these…sometimes on the same day. Each shows our crucial human need to grieve well. And many of us still don’t know how to grieve or lament a crisis on this scale. That is its own worthwhile discussion, but for today I want to focus on the last response: looking for hope. 

These kinds of hope work backwards from assurance of a happy ending. 

Theologically, hope is a gift, freely offered by God and based on the promise of the ultimate reconciliation of all things. But I’ve also been conditioned for most of my life (maybe you have too?), to think of hope as: 1) an outlook based on the likelihood of favorable outcomes, or 2) a feeling that things are going to turn out alright. These kinds of hope work backwards from assurance of a happy ending. 

In the face of present climate distress and anticipated suffering, it is understandable to want to latch onto some basis for hope, either by seeking out positive news or waiting for a feeling of hope. But I’ve come to wonder if an over reliance on this kind of hope—for a happy ending—can be unhelpful, even paralyzing, when it comes to facing the magnitude of the climate crisis.

Now, please hear me clearly: there are plenty of signs of climate good news and promising solutions to be found. But I’ve seen how basing my outlook and response on the latest news is unsustainable, since there is no guarantee things will get “better.” It can even become a way of avoiding the responsibility to act in the present. If I require evidence for hope about the current unjust conditions before doing anything to respond, I often end up doing nothing and feel even less empowered. 

If we are just waiting to feel hopeful, or for hope to seem warranted, it is easy to get stuck

There can be a cultural fixation on a happy-ending-first kind of hope. I’ve heard both climate scientists and antiracist educators note how frequently they get asked “what gives you hope?” This question is often asked (usually by people with privilege, like me) for assurance that everything is going to be okay. The reflexive jump to hope can preserve comfort and certainty with the assurance that no serious action on one’s own part is required for things to improve.

This kind of hope is “such a white concept,” says the writer Mary Annaïse Heglar. “You’re supposed to have the courage first, then you have the action, then you have the hope. But white people put hope at the front.”

For Heglar, hope is part of a process of response, rather than its starting point. As I’ve learned more about climate justice, I’ve been challenged by advocates from minority communities, like Heglar, who reframe hope as an outcome rather than an input, who recommend starting with actions that display hope, rather than based on any upfront certainty of success or sunny feelings. 

Here’s what I’m learning: if we are just waiting to feel hopeful, or for hope to seem warranted, it is easy to get stuck in one of the d's: denial, dissociation, disengagement, disempowerment, or doomism—all of them barriers to meaningful action (and therefore at times stoked by the industries and politicians who profit from the production and burning of fossil fuels). 

But if we act now, instead of waiting to feel hopeful or know the end of the story, hope may follow. This can in fact be a way God provides hope. And it answers our calls to do justice now and be faithful in the face of an uncertain future now, regardless of outcome or likelihood of “success.” 

we might be better off focusing on healthy grief, courage, and joy—all of which fuel the long-term, sustainable practices

Come what may, our actions on climate still matter. Because every fraction of a degree of global heating prevented matters for people, communities, cultures, and species around the globe who are most suffering the effects of destabilized climates and ecosystems. Yes, even if it costs us. Even if the U.S. Congress fails (yet again) to pass serious climate legislation. Even if the next global climate conference falls short, as the others have so far. Even if industry-funded disinformation and delay tactics linger in wider culture. Even if the wealthy countries of the world fail to prevent 1.5°C of global heating (or 1.6°C, etc.). Even if the next iteration of the IPCC report, due for release later this month, predicts scarier impacts and even greater vulnerability than we expected. And so on. 

I’ve found it liberating to disregard the “how hopeful am I?” question and just take steps to act justly—apart from favorable circumstances or finding any hope within myself or assurance it will accomplish much. Hope can be an outcome of meaningful action—especially collective action with others. For example: talking openly about the challenges and solutions, attending demonstrations, advocating for policy changes that protect the most vulnerable among us while transitioning our energy system to cleaner and more affordable power, electrifying our homes and businesses, changing consumption habits, planting trees and protecting living places, imagining a better world for everyone and doing our bits to make it reality, with God’s help. Each of us have our own imperfect ways to contribute, our own “next right steps” to take.

As wise people have noted, when we act—when we attend to grief, step forward in courage, and cultivate joy in community—we often receive hope along the way. This hope can feed into further action in a generative cycle. 

So rather than focusing on hope as a prerequisite to action, we might be better off focusing on healthy grief, courage, and joy—all of which fuel the long-term, sustainable practices that responding justly to this crisis will require of us. If God gives us hope along the way, praises be. But hope is less a starting point, more an outgrowth of doing justice. I’m trying to practice this:

Start with action, mostly in community. Let the hope follow. 

That reframing of hope helps me. But what do you think? What role does hope play for you? What role do you think it ought to play in the doing of justice? 

Photo by Gia Oris on Unsplash


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