Things With Feathers: Why hope?

The Potsdamer Platz crossing, seen here from the west into East Berlin, opened days after the first breach of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. (By Frits Wiarda - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15575260)

Since it’s what came my way, I have something a little different this time. Instead of a collection of articles focused on specific positive things happening, I have two articles discussing the value of hope itself. I highly recommend reading them both in their entirety, both for their examples of victories, and for the more in-depth treatment the authors give their subjects.

One is “The Rise of Ocean Optimism,” by Elin Kelsey, which is written about the importance of sharing successes in ocean conservation – though the concepts are widely applicable. The other, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope is an embrace of the unknown,” examines the world more broadly, and presents the concept of “hope” in a really interesting way, as a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

They share one major common point: Feeling problems are overwhelming and vast, and no solution has been come up with, creates despair and depression, states in which people feel like taking action is pointless; therefore, remembering similar efforts that have succeeded – and sharing those memories – is a vital antidote to that despair, which provides impetus (hope) to keep going and working towards the specific as-yet unachieved goals.

One of the points raised in “Ocean Optimism” is the importance of educating people about ways to improve bad situations – quite literally, sharing what has worked for people can help others solve their problems. There are many serious problems with the ocean, and scientists were spending more time publishing analyses of problems instead of sharing things that worked, so the field was perceived very strongly as pretty much “doom and gloom.” The problems aren’t imaginary, but too much focus on those without spending enough time on actual solutions, and places where harmed ecosystems are recovering, doesn’t help people keep going with further solutions:

     Those of us who work with marine issues are often reluctant to talk about the environment in hopeful terms, for fear it might be taken as saying it’s okay to continue the appalling degradation of the seas. “Don’t worry about PCBs, my friend. The ocean will heal itself!” That sort of thing. We worry that highlighting species recoveries will play into the hands of climate skeptics, or reduce political pressure for much-needed environmental reforms.

     But what we fail to take into account is the collateral damage of apocalyptic storytelling.

     Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with marine issues we seek to create. According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, there are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at one time. They call it the “finite pool of worry.” Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. By bombarding people with bad news about the oceans at scales that feel too large to surmount, we cause them to downplay, tune out, or shut down. Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. [emphasis added]

Kelsey also points out that another tactic often brought up – scaring people into doing the right thing – isn’t always appropriate, because “fearmongering isn’t the answer for broad, complex, emotion-laden, societal-level issues,” like environmentalism. Talking about what has been seen to work, showing places where there are solutions, is an alternative to that.

Solnit has this to say about focusing on victories and other memories of the past:

     Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I have long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognise the victories already achieved. … A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

     Most of us would say, if asked, that we live in a capitalist society, but vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives – our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations – are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.”

     …noncapitalist ways of doing things are much older than free-market economic arrangements. Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented, as though we are starting from scratch, when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing options. What we dream of is already present in the world.”

     …though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats, cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.

She also spends several paragraphs discussing how what is remembered affects how we feel about things now. “Forgetting” the past can create despair and depression and inaction, because all recollections of victories are ignored, so there is only the (awful) “now,” and if this is how it has “always been,” how can things be different in the future?

     The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

One of the things I liked best was the way Solnit defined hope  – a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. — Rebecca Solnit

She mentions several historical examples of sudden change happening after a lot of groundwork had been laid. No one knew what specific trigger point would occur, or when, or that the actions that did occur would end up setting off much larger-scale reactions. And, had the efforts of so many people, and desires for change, not already been in place, the precipitating incidents could not have had the same results. What I take from this is that, even if no specific timeline can be predicted for work to pay off, it is vital to keep doing it, and to be connected with others, to spread the ideas and desires for change to happen, so that when that unpredictable but necessary catalytic moment comes and creates an opening, all that pent-up energy can move.

Another important made by Kelsey is that emotions are contagious – and hope spreads faster on social media than pessimism, which is what you get from news sources. None of this is a call to stop talking about the problems facing the world – if you don’t know something is causing harm, you not only can’t help stop it, you may end up inadvertently perpetuating it – but to not focus solely on the harms. By sharing our stories of past victories, and providing reminders that things have changed, they can change, and they will change, we support each other in working towards our next victories.

And the Bastard grant us . . . in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word. In darkness, understanding. — Lois McMaster Bujold (in Paladin of Souls)