Our most sustainable energy source is hope
My journey with hope, and an offering
Adults keep saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Why we need hope
I recently listened to Jane Goodall’s The Book of Hope, on a long drive through the Southwest, and it completely changed how I think about hope. Before listening to Goodall, I pretty much agreed with Greta Thunberg’s quote: hope was, for me, a touchy-feely form of bullshit that kept us from seeing reality. After listening to Goodall, I now see hope as absolutely vital for sustaining our energy, whether we are pursuing environmentalism or anything else.
The Book of Hope is structured as a conversation between Douglas Abrams and Jane Goodall. Abrams, a self-described cynical New Yorker, provides a great devil’s advocate to Goodall. He continually confronts her with harsh facts, and asks, “How can you have hope?”
I had an aha! moment when Abrams described the recent death of his friend by suicide. His friend was in a dark place, stressed and unemployed due to the pandemic. Abrams and other friends would check in on him over the phone. His friend actually seemed to be doing better when Abrams received the call that he had shot himself.
A thought came to me: suicide is impossible if you have hope. Conversely, if you lose hope, if you believe the future is bleak, only filled with suffering and despair, then there is no reason to live another day.
This realization was like cold water on my face: hope isn’t a luxury, a nice-to-have, something for Hallmark greeting cards. Hope is a matter of life or death. It is the energy source we need to live and to act. When hope runs out, suicide becomes a rational act.
Depression can be seen as a hope deficiency. Ditto for all those all those painful eco-emotions, like eco-grief and eco-anxiety, which got me to start writing this newsletter.
The Book of Hope starts with Abrams asking Goodall: “What is hope? Is it an emotion?”
“No,” says Goodall. “It is more fundamental than that. Hope is a human survival trait.”
Hope is the human capacity to believe in a better future. It can be tied to action, but need not be. Goodall explains that if you are imprisoned by a totalitarian state for no good reason, you can’t take action, but you can still hope that you will be freed.
Abrams retells the story of a young woman imprisoned in Auschwitz, who believed she would be liberated by Christmas. This woman worked and worked, surviving despite terrible conditions and failing health, fueled by hope.
Unfortunately, Christmas came and went, and she was not freed. She died the day after Christmas. She had lost hope.
A few years ago, I listened another book about hope, Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked.
The book recounted the story of Witold Pilecki, a man who snuck into Auschwitz as part of the Polish Resistance Movement against the Nazis. I was moved by Pilecki’s courage. After listening to Goodall, I now see that he also needed hope. If he didn’t believe in the possibility for a better future, then he wouldn’t be motivated to take the huge risks that he took.
Goodall’s sources of hope
Both Goodall and Manson make the point that hope should be tied to the right values, because history’s villains (e.g. Hitler) hoped too. With this caveat, let me give Goodall’s main reasons for hope despite all the bad environmental news that we hear every day:
The human intellect. As an example of the power of our intellect, Goodall recalls her awe in looking up at a full moon, and knowing that our species has walked up there. She distinguishes, however, cleverness (which solves a problem the short-term) from wisdom (which answers the questions: what would be best for the whole planet, and future generations). Wisdom requires a connection between our intellectual minds and our compassionate hearts.
Children. Goodall takes great inspiration from the millions of children growing up today, children like Greta Thunberg. These children are prioritizing values that put the earth and social justice before consumption and materialism. She believes that the next generation of children will grow up to vote for leaders who align with environmentalist values. Her Roots and Shoots program empowers youth to make a real difference in their communities. By seeing that they can make a difference, these kids are able to continue making positive change when they become adults.
Nature’s resilience. There have been many extinctions in the past, and mother nature, that great tinkerer, has kept inventing new life forms after the etch-a-sketch has been shaken clean, so to speak. When we let nature be, or give her a little help, she often bounces back. Goodall describes a desolate landscape in Africa that has been successfully regenerated after mining, funded by the mining company itself. I also remembered a documentary I saw a while back, where David Attenborough goes to Chernobyl, and sees nature coming back with time.
The indomitable human spirit. Goodall gives lots of examples of people who pursue a purpose despite adversity, including:
Jia Haixia (a blind man) and his friend Jia Wenqi (a man with no arms), who have spent more than 10 years replanting trees to revive the once-barren environment around Yeli Village in northeastern China:
Nick Vujicic, a man born with no limbs, who overcame depression, bullying, and suicidality to become a motivational speaker and father. Importantly, Nick understands that everyone is going through something, it’s just that his difficulties are more visible.
Goodall’s response to Greta Thunberg’s quote is that we need all our emotions. Yes, we need fear and anger, but we also need hope. The energy of fear and anger might be powerful, but over the long-run, leads to burn-out. To keep us mentally healthy and able to make productive changes over the decades, we need hope.
So, now that I am a hope-believer, I’m very interested in prioritizing the cultivation of hope in my life.
Here are some ideas I have for cultivating hope:
Collect hope stories. Goodall frequently answers questions with stories, because stories touch the heart more than facts. I plan to make a “hope collage” of pictures of people who inspire hope in me.
Have a personal mission. I want to make a habit of reciting a short personal mission statement to myself every morning. Jane Goodall, Nick Vujicic, and Jia Haixia / Jia Wenqi are all examples of the power of a mission (though their specific missions differ). A mission need not be grandiose, as shown in this quote from from The Book of Hope:
“It’s good to have at least one walk a day,” said Jane, after a few steps. “Though I don’t really like to go for a walk without a dog.”
“Why is that?”
“A dog gives a walk a purpose.”
“Well, you are making someone else happy.”
Act. By acting, we not only make an impact on the world, but we start a virtuous feedback loop: action can show us that we are making a difference, and this can inspire us to take further action. This is something I want to do much more.
Final thought: a hope cultivation group?
The only thing I know for certain about the future is that I can’t predict it. As a human being with an intellect, I have the power to choose how I see things. I can choose to see the future as full of despair, or I can choose to see it as full of hope. Both despair and hope are self-fulfilling prophecies.
After reading Goodall, I realize that it’s important, for both my own mental health and the health of this planet, to cultivate my sense of hope.
I want this newsletter to inspire you to cultivate your sense of hope, too.
If you want support in your hope-cultivation, please email me. I think it could be fun to start a hope cultivation group, if people are interested.