Climate Change and the Right to Hope

Most people in the United States genuinely care about the environment, and yet collectively we are still filling landfills with plastic, guzzling gas, supporting factory farms, investing in unsustainable companies, and electing officials beholden to energy lobbies.

Illustration of a large world seed with a plant growing out the top and roots rooting down.

“The notion of genuine hope suggests that, in our present lives and communities, we can find seeds or fragments of the alternative world we hope to build,” Peterson writes. {title}Seeds{/title} by Linnea Vedder-Shults. Credit: Linnea Vedder-Shults ({link url=""}{/link}).

Why do people so rarely act in ways consistent with their ethical commitments? As an environmental ethicist, I am especially interested in this gap between values and practices. Most people care about nature and about the prospects of future human generations. Most people also know that in order to make these prospects brighter, it is necessary, especially for Westerners, to reduce our collective consumption of resources, to restore ecosystems, and to live differently with nature and with each other. Holding values and knowing what they demand, however, does not seem to provoke the necessary behavioral changes.

To Act, We Need Genuine Hope

This gap between values and practices has multiple, complex causes, including economic and political structures, as well as more personal factors. One of the most important reasons people fail to act is that they do not believe their behavior can make a difference. The problem is too big, or the situation is too far gone, for individual changes to matter. This issue takes on new urgency in the face of climate change and the impending ecological and social crises it threatens.

Regardless of how much we care and how much we know, we rarely act on our commitments if we do not believe that we can affect the outcome—in short, if we lack hope. Hope is crucial to social change as well as to individual well-being. It is what makes effective action possible and keeps us going in the face of disappointments, obstacles, and opposition. However, philosophers and theologians, along with activists and advocates, rarely think about what makes hope possible or what sustains it. There is no science of hope, no serious attention to its nature or to the shape it takes in different settings, especially not to the particular kind of hope that can make a difference in social change.

After the great political disasters of his time, including Nazism and Stalinism, Paul Tillich dropped the language of utopian expectation that he had used his work in the 1930s. In the post-war era, he began to speak of “genuine hope,” which was smaller and more realistic, though no less radical.

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