How to Cope—and Even Hope—in an Age of Apparent Doom
It’s the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine.
It’s not just coming: it’s here. Climate change has crept up on us. Farms, entire ecosystems—even whole nations—are collapsing. Our food and fresh water supplies are gradually shrinking. More and more property and land are being destroyed. People are going to starve. Hope? Are you kidding?
Susanne Moser, a social science researcher and global consultant on enacting social change, definitely isn’t kidding when she talks about hope. In the Q&A that follows, we talk about what hope really is and how to find it within yourself in the face of utter despair.
Note: My recording device didn’t work during this interview. I took copious notes, but this is not an exact transcript. Susi and I worked together, making minor edits, to ensure it made sense. I also did some snipping for brevity.
What is hope, exactly?
There is no one, exact interpretation or definition of that term. I’ve over the last many years studied people who’ve written about hope. It ranges from people in philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, theology, and in health services and medical psychology. Every one of them has a slightly different rendition or version.
I find that an interesting finding. Taking a fairly psychological view, for me it is a motivation—typically a positive goal of some kind—that you experience in the present, combined with an ability to have a very far outlook, and both of these resting on an embrace of uncertainty. You can see something desirable far out there, if you will, and make a commitment to actually act constructively toward it.
A lot of people interpret hope simply as “things are going to turn out well tomorrow.” That is one flavor of hope that’s really shallow. Some people call it Pollyanna hope. I don’t think that kind of hope is appropriate anymore, if it ever was. It certainly won’t get us through the next day, much less through the duration of climate change. You just have to open up today’s newspaper, and you’re already in despair right there. We will need something more substantive.
We are really illiterate about what it means to be a hopeful person in society and in our lives.
We are really illiterate about what it means to be a hopeful person in society and in our lives. It does require really looking at the truth of what is—and in our case now, looking at the truth of the science of what could be. And then the ability to be with a constant sense of uncertainty. If I’m convinced the future is going to be great, I don’t need hope. If I’m convinced that the future is completely trashed and doomed, I don’t need hope either. Hope lives in a space of uncertainty, of not exactly knowing what might come but orienting ourselves toward something at least good—if not better—and applying ourselves to the best future that can be.
Isn’t hope just wishful thinking at this point? Won’t hope about climate change lead to inaction?
No. There’s one person I like to refer to because I think he’s provided a first good take on the varieties of hope that are out there, and in my own work on this I’ve started to add to it. There is a spectrum of types of hope that are out there, according to Per Estes Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist. He says there are four types of hope.
First is Polyanna hope: the future is going to be fine and I don’t have to do anything. He also calls this passive hope, for obvious reasons—it’s going to be fine without me lifting a finger.
The second version is heroic hope. That’s still assuming that the future outcome is going be fine—a kind of optimism—but I need to do a lot to make it so. So we have to actively help to bring about a good future.
Next is passive skepticism, or stoic hope. This is a version where we’re not convinced that the future it going to be great, but we can stand it, we can bear it, we can live through it, whatever comes. We can survive if things aren’t great.
And then there is active hope, a form of active skepticism. In this version of hope, I’m not convinced the future is going to be great at all, but I can’t look in the mirror and just stand by. You simply couldn’t live with yourself if you did nothing. That’s why others also call this “engaged” or “grounded” hope. Even though it’s not looking good, I’m still going to apply myself toward the best outcome we can get.
I think we need to educate ourselves about these different varieties of hope. We can find a place in active skepticism. The philosophers call that particular one a virtue. It’s a quality of mature character that you can do that.
You simply couldn’t live with yourself if you did nothing.
There’s another kind of hope I just want to mention because it’s really important for climate change. The anthropologist Jonathan Lear wrote a book ten or twelve years ago called Radical Hope. Radical hope is different from any of the four types I just described. In radical hope, not only do we not know whether the future will turn out good or bad, but it will be a completely transformed future. And what’s more, you don’t even know the right ways to get there, but you’re committed to staying in the process, rethinking and remaking everything you ever knew to be true to get there. You commit yourself moment to moment to creating a best possible world. That kind of radical hope is going to be the back-pocket hope that we all need.
What are people’s mental models of the future like? What does despair look like?
In some ways, despair is one of two things, and it’s typically a combination of the two. One is, you can’t possibly see any good future of any sort. And the other part is, you can’t see your way to it. In despair, you’re missing both the positive vision and the path of what you personally can do or what anyone can do to get there. Despair is a kind of foreclosure of any possible positive outcome. You just cannot see any positive thing to emerge. And there is nothing good for yourself, no role for yourself in it.
In medical psychology, there is this really interesting model of hope developed with terminally ill patients. The idea there was that you would start with a realistic diagnosis. This is where you’re at, a severe diagnosis, and it’s got to be faced.
Going a hard path alone is a death sentence.
But the doctor doesn’t walk out then, right? The doctor then works with the patient to develop a positive vision of what could be. You can be healthy again, is one possibility. Or we don’t know if you can be healthy again, but we can contain it, we can extend your life. Or you can die painlessly surrounded by your family. Whatever is a reasonable and meaningful positive outcome—that’s what needs to be established next. And then you have to paint a path of how are we going to get there? What is the path that needs to be taken?
Then the next step is what are the steps I— the patient—have to take? You have to show up for chemo every time. Take your meds, change your diet. Whatever is necessary. But importantly, you’re not doing this difficult healing process yourself. So the next step is to establish what everyone else will do: here’s what I will do as your doctor. I will go with you every step of the way. You don’t have to do it alone. Going a hard path alone is a death sentence.
The next step is that we have a plan for setback and for early successes. Both inevitably will come, and those are moments when we might lose motivation, but it’s a long path, and we can’t stop. And that’s why the final step is so important: we have to anchor what we do in a very deep-rooted motivation. It has to be something more important than financial gain or a brief reprieve or something like that. It needs to be something that will sustain you through the hard times. And that typically has to do with who we want to be in our deepest selves. Who do I want to be in the world? It’s anchored in a very deep motivation.
Sometimes people who are on this death stretch, if you will—some people only find it then, what is the most important and meaningful thing to them. Who do I want to be as a mother or father, or more generally as a human being, or even in my work, say, as an architectural leader in the field or in my firm? Will I do it even if my boss doesn’t come along? What is the thing that would motivate you to do it?
Those are the ingredients that I find are absolutely essential to maintain that deep, grounded, active hope and even the radical hope that I was talking about earlier.
How are people currently coping in the face of what seems like doom? Is it with hope? Or are they simply trying to manage the immense stress in other ways?
Yes, yes, and yes.
I mean, they do everything. There are people who’ve come over time to embrace the reality that taking on that diagnosis, if you will … in some ways to take it on more and more.
Things are so much more apparent now, and so much more real, that any conscious, thoughtful person has a hard time denying that anymore.
I’ll give you a personal anecdote on that. I’ve been studying and learning about climate change since the mid-1980s. I was in my twenties, and it was fascinating, and it was scary in a sort of a big, abstract way. Over the years, I’ve gone through phases where I just couldn’t bear it. Then that would pass, and I would go back to work and act as if nothing’s happening. It comes and goes, and it takes me deeper every time.
Things are so much more apparent now, and so much more real, that any conscious, thoughtful person has a hard time denying that anymore. I know how far we go to deny the realities of where we are. We know that smoking, or not working out, or eating terribly is a bad thing to do, but we deny what we know anyway, because it’s inconvenient or it seems like a long way away. That’s one way of coping, to simply deny the diagnosis. And I also see a lot of people who are in deep anxiety and deep grief and fear and anger and guilt over what it all means. We are social beings, we are thoughtful beings, and we always manage those feelings in light of what everyone else around us does. It comes back to whether we stick with the herd and do what everyone else does, or whether we have the strength to stand up for what we deeply believe to be true: who do I want to be as a person?
In my work as an independent researcher and consultant, I am asked to show up for a lot of conferences and meetings all around the world. I’m not Greta Thunberg and don’t have 12 days to travel or a sailboat. So it is difficult for me that I am contributing to the problem, but I also have to provide for my family.
It comes back to whether we stick with the herd and do what everyone else does, or whether we have the strength to stand up for what we deeply believe to be true.
There are some incredibly difficult dilemmas that all of us live with. All of us have to come to some kind of peace with those dilemmas. You have to somehow live your life, get to work, do what you need to do. I see people all over in a great deal of pain working that out in our lives. We have layers and layers of defenses that we go to, to avoid living with those challenges internally.
But these are horrible dilemmas if we keep them focused at the individual level, as if we have to each one of us carry out those battles one by one. It’s one of the great fallacies in American culture that we think about all these problems through the individual lens. The climate crisis is the result of collective action and choices, the result of policies and collective decisions. That is where it needs to be addressed first and foremost. But that leaves many of us wondering what we can do.
Most of us are not in positions to have influence over public transportation or housing or whatever, which is what determines so many people’s choices and behaviors. But we actually can affect that. We can demand changes from our city council, we can vote with our feet and consumer choices, we can actually vote and change who is in charge. So in my own life, I make my personal choices where I reasonably can: I don’t have children, I conserve energy, change to renewable energy for my home, I changed my diet and so on—and I orient my work strategically toward places where I can make a bigger difference. I work toward changing things at higher levels—cities, states, and federal agencies.
The climate crisis is the result of collective action and choices, the result of policies and collective decisions. That is where it needs to be addressed first and foremost.
As a result, hopefully, the rest of us get to live in a saner environment where we don’t have to live with these terrible dilemmas every day. It’s much more strategic: where can I as an individual make change most successfully? People in the building industry are creating the building envelopes where families will live with a dilemma or without a dilemma. Is it one that contributes to the problem or not? Is it one that is safe from the impacts of climate change or not?
People in that industry have such an influence over where we spend 24 hours of our day. We are essentially almost all the time in some kind of building. An architect has every bit of influence over how their clients will live. That’s such a powerful place. And it might be difficult to convince people to go that route because of that upfront cost that [owners] have to put in. That’s a problem; that’s a challenge, sure. But there’s a lot you can do to pressure standard-setting organizations, pressure banks, pressure the finance industry, pressure city planners to change building codes. There are examples out there of how this can be done and done at a reasonable cost. Those are the kinds of strategic choices people in architecture have. To me it just seems there’s so much that particular group can do. It’s an enviably powerful place to be.
Why is it important for more people to feel hopeful?
In part, hope is so important because there’s a sort of paralysis that happens when you either don’t see that there is any point, and you’re convinced that it’s too late and we’re all screwed. You have just immobilized yourself on the conviction about a future that isn’t at all written yet. You’ve taken yourself out of the picture. While you have a life, why not use the life? Despair, doom, are just so demotivating. You cannot get anybody off the couch or to the voting booth, or to care about what building they’re living in, or whatever it is, if you insist on doom.
An architect has every bit of influence over how their clients will live. That’s such a powerful place.
With grounded hope, we are appropriately skeptical about the future. You embrace the truth about how bad it is, how much change we have set in motion already. But you’re not letting that be. For me, I’m going to do everything I can from this moment onward to creating the best possible future. Look in the eyes of your children, and tell me you don’t want to do that. Doom and despair don’t motivate. You’re giving up on a future that isn’t done, isn’t cast in stone.
I say that knowing full well what the climate science says about feedbacks—things that make things worse and worse. But I also know how social systems work. We can accelerate to action very quickly. The first New Deal happened! The New Deal actually happened, and it was an imposed thing, top down, after several years of groundwork and mobilizing people. We actually can make important, big shifts.
We can also undo it. Nothing is guaranteed, and that’s why active and sustained engagement is so critical. If we can avoid the worst possible futures, it’s absolutely worth it. I would not know how to get out of bed if I had just given up on everything. It’s far more despairing and demotivating to do nothing.
I think the youth climate movement has that notion, this urgency; this is not the moment to give up and do nothing. It’s the moment to do everything. Part of the greatest hope for me is how badly we’ve done so far. There is so much room for improvement! We already know how to build houses that don’t emit. We already know we can. It’s possible, so why not work toward that? The building sector, the urban sector is a huge source of where emissions come from. There is such a contribution to be made in fixing things here.
Are there public figures who present examples of what it means to be appropriately hopeful about climate change?
We were talking about Greta, and of course in many ways she represents this pathway from despair to mobilizing while fully, fully, fully embracing the darkness of the truth.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to get people to communicate about climate change more effectively. We have Greta Thunberg and eight-year-olds and ten-year-olds who know the IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] report and can actually say it. They fully understand the truth of the matter. They are out in the streets, striking, talking to leaders. When I was 13? You wouldn’t see me out there talking to the UN. They are standing up and saying enough is enough: get your act together.
While you have a life, why not use the life?
Beyond that, I have to say there are individuals who have turned their companies around, or people at local government levels who have said, “We are working to get our town to zero emissions on a steep timeline.” None of them are gods, none have succeeded in a full way, but they have made an active commitment to succeeding. They are doing it.
It’s really important to know that if you are only now choosing to take action, you are joining millions. You’re not alone anymore, not a pioneer even. You have many, many people at your back.
And people need to know there are so many ways to contribute at whatever scale. In their homes, their companies, their professional associations, whatever level people want to become active. The 2030 architecture commitment that’s out there. That’s joining hundreds if not thousands of architects. You’re not going to be at the breaking edge of this anymore. You’re joining a growing crowd. Welcome to it. Let’s go to work.
The building sector, the urban sector is a huge source of where emissions come from. There is such a contribution to be made in fixing things here.
And outside of climate change, there are a few others to think of as role models. Nelson Mandela was in prison for almost three decades—a great example of how to keep going in the face of very dark odds. He very quickly stepped into places of power and led the country into a very different future—not that they have succeeded completely, but the hope he gave people by doing that. He was in prison for 27 years, much of that in solitary confinement. You have to have something to keep you going in the face of that. The next 30 years: that’s our lifetime. What is going to support us to keep going to do the right thing in the face of our dark odds?
If you are in despair about environmental disaster, what are the steps you need to take to become more hopeful?
There are typically two or three things I need to do. I usually despair when I’m really exhausted, just too tired to do another thing. That’s when I know I have to temporarily step back to put myself back together—getting a good night’s sleep, spending time in nature, doing yoga. For me personally that’s an important piece.
A second one is to actually talk with someone, a trusted person. For me, that’s my partner; I feel like I get some mirroring of where I am and where we are. Empathy, understanding, and perspective help me re-orient to that long-term goal if I lost track of it. That’s really crucial.
The third thing, which I see very often when I give talks, people are in despair because they can’t see the path, can’t see how anything they do is making a difference. The only thing I have seen to work for folks in that place is for them to get engaged.
People who enact change have more hope. It’s that simple.
I said 20 years ago to Al Gore that we have to stop thinking this is about education about climate change; instead it is about education about social change. If we don’t know how social change happens, if we know nothing about history, if we don’t know how behavior change happens, organizational change happens, we can’t see a path. Those are the ingredients for despair—no outlook of a positive future and no path. So to me, it’s getting involved because when you are in it, you see how it works. You learn in the doing. People who enact change have more hope. It’s that simple.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
The piece that strikes me as the most powerful thing for people to think about is: How much power do you have over the future? You can look at the big picture, despairing about climate dynamics and carbon budgets. But every architect, every builder goes to work tomorrow and builds an envelope for the next 100 years.
And if you can’t make a change in that building, what can you do to change the professional society of architecture? Put pressure on the association. There are so many different levers to influence the system. Talking to banks—if you could make a better deal on mortgages for people who build green than for people who don’t build green, you start to incentivize the right kind of behavior.
If building codes are all looking backwards, we’re building for the past.
Think of the entire “ecosystem” of how decisions get made. Regulators, zoning, planners of towns. Most towns right now don’t have building codes that take the future into account. If building codes are all looking backwards, we’re building for the past. If architects and builders ever became a pressure group to change that, you would make such a difference for an entire town. Think about the entire ecosystem of actors, who can you influence to make systemic change.
My own personal trajectory is to try to be as influential as I can—in my family, as a homeowner, as a consumer, and as a professional. There are so many different places you can be influential, and that’s what we’ve got to be.
Susanne Moser, Ph.D., is director and principal researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting in Santa Cruz, California. She is also a social science research fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and a research associate at the University of California–Santa Cruz, Institute for Marine Sciences.
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Published November 4, 2019