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Hoping against hope in the face of climate crisis  

15 December 2017

It is not only ‘deniers’ who respond irrationally to the threats to our environment on this planet, argues Matthew Stemp

SIR David Attenborough’s popular BBC1 series Blue Planet II has brought home powerfully the threat of climate change. “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that,” Sir David said. “Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet.”

It is, however, a difficult time to be an environmentalist. During the recent UN meeting on climate change, COP23 (News, 24 November), a timely report was released with the news that carbon dioxide emissions increased by two per cent in 2017. The report dashed hopes that, after three years of emissions’ levelling off, they might soon begin to decrease.

Despite the urgent need for a rapid, international response, wealthy nations such as the UK continue to perpetuate a collective “soft denial” of the climate crisis. This was underscored in the latest Budget, in which the Treasury quietly published a document stating that there would be no new subsidies for renewable energy until at least 2025.

This state of cognitive dissonance set the context for the Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley’s recent Annual Lecture for the William Temple Foundation (Comment, 24 November), “Engaging a Politics of Hope”. The lecture powerfully explored a wide range of policy areas, presenting nothing less than a green paradigm shift made necessary by the interconnected crises of environment, economics, immigration, education, and health.


YET “hope” is a word that I have struggled with as I have begun to research the strange psychology of our response to issues such as climate change. As Bruno Latour puts it in his book Facing Gaia, there is something about the climate crisis in particular which “drives people crazy”. There is, of course, the insanity of outright denial, represented out of all proportion by the media on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the danger of focusing on the madness of the “climate-change deniers” is that it normalises our own often equally “mad” responses. Latour suggests there are at least four other forms of commonplace madness:

  • the “low-level” madness of quietism, a lack of political action generated by the assured hope that some transcendent Other (be it God or Nature) will swoop in to save the day;
  • the frenetic madness of hyper-modernity that places its hope in geoengineering: radical technologies such as “solar radiation management” and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) that provide the illusion of control;
  • the hope-filled madness of those who believe that our existing political institutions — especially our governments — will surely act rationally when the situation calls them to do so;
  • and, finally, the hopeless madness of those who despair at the urgency of the situation and our collective inaction: a phenomenon that the social scientist Dr Renee Lertzman has dubbed “environmental melancholia”, which may be more widespread than appearances betray.

“There is no cure for the condition of belonging to the world,” Latour says. If we are living in a mad world — a situation that the novelist Amitav Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement” — then it may be that there is no alternative to madness. In that case, we can only choose which form of madness we will embrace.

We can perhaps do no better than the form of madness proposed by Dr Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics: the necessary madness of imagination. At the end of The Divide, a critique of the project of developmentalism in the light of global inequality, Dr Hickel invites us to imagine a world in which every nation has achieved economic and social prosperity as we typically understand it today.

But such a future, as Dr Hickel points out, would also lead to inevitable environmental catastrophe, as the planet’s resources are irrevocably plundered, and fossil-fuel emissions continued to spiral out of control. As the heterodox economist Kate Raworth has argued in her book Doughnut Economics, we need an alternative economic vision that places social need at the centre within the wider context of our planetary limits.


MR BARTLEY’s “Politics of Hope” provides just such a vision of economics beyond growth. It is a vision that seems mad to both the Right and the Left of mainstream politics: a universal basic income; measuring progress (of our schools, hospitals, society as a whole) in terms of well-being rather than GDP; and a vision of common life based on shared meaning rather than consumption, made possible in practice by a shorter working week.

These proposals have been the staple of the Green Party’s agenda for many years, but perhaps they are needed now more than ever to re-engage an increasingly disenfranchised public.

This madness of green imagination also has the potential to energise what John Caputo has called “hope against hope” among environmentalists. This is a paradoxical kind of hope: a hope that does not depend on foolish appeals to theological, technological, or political guarantors of success, but a hope, none the less, for a seemingly impossible future.

It rests on an openness to the obligation of the future calling on us in the present, awakening us to shared responsibility, creativity, and endurance. “There are no easy answers,” Mr Bartley said. “But what is at stake is nothing less than our collective future. And so the solutions must involve our collective endeavour.”


Matthew Stemp is a William Temple Scholar at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.

This is an edited version of a blog published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.

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