The Problem With…Hope


I need to talk to you about hope. I need to warn you about having it, for merely by having hope you could become nothing more than a bundle of ineffectual good intentions. Hope could, in fact, be the single most dangerous thing to have in the environmental struggle we need to face up to.

In order to understand hope fully we must first understand grief, for it is within the depths of grief that hope finds it’s most willing victims.



The Earth is not yet a dead planet, but already people are grieving its loss.

The process of grieving can be a very complex and drawn-out experience, leaping from immense highs to profound lows, not knowing what to believe or what to feel. Eventually, most people have moved from one stage to the next, backwards and forwards until they have reached the point where they accept the cause of the grief and are able to regroup and possibly move on to something else. Death may be an end, but it doesn’t have to be the end.

Surprisingly, the grieving process is evident in almost everyone who has been touched in some way by climate change and the possibility of environmental collapse. Amongst most politicians and business people in the industrial West – the consumer culture – Denial was the first stage, within themselves (although I tend to think that this was more about maintaining the status quo than coping with loss) but especially to others – if customers and citizens could be made to believe nothing was happening then nothing had to change.

We have seen how this has now panned out. Years of false scientific evidence, corporate political lobbying, and the decapitation of any agreements that dared to challenge the twin gods of wealth and power kept the denial industry in business for a long, long time. Anger has been evident amongst those who saw the truth, but that anger was suppressed, brutally in many cases, by those who sought to maintain denial. Much of that anger was diverted into symbolic actions, like protest marches, petitions and billboard campaigns; all of which achieve nothing except sate the appetite of the angry. Politicians like symbolic actions – they dissipate anger; they allow the pretence of free speech and action to be advertised to the world; symbolic actions do not threaten the system.

Meanwhile, as the protests went on, and still the chances of the planet remaining habitable for humans increased not one jot, the corporations and the politicians realised the evidence for human-induced climate change was overwhelming and so quietly slipped into Bargaining mode. Another stage of the classic grieving cycle this, in effect, has allowed inaction to continue, right up to the present day: in Bali, in Hawaii, in Scotland – wherever the powerful meet – bargaining takes place, and nothing changes. Stupidly, much of the environmental movement see this process as a positive thing – stupidly they do not see beyond the veil of ignorance: the bargaining process is just a way of making sure everything can carry on for as long as possible without anything having to change.

I see many people that I know and love hit the fourth stage – that of Depression. “It’s all over”, “there is nothing we can do”, “we may as well give up.” Give up what?

“Give up hoping”, many say. And what have you been doing all these years: hoping for change, hoping people might see sense, hoping that right will prevail above all the darkness and evil? Before we have slipped into the Acceptance stage, it seems that so many people have already given up, as though the Earth were a corpse over which we have to shed tears, over which we pour our grief, while still hanging onto a shred of hope that something good may come of all this.

Some simply say there is no point in fighting any more; that the battle is lost and the victors – the powerful individuals and bodies that become more powerful with each victory – will take the spoils, whatever tattered form they may take. For these people, there is still a chance of rekindling the desire to fight, for they have not fallen prey to hope; the hopers have already been defeated by their own blind faith.


What Is Hope?

Not all hope is bad. There are actually two types. First, the benign wish or blessing that shows you care: “I hope you have a good day”, “Hope to see you again soon”, “I hope you pass your exam.” In isolation, and as merely a gesture then this kind of hope can make someone feel wanted. This kind of hope is nice – it is harmless.

There is a second kind of hope that is not harmless; it is the kind of hope that implies more than benign wishes. I call this kind of hope the “secular prayer”; it bears all of the hallmarks of religious prayer, and carries the same dangers that are faced when you entrust your future to it. This is the dangerous form.

I want to mention the use of prayer, since I brought it up here. There appears to be no empirical evidence showing one way or another that prayer works. The Religious Tolerance web site has carefully broken down the methods, results and reaction to all of the recent major studies carried out on the effectiveness of prayer, and the conclusion you have to reach is that prayer alone simply does not have any recordable effect. The reactions that that this statement invokes are generally along the lines that God must not be tested; more specifically: “You’re going to do your best to limit the prayer some people get so that you can measure the benefits for those who receive a lot of prayer? Do you think that’s how God intended prayer to be used?”

So that, appears to be that. Except that when you look deeper into the research, you find something very interesting. A widely cited and carefully controlled study into the relative effects of prayer on post-operative coronary recovery found no significant difference in recovery rates between those who received prayer unknowingly and those who did not receive prayer at all. But here’s the interesting bit: the group of patients who knowingly received prayer had a 15-20% worse recovery rate than the other two groups. Some commentators (along with, surprisingly, my 10 year old daughter) suggested this was because of the increased pressure of knowing you were expected to respond to prayer, but I suspect the cause to be down to something different.


You see, when you hope for something to happen – not the benign good wishes, but the deep, heartfelt hope that aches for an outcome of your choosing – then something happens to you: your motivation to work for the desired outcome actually reduces. In effect this is the very opposite to the meaning of “giving up hope”. By entrusting an outcome to the ethereal entity that is “hope” then you are passing on responsibility to something that is out of your control. This is what you are doing when you pray: you pass on the responsibility for the outcome of your prayers to an external force.

What appeared to be happening to the coronary patients is that by receiving and accepting prayer, part of the responsibility for that recovery went out of the control of those patients, and perhaps even out of the control of the healthcare professionals who were looking after them. A positive state of mind is often a vital attribute in recovering from illness, whether mental or physical, and also other conditions such as addiction. Quite how this works is uncertain – it may be related to the release of hormones known as Endorphins, or other more complex effects involving the immune system – but more studies than not show that maintaining positivity is beneficial. Knowing that someone cares about you enough to pray for you is one thing, though; thinking that the job of getting you better has passed from you to something you have no control over is another thing entirely.


Dereliction Of Responsibility

Every day, in all sorts of ways, we hand over the responsibility of our actions to other parties. We entrust religious leaders to act as proxy supreme beings, to give us blessings and pray for the delivery of our souls and a winners cheque through the post for all. We entrust politicians to justly run districts, states, countries, the whole planet, on our behalf, and deliver whatever is in their jurisdiction from whatever evils we have asked them to deal with. We ask the heads of corporations to use profits wisely, to provide fair wages, allow union representation and listen to their staff and respond appropriately – we ask them not to destroy the planet. We ask environmental organisations to look after the planet on our behalf, to lobby fiercely and petition prudently, to give us a world worth living in.

We are guilty of a mass dereliction of responsibility.

Just like prayer, when we vote we hope the politicians will do the right thing after they have been elected. When we buy a product from a company, we hope that company are acting in the best interests of everyone and every thing they impact. When we sign a petition, go on a protest march or write a letter, we hope that it will change things for the better. But it is never that simple.

Voters vote for different things: your hope that a politician will increase pollution controls will be running counter to the hope of another voter that pollution controls are weakened. Your entrustment of a company that they will act ethically runs contrary to the basic needs of a shareholder in that same company, that demands an increase in profits, which requires poorer labour standards, increased use of natural resources, corner cutting and cost slashing across the board. Your petition or protest march may give you hope that something will change when in fact you have simply sublimated your anger and concern into a symbolic action that threatens not a single media executive, company director or head of state.

When was the last time you followed up one of your actions? Did you sign a petition, track the course of that petition to its target, find out the reaction of the target, question the target on why they didn’t do as you asked, spoke to them in person, exposed their ignorance in public, carried on and on and on until what you wanted to be done was done? Of course you didn’t, because you hoped that signing the petition was enough. You innocently believed that right would out simply because you placed your demands on the wings of dear hope.

Even after writing this, and knowing what I write is true, I still accidentally use the word “hope” when I really mean that I will make sure something happens. It’s a terrible habit, and one that we have all become naturalised into doing. Once we become addicted to passing the buck to someone else, it’s very difficult to take it back – but take it back we must:

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free – truly free – to honestly start working to thoroughly resolve it. When hope dies, action begins.

Derrick Jensen, Endgame

Stop hoping, and start doing. And keep doing it until you have achieved far more than you could ever have hoped for.

This essay was recently rediscovered and has just been placed on the site, but with the original publication date from the first incarnation of The Earth Blog. The words may have changed for insertion into my books, but the sentiment stands true.

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