Cultivating Hope

Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology

Lately, there seems to be a never-ending black hole of bad news. But when you look up, there are several stars shining brightly. One of these I see is “Great Big Green Weekcoming up in the UK.  

This organisation celebrates, shouts about, and inspires community action to tackle climate change and protect nature. They say “Great Big Green Week will unleash a wave of support for action to protect the planet. Tens of thousands of people in every corner of the country will celebrate the heartfelt, brave, everyday actions being taken to stand up for nature and fight climate change”. I’ll have some of that I thought.

A group of friends and I were inspired and decided to apply for some of their funding to put on events to celebrate Green Week (we decided on a Tree treasure hunt, a letter to the future competition, and a green film festival). However, we were turned down due to the unprecedented number of other groups who had also applied for funding for events planned in other areas. The Great Big Green Week is oversubscribed!!!! I have never been so happy to be turned down for anything in my life…

The Green Week’s website gives lots of ideas for events such as a competition where children write a letter to the future about climate change, sustainability or nature. This facilitates getting people to imagine and describe the future they are hoping for.  

The aim is to get people to engage with ecological awareness, share their hopes and dreams, and get creative by creating potential pathways to that future. To think about for example, how many more trees there might be, or how we might use transport differently, and what we might be doing to protect nature.

It isn’t always easy to feel hopeful about the future. I have moments of despair, periods of hopelessness where I feel heavy, sometimes afraid, and at worst utterly demotivated to do anything about what is going on. It is important to notice and feel all of the emotions that we feel about climate change no matter how unpleasant they might be. Each state is important as they are telling us something about how we are dealing, or not dealing with what’s going on in the world around us.  

When we are doing all that we can but too many people are doing nothing or very little, it is easy to see why hopelessness creeps in. We’ve all had those moments. When it’s too big to fix on our own where can we look to sources of hope? Is it in our control? 

Maria Ojala has completed several very interesting studies in the area of Education, climate change, and hope. In her 2016 study, her results found the role of anxiety and worry assisted students in honestly addressing the issues. All the 3 emotions had a role to play in how students dealt with climate change, in if they took action or not. But with those who felt hope, there was more pro-environmental behaviour.

Karen Nairn, another researcher in New Zealand, found there is a relationship between hope and despair when she interviewed a group of young people about climate change.  Her interviewees said that when climate change was viewed as a collective responsibility then this collective response meant the burden of dealing with felt shared. This generated hope for them and some were able to envision a future where society could change.   

Just having passive hope is not going to create the changes needed to restore the planet to good health. Neither is a sense of learned helplessness where there is a belief nothing will change so there is no point doing anything about it thus creating endless self-fulfilling prophecies. This doesn’t help the situation or make us feel any better about it.

But change is happening all around us. The huge response to the Great Big Green Week is a wonderful example of that. The future is not decided yet and we can influence what happens next if we shine our light and set our focus on what we hope for.

Active Hope – and how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, is an inspiring book by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone. It’s a wonderful guide to understanding the climate change crisis and the role of active hope.

The Authors explain for active hope we must:

  1. Take a clear view of reality
  2. Identify what we hope for, the direction to get there, what we need to move to achieve this, what we value, and what we would like to be expressed
  3. Take steps to move ourselves or situate in that direction, focus our intention and let it be our guide.

This can be applied even when feeling hopeless.  We can bring about what we actively choose to aim for by not limiting our choices, and by focussing on what we can do to make what we hope for actually happen or at least be more likely.  It doesn’t matter how small.  

It is about having an intention to move towards the future we want by consciously putting our attention to the thoughts, choices, and conversations, and to what conscious action we might take toward the hoped-for future.  Eve if we can’t see when the end result will be.  

Joanna and John describe 3 stories we can choose to tell:

  1. “Business as Usual” where there is no need to change.  Economic growth is essential.  Nature is a commodity.  We consume.  Other nations, species, or issues are not our concerns or problem. This story leads to…
  2. “The Great Unravelling”.  Social and economic collapse and mass extinction. Social division.  War. Climate change.
  3.  The Great Turning”. The ecological revolution. If energy is put here then stories 1 and 2 can’t win. The transition from the industrial society to the LIFE SUSTAINING society.  We can actively choose to put our energy here. Empowerment.

The Authors say which story we chose to tell sets the context of our lives that influences our decisions.

Active hope is about acknowledging the possibilities. Society has made many changes over time such as moving on from denying rights to women, minorities, and the LGBQ+ communities. So much social change has already happened and continues to be made.  We are not stuck or helpless.

In the future I imagine and hope for, we respect, honour, and treat all life on the planet with love, care, and equal rights. I actively look for people to talk to about this, for groups and organisations who are working towards this aim, and contribute what I can. I often strike gold such as finding GARN (Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature) who actively work towards the same goal. Their story and goals are contagious and in them I find strength, inspiration, and hope.

In the resource section of Active Hope, I came across another one. The transition network, is a movement that started in 2005 and is now active in 48 countries. The network encourages people to “reimagine and rebuild our world”.  Their aim is to share inspiring stories of communities taking action and connect people to others who are committed to take care of themselves, their communities, and the planet.

Active hope is about facing the mess we are in and at the same time acknowledging each one of us can contribute significantly when we focus our attention on the future we actively hope for.  Joanna and John believe “The Great Turning” has already begun. I’m with them.  The next cultural evolution is already underway and is about shining our light on the recovery process for the planet.

Active hope can become more accessible, be cultivated, and improved with practice.  With more and more of us practising active hope the hope spiral grows wider – as do our possibilities…

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