Hope in the Midst of Climate Crisis

When I tell people that I am about to start a PhD focused on a theology of hope in a time of ecological crisis, I get a mix of reactions. Often, they look interested but at the same time quite surprised. There is a sense among many that climate change is a hopeless cause, and this pervades throughout much contemporary climate discourse and activism. Some of this anger and grief was captured by Greta Thunberg in her 2019 speech to the United Nations:

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.[1]

I understand where Thunberg and others are coming from. After all, my project was born in large part out of my own pain at what I see happening to the planet; my deep anxiety for my future and the future of those I love; the way that my heart breaks each time I remember that those who stand to lose the most are already marginalised and vulnerable communities and people. In such a context, against the background of regular reports of melting icecaps, species extinctions, and freak weather events, hope can feel almost arrogant. Who are we to hope in the face of such chaos and grief?

And yet, at the same time, I have been troubled by the implications of our collective lack of hope. What are its consequences? How does it shape the way we live? What kind of assumptions are we making when we find ourselves sliding unchallenged into despair?

I do not wish to deny either the reality of the seriousness of climate change, nor to dismiss the grief that so many of us feel at what we are losing and what we have yet to lose. It is both imperative to respond to the situation by making the changes necessary, and helpful to make space for lament. And yet, it seems both unwise and dishonest to assume that destruction is inevitable: we simply cannot know for sure. In her recent book, Words for A Dying World, Hannah Malcolm has pointed to this and noted that there is sometimes a hubris to our grief, an arrogance to our despair. As she points out, this arrogance is greater still when we assume that the only hope lies in our political and scientific abilities to fix the problem – our despair acknowledges our failure to find a solution, but assumes that a solution that comes from us (and in particular from the West) is the only solution possible.[2] Though we might assume that despair is the most realistic, least arrogant response to the crisis we face, therefore, we must realise that this is not necessarily the case.

I worry too that when we speak about hope and the climate crisis, we find ourselves continually deferring hope into the future. When our hope relies on a breakthrough at the next climate summit, the difference we might make with a new campaign, that breakthrough technology that might be just around the corner, we find ourselves in danger of being unable to ever grasp it in the present. If our hope is contingent on something that may or may not happen, then how can we ever truly possess it? We are in danger of making hope impossible for ourselves, but I would suggest that hope is not a luxury, but instead a responsibility, since hope is what opens us to possibility. To adopt a hopeful position is not arrogant, but precisely the opposite, since it recognises our limitations, with respect to both our knowledge of the future and our ability to change it.

Against our own hubris, and in the face of seeming impossibility, how then can we hope? For a fuller answer, I might have to ask you to get back to me in three years, but for now I’ll share a few brief thoughts. First, I would suggest that – as best we can – we need to make peace with uncertainty: even with all the best of scientific research at our fingertips, we cannot be certain what the future holds. Things may be better than we expect; they may be worse.

When we embrace uncertainty, we can make the shift to seeing hope as something that belongs to the present rather than the future. Hope does not rely on any particular outcome, but can instead be found in how we choose to live in the here and now. Against the destructive and divisive capitalism that has so devastated our lives and damaged the rest of creation, we can choose to live lives of solidarity and pursue justice for ourselves, for each other, and for our planet. And in so doing, we can find hope and proclaim its vision to the world.

[1] https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Environment/How-dare-you-Transcript-of-Greta-Thunberg-s-UN-climate-speech

[2] Hannah Malcolm, “Introduction: The End of the World?” in Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, ed. Hannah Malcolm (London: SCM Press, 2020).

Written by Liz Marsh. Liz is about to start a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, researching a theology of hope in the context of the climate crisis. Liz has been a member of SCM since 2014, and is the part-time administrator for our friends at Project Bonhoeffer.