Global warming, massive species extinctions, pollution, and myriad other looming environmental catastrophes continue to threaten the planet, while environmentalists insist on preaching a gospel of hope. There’s an inherent contradiction in the hopeful environmental message, Michael Nelson and John Vucetich write for the Ecologist. They point out that films like An Inconvenient Truth and other environmental motivators often boil down to:
1) Scientists give good reasons to think profound environmental disaster is eminent
2) It is urgent that you live up to a challengingly high standard—sustainability
And 3) the reason to live sustainably is that doing so gives hope for averting disaster.
The contradiction of asking people to be hopeful in a hopeless situation threatens to undermine the environmental movement. Instead, Nelson and Vucetich write that environmentalists should abandon hope and instead stress that sustainable living is the ethical and virtuous way to live. People shouldn’t hold out hope for a sustainable future that may never come. People should live sustainably because it’s the right thing to do.
“A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope,” Derrick Jensen wrote for Orion in 2006, “which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place.” Hope implies powerlessness, a lack of agency, and a reliance on forces beyond your control. To focus on an abstract sustainable future neglects the real-world actions that can be taken right now. “When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all,” Jensen writes. “We simply do the work.”