On this Independence Day weekend, Sustainable Putnam founder Joe Montuori shares some thoughts about hope and hopelessness, a topic that arises again and again for many of us. As Joe writes below, the cliches about having hope often ring hollow. But a deep dive into the meaning of the word provides a path toward positive change while also feeling good about ourselves and the world. And who doesn’t want that? We hope you enjoy this thoughtful reflection as we celebrate this Fourth of July.
I’ve been more and more frequently concerned about the hopelessness and the closely connected lack of widespread climate activism in our community and the nation. It may seem cliché, but I keep coming back to the notion of hope. So stick with me because this isn’t a “Just be hopeful” pep talk. What I want to share is a strategy, a way of operating as we create a better world. Like the positive feedback loops in an ecosystem, this process creates an “active hope” that keeps the loop flowing.
Believe me, I get it. There are so many reasons to feel hope-less. Just acknowledging the climate crisis can be frightening and painful. And the more we learn, the easier it becomes to give up. Without another path, it is easier to look away, to avoid the pain and despair. And we’re very good at developing various excuses that help us do just that:
- It’s so upsetting, I can’t think about it.
- I’m paralyzed. I don’t even know what to do.
- Corporations/government/environmental groups need to do more to solve this problem. (It’s not my job.)
- The climate crisis too big a problem for me to have a significant impact.
- The climate crisis is already here. It’s too late to do anything about it.
There’s no shame in acknowledging our despair. In fact, it’s important to acknowledge our pain — but it will paralyze us unless it’s held within a framework of gratitude that strengthens, organizes, and builds positive change. That process is the subject of activists Joanna Macy’s and Chris Johnstone’s 2014 book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. This post is offered as an initial glimpse into the practice, with an opportunity to learn more below.
That brings us to a different meaning of the word hope, and its central importance for all who want to avert the worst of the climate crisis.
Macy points out that hope has two different meanings. The first defines hope as a desired outcome that seems pretty likely to transpire, over which we have little or no control. (“I hope the Supreme Court makes a wise decision on climate change.”) That’s the passive form of hope.
The second meaning of hope is about desire. It is what we want the future to be like, over which we have some or perhaps a lot of control. (“I hope Sustainable Putnam can have a significant impact on the climate crisis right here in our community.”) So while passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire, active hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about the vision we hope for. That’s so much more than a mindset. It’s a habit of mind, it’s a process and it’s a journey. Active hope requires a cyclical practice and a community of folks to grow and maintain itself over time.
Macy and Johnstone insist that the sequential steps in this cycle are repeatable, developing greater strength and hope with each pass. While these can’t be fully described here, these steps involve, for example, a new “story” to tell ourselves about the way our society works, about what’s possible and open to change. It involves a shift in thinking of ourselves as individuals, to thinking of ourselves as an inseparable part of a web of life. It’s a view that harmonizes well with ecological science (the real story), and with certain spiritual beliefs. Coming from this place of gratitude for our interconnectedness, we can envision a society that enhances, rather than destroys those connections. Armed with that vision, we can then seek our individual role, among others, in making it a reality. Community is essential to our endurance and ultimate success.
Naturally, Sustainable Putnam provides community! We already have a small core of supporters and volunteers working with us and we encourage you to join us. We always have opportunities for folks with a little or a lot of time, and with various skills and interests. You’ll be joining like-minded neighbors working for positive change, making new friends, and developing more and more of that elusive state of hopefulness. Reach out to me here if you’d like more info.
In the next post, I’ll share an opportunity to participate in an Active Hope reading and discussion workshop. Stay tuned. Or if you’re already intrigued, reach out here for more information.
Happy Independence Day!