Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up, I used to tell my students. Let me explain.
I used to begin the semester in my Nature and Culture course by saying, “Let me start by making you depressed.” Then I would turn on my slideshow that began with some basic facts about the world since 1950.
“Since 1950,” said the first slide, “more people have been born on earth than during the previous 4 million years.”
“Since 1950,” said another slide, “The use of grain has tripled.” “Consumption of seafood has quadrupled,” said the next one. “Water use has tripled,” said yet another.
Later on: “Fossil fuel use has quadrupled.” And “the demands of our generation now exceed the sustainable yield of what the earth produces.” Followed by: “Every major food-producing country is suffering heavy topsoil losses from erosion by wind and water.” “In every country in Africa, rangeland is being degraded by overgrazing.” “Thirteen of the world’s 15 leading oceanic fisheries are in decline from overfishing.”
After that, I dove into the climate crisis, explaining the basic science and the projections of what will happen if we don’t make an urgent transition away from fossil fuels. I highlighted the growing problem of water scarcity as the world’s glaciers disappear. For example, the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas provides 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. More than 400 million Indians depend on that glacier, and it is melting away in our human-induced overheating climate. In northwest China 300 million people depend on glacial snowmelt for water.
When they run out of water, you can’t tell them to wait until the next ice age. If there ever is one.
My slideshow had more, but you get the idea. And yes, I succeeded in depressing my students.
The thing is, I would tell them, if you want to have hope for your future, you absolutely must face reality, no matter how depressing or frightening it may be. This is in part because scientific projections inevitably will have some margin for error. Typically, it isn’t a major error. Even a small error, though could mean some aspects of what is coming won’t be as bad as expected.
The single largest uncertainty in all these projections, though, I’d tell them, is in how the world will respond to the science. It is still possible to greatly reduce the amount of suffering heading our way. But the scale of change necessary can only be undertaken by governments. If the top carbon emitters of the world—The United States, China and India, in particular, along with the other wealthy nations—force large reductions in fossil fuel use by 2030, we will still see a significant increase in extreme weather disasters, but it will be manageable. Waiting to begin until the 2030s, however, will lead to a far more dangerous reality. And if we reject major reductions even in the 2030s, all bets are off. Civilization itself and perhaps half of all species will face grave risks. Risks that are entirely unnecessary.
I last taught that class seven years ago, in 2014. I retired the following summer. Since then, thousands more peer-reviewed research papers have made clear that our situation is far more precarious than it seemed in 2014, and yet the world’s governments still have the opportunity to greatly reduce the suffering that is barreling our way.
Unfortunately, it seems the greatest contributor to the excess carbon in the atmosphere, and therefore to the crisis, is not up to the task. I’m not talking about China, which now leads the world in annual emissions. I’m talking about the United States, second in annual emissions but with cumulative emissions more than twice that of China. The Democrats by and large recognize the reality, but their power hangs by a thread and they are timid. The Republicans want to double down on fossil fuels. If historical trends remain true, they will take over the House of Representatives in 2022. So America’s last chance of major climate legislation—and therefore the world’s hope of making the cuts needed by 2030—is in the reconciliation bill currently before Congress. And one of the Democratic Party’s own senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and a friend of big coal, is threatening to blow it up.
The fate of the world, in a sense, hangs on what Manchin does.
Hope Is A Verb
On that first day of class, after getting my students good and depressed, I would talk about hope. I said my favorite definition of hope comes from an environmental studies professor named David Orr, who describes hope as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”
We cannot know all the variables of such large-scale processes as climatic change or human history. Who would have predicted one small-state Democratic senator might ruin the world’s last chance to pass on a tolerable climate to future generations? Scholars of social change say just a small, determined percentage of a society’s people is necessary to enact major change. Perhaps just 10 percent. That is enough to push a society past the cultural or political tipping point needed to make it happen.
In some cases experts can be fairly confident that a tipping point exists. However, they cannot prove it until after the fact. That’s true in society, and it’s true in biophysical systems.
This means it’s possible we are already at or near the sociopolitical tipping point necessary for the world to avoid the worst biophysical tipping points. We won’t know this for a long time. This much is sure: if we give in to cynicism or despair now, the needed changes won’t happen.
This isn’t the time to bury our heads. This isn’t the time to wring our hands. This is the time to roll up our sleeves. That’s what hope does.