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Yeah, yeah but what does it mean in practice?! ... on hope, preservation and the climate emergency

A couple of months ago, I gave a talk in which I suggested there might be some utility in turning our focus away from ‘fixing’ the climate crisis, and asking instead how its magnitude might force us to re-examine the epistemological basis from which we undertake our work, whether that be as funders, as activists, as academics, or as policy makers.


I’d intended to start a discussion about the extent to which our relentless fixation on solutions is (at least in part) a type of sublimated fetish response.


For while it is undoubtedly a good thing that we are now talking more openly about how our economic model organises and distorts more than just capital flows (nature, for example); we seem nonetheless to remain resistant to acknowledging the extent to which that same model simultaneously dominates and delimits the subjectivities of those who labour under it.


Without this acknowledgement, I worry that we will be unable to break free of our petty instrumentalism. Instead, we’ll be condemned to greet every claim that a different future is possible with a pedantic demand that it’s contours are immediately outlined and that any forward motion be subject to the filling out of some type of cosmic risk assessment form.


Such a response is not uncommon.


And while I understand the (often well meaning) instincts that drive it, it still remains utterly depressing.


Because functionally at least, that type of reflex is reactionary and I’m convinced that it will hold us back at the very point when we can least afford for that to happen.


So, in order to collectively move past this type of response, I think there would be some merit in re-examining the role that the concept of ‘hope’ plays in our discourse. Not only around the climate emergency, but around systemic societal change more generally.


Broadly speaking, while we demotically think of the concept of hope as being one that is synonymous with optimism, there is nonetheless a fairly substantial critical tradition (I’m thinking of Ernst Bloch in particular here) that tells us that it is not.


Whereas to be ‘optimistic’ says something about how one feels about the likelihood that something might happen, to be ‘hopeful’ is a state that remains divorced from both calculation and probability. Instead, we can begin to think of hope as something more akin to desire, to a deep and enduring need to believe that the future is not foreclosed and that other ways of living are possible.


Indeed, the whole point of hope, as conceived in this way, is that it absolutely doesn’t refer to a future that is either presently observable or that is graspable via some sort of technocratic divination. What it does do, however, is provide a sort of psychic protection, or holding pen, for the individual and communal longing that would otherwise be extracted and exhausted by the relentless libidinal machinery of the market.


And it is this (what we might perhaps call the preservatory quality of hope) that I think will be utterly vital as we begin the process of building new systems of interrelation, exchange and interdependence. To quote Bloch directly, it is hope that will allow us to live “in a state of perpetual becoming”.


And without this commitment to flux and fluidity, what chance have we of escaping those flattening, deadening logic models that got us into this mess in the first place?


If we commit to hope in this way, then we are surely giving ourselves the best chance possible to respond to our present crises in ways that are both agentive and embodied. And in ways that allow us face the specific and localised challenges that emerge in our communities, workplaces and civic squares in a manner that is genuinely unafraid of the consequences of deep ethical entanglements.


All of which is necessary because business as usual is done. To think otherwise is not only emotionally and empirically naive, it is actively dangerous. That doesn’t mean one needs to glorify rupture or the unknown for their own sake. But what it might mean is that, if we wish to have any chance of allowing something better to flourish, we must resist the urge to meet utterly necessary acts of preservatory hope with a dreary demand for a Gannt chart and a costed budget ...


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