The Search for Environmental Hope

Climate news is relentlessly, objectively grim. Should we ever allow ourselves to feel optimism?

The week Texas froze over, in mid-February, poet Naomi Shihab Nye couldn’t save one of the marvelous gray mourning doves that flock in her yard near the San Antonio River — but she was determined to save the others. The doomed one crashed into her office window and died on the frozen ground below. All week she watched the others exhibiting behaviors she had never seen. They crowded onto a patio table until there was no room left, huddling body-to-body for warmth, and they stayed until almost dark, devouring the seed she gave them.

“These birds do not know what is happening here,” Nye told me over the phone. “This is not what they’re used to facing. … [Officials] keep talking about the ‘grid,’ the infrastructure of the state. But also what we’re talking about is the natural infrastructure of our world, and how are we going to help maintain it?”

Living things facing what they’re not used to facing: It’s an increasingly common experience on planet Earth, as the climate changes and the weather gets more extreme. Nearly 3 billion animals were incinerated or displaced in the Australian bush fires of 2019 and 2020. Some 200 people were killed in February in a landslide and flood from a collapsing piece of glacier in the Himalayas. In recent months we learned that warming is weakening the sensitive circulation system of the Atlantic Ocean to a point not experienced in more than 1,000 years; hundreds of butterfly species in the American West are in steep decline; and Greenland’s ice sheet — already melting at the fastest rate in 12,000 years — is more susceptible to small temperature changes than was previously understood. A melted Greenland alone would mean a 20-foot rise in the seas.

Outside Nye’s house in San Antonio, the palm trees were glazed with ice. “Now I’m out of all the bird food, and I’ve fed them everything from my refrigerator that they would possibly like to see,” she continued. “I think I’m going to throw them a box of cereal soon because they’re so hungry.”

I’d called Nye in a quest to learn how to be hopeful in the face of despair over the fate of Earth. Among many subjects in her numerous books, she writes about nature and the environment, and I wondered how a poet, someone who thinks deeply about the planet, handles the steady stream of apocalyptic news. Now caught in a weather-induced civic collapse — arguably connected to climate change (because Arctic warming has disrupted the jet stream, allowing freakishly cold storms to push south) — could she still find hope? And if so, where?

She starts with saving the doves. As humans, she says, we have to ask ourselves, “ ‘What is within my reach? What could I help change myself?’ Because just to stew in a corner and worry about all this catastrophe overtaking us will not really help us in the big picture.”

I’ve certainly heard Nye’s stance­ before: that countless individual acts can collectively change the gloomy trends. (Her recent poetry collection, “Cast Away,” is dedicated to the proposition that a person might not be able to save the world, but at least she could pick up trash.) I welcome that approach and try to practice it myself, but I’m losing faith that it’s enough. While we haven’t reached the climatic tipping point beyond which planetary doom is sealed — yet — it feels as though we are arriving at a psychological tipping point.

I know that’s the case for me. I have trouble getting through climate stories anymore; each one reads like a case of senseless, bloody murder. I can’t encounter any novel weather patterns or curious wildlife antics without thinking the shift toward doom has begun. I have a recurring vision of one giant storm consuming the entire Atlantic Ocean and whipping up a single monstrous wave, like the one on the watery planet Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey narrowly escape in the film “Interstellar.”

I didn’t realize how emotional the subject had become for me until two years ago, when I was covering a demonstration by young activists advocating for the Green New Deal. They planned a sit-in at Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office. As a warm-up activity, everyone was invited to tell the person next to them the name of someone they were holding in their hearts that day. I decided to participate in the exercise — while identifying myself as a reporter — because I thought it might help my article to hear what the young man next to me had to say. In return, I started telling him something I had never discussed with strangers: A year earlier, a mudslide in California swept away my brother’s house. Extreme rain had dislodged earth and boulders in an area where the vegetation had been burned the previous month in what was then the state’s largest wildfire. A paper in Nature later identified a climate connection to the twin disasters. Twenty-three people were killed in the mudslide, including my brother, Mark, and one of his daughters, Caroline. I found myself getting choked up as I formed the thought for the first time, to the young demonstrator, that maybe my brother and my niece were killed by climate change.

My personal losses have made me examine what hope I have for every other living thing. After all, isn’t hope essential? It gives us a sense of agency against vast forces and suggests the possibility that our actions matter. Its opposite — despair — is paralyzing.

And so, I recently sought out people who have written or spoken thoughtfully about the environment and who come at hope from different angles. I asked climate scientists if hope is even rational anymore; I asked nature philosophers about long-term prospects for healing our relationship with the wild; I asked activists about confronting the crisis in real time. They all described the very different places where they find hope, and its role in the struggle to address climate change.

They also pointed to hope’s limits. As Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg declared at the World Economic Forum in 2019: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”

In some circumstances, is hope just another opiate, as paralyzing as despair? When does hope degrade into magical thinking — and when is it precisely the renewable energy that will save us?

The morning I spoke with Nye, John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, was on television citing the Texas calamity as the latest warning that time is running out to reduce emissions enough to “avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.” Kerry gave us nine years to change our ways, referring to deadlines outlined in a disturbing United Nations report in 2018. That report said humans must dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to have any hope of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and keep the world from warming much past 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. If not, our grandchildren could inhabit a planet we wouldn’t recognize.

It’s grim stuff. But science tells us there’s still room for hope. “I am cautiously optimistic — that is to say ... objectively hopeful — about prospects for tackling the climate crisis in the years ahead,” climate scientist Michael Mann writes in his new book, “The New Climate War.”

Mann’s voice is especially powerful on the subject. In 1998, he co-wrote a bombshell paper in the journal Nature that presented a chart of Northern Hemisphere temperatures going back centuries. It resembled a hockey stick, with the blade tracing the sudden, sharp warming trend of the industrial age, and seemingly no end in sight. Climate change deniers attacked Mann relentlessly, but his research has withstood scrutiny in the years since.

Broader solutions to climate change may be beyond our reach until we first reorient our relationship with Earth.

Warming trends have only continued since 1998, but Mann cites climate models to argue that there’s still time to head off the worst effects, if we are willing promptly to make systemic changes to shift away from fossil fuels. Runaway warming is not yet baked into our future, and he urges us not to think of 2030 and 2050 as catastrophic cliffs beyond which all is lost. “I don’t want to seem Pollyannaish here, because I’m not,” Mann told me. “We’ve lost quite a bit already. We have to face up to that. If you’re Puerto Rico, if you’re Australia, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, dangerous climate change has arrived. ... So it’s simply a matter of how bad we’re willing to let it get. It’s almost empowering in a strange way. ... Every ton of carbon that we don’t burn makes our future better. And that’s an important way of viewing this.”

The “new” climate war in his book’s title is not against climate change deniers; by now, they have largely been vanquished. It is against hopelessness — the voices that claim that it’s too late to make the big changes needed to stave off calamity, so why make any sacrifices at all? “What is the antidote to irrational, disabling, doom-and-gloom ‘futility messaging’?” Mann writes. “Motivating hope that is grounded in entirely legitimate and defensible reasons for cautious optimism that the worst can still be averted.”

Marine scientist Nancy Knowlton turns the search for fact-based hope into a daily practice. She specializes in coral reefs, a particularly depressing barometer of the assaults of climate change and other human activity. Yet she remains determinedly hopeful, about reefs — she cites glimmers of resilience in some parts of ocean — and about our ability to arrest climate change more broadly. Knowlton and like-minded colleagues launched the Ocean Optimism movement in 2014, and more recently she helped inspire the Earth Optimism summits held periodically by the Smithsonian’s Conservation Commons program.

Her Twitter feed is filled with near-daily good-news bulletins from the frontiers of environmental science. She makes a point of not beginning or ending the day with bad news. If she reads something depressing — which she must, to stay informed — she’ll search for positive breakthroughs, such as, say, the restoration of carbon-consuming eelgrass off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

It’s “self-therapeutic,” Knowlton told me, but also part of the vital work of keeping hope alive in the public. “People have to be aware of this problem, but ... they have to know that there’s something that can be done about the problem,” she says. “It’s not even a complete and accurate picture to simply talk about all the bad news.” Since most climate news bleeds, it leads. What if that’s all people hear? Pessimism encourages inaction and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, she says. As she wrote earlier this year in a roundup of positive developments for the Annual Review of Marine Science: “We … risk having hopelessness itself be a factor in the demise of ocean organisms and ecosystems.”

The scientists validate that hope is a rational, even necessary, attitude despite the unremittingly depressing bulletins from the front lines of the climate war. But a sense of hope alone is not the victory we’re going for. It must be channeled into significant efforts to decarbonize the economy, which will require a society-wide sense of resolve. And yet, how can enough of us transform our perspective to build a critical mass in favor of systemic solutions? For an answer, I turned to a variety of nature philosophers, folks who have come at the climate crisis as writers and artists. To many of them, hope lies in attacking the root problem of our lost reverence for nature — by finding ways to repair our severed connection with the wild.

“Part of our job beyond the science that we do as writers and creators ... is to make the message relevant, to help others understand what it means,” says J. Drew Lanham, a birder and naturalist who wrote “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.” “Maybe in ways that say, ‘You know what? This is how it is affecting us here in this community.’ And when people can touch something, when they can feel something, then they are moved more to act.”

When I reached him on the phone, he said a red-shouldered hawk had just been “calling like crazy” above his writing “shack” in his yard in South Carolina. Pine siskins and cardinals were everywhere, and in coming weeks the migratory songbirds from Central America would make their tuneful appearance. Lanham has spent the better part of the past year confined by the pandemic to his shack and his yard, deepening his appreciation of the nature that can be found close at hand, while considering the “plagues” that beset America: the pandemic, racial injustice and, layered over them all, climate change.

“Especially for people of color, for Black folks, for Indigenous peoples, these things come together in this way that devastates us,” Lanham said. Climate change “is not some big word that’s far away, for big white [polar] bears. It’s an essential thing that’s close by for little Black and Brown boys and girls who have asthma at rates far higher than the majority.”

In “The Home Place,” Lanham writes, “My hope is that somehow I might move others to find themselves magnified in nature, whomever and wherever they might be.” In our conversation, he suggested how that can take place where you least expect it. “It makes a difference if you’re able to grow a few salad greens in a pot on your back stoop,” he said. “You have produced green that’s capturing carbon in some way. ... You have put your hands in soil. That helps you understand where food comes from. You may not have 40 acres and a mule, but you’ve got a four-gallon pot of mustard greens. And that makes a difference.”

Growing a pot of greens is a bit like Nye’s effort to save the doves in her yard. Consider what both approaches represent: that the broader solutions may be beyond our reach until we first reorient our relationship with Earth. If we can appreciate the profoundly powerful exchange that takes place when we cultivate a simple pot of greens — the care we’ve put into it; the nourishment we receive — then maybe from that seed will grow the resolve to fight for the big solutions, and we’ll understand in a visceral, pre-rational way why they must be achieved.

The writer and environmental advocate Terry Tempest Williams finds inspiration in a different part of the natural world for lessons on meeting the capricious ravages of human activity. “For me, it’s not so much about hope, but knowing where hope dwells,” she told me. “And for me, it is in this erosional landscape that lives and breathes change in every single moment — whether it’s the shifting light, whether it’s the revolving sky, whether it’s the tumbling of rocks that appeared steady. There is no illusion of a steady state of being.”

In her 2019 collection of essays, “Erosion,” she explores the idea that erosion — of the land, science, democracy, ourselves — is both an undoing and a becoming. “If we are to flourish as a species,” she writes, “an erosion of belief will be necessary, that says we are not the center of the universe but a dynamic part of an expanding and contracting future that celebrates and collaborates with uncertainty.”

Williams was speaking to me from her home in the red rock desert of Castle Valley, Utah, where she can see Castleton Tower, a 400-foot sandstone monolith, out her window. “You know, scientists just discovered a year ago that Castleton Tower has a pulse — that the stone is alive,” she says. Indeed, in 2019 geologists at the University of Utah reported that the tower taps into natural vibrations in the Earth and pulsates at about the rate of the human heart. “If that isn’t hope, then I don’t know what is,” Williams explains. “It’s what native people have always known. Of course stone has a pulse. Of course the Earth is alive.”

Appreciating the Earth as a living thing, she hopes, might move us to act accordingly. How much greater would our respect and awe be if we drew a lesson from Earth’s regenerative power? Responding to another cataclysmic wildfire season in the West in an essay last fall, parts of which she read on the New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, Williams wrote defiantly of those burning lands: “I will never write your obituary — because even as you burn, you are throwing down seeds that will sprout and flower, trees will grow, and forests will rise again as living testaments to how one survives change.”

The writer, musician and spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel proposes that hope lies within an even more radical resetting of the balance between humans and nature. He goes so far as to say that many of the self-styled green humans trying to “save” the planet overlap with those destabilizing the climate with greenhouse gases: Both conceive of nature as a resource to be manipulated, in one way or another, for human purposes. “There is never going to be environmental integrity until people do so out of genuine love for the Holy in Nature instead of trying to save oxygen-making rainforests in order to save themselves,” Prechtel writes in his forthcoming book, “Rescuing the Light,” parts of which he shared with me.

“Why do you want to save the Amazon?” he asked rhetorically when I reached him near Ojo Caliente, N.M. “ ‘So we’ll have oxygen.’ That’s the wrong reason. ‘Well, there may be a lot of lifesaving herbs in that jungle.’ Of course, but the sicknesses that you have that are going to be saved come from the stressful bulls--- life you’re leading in the first place. ... The Earth is not suffering. It is just adjusting to the calamity of people’s rude interruption. ... To me, that’s not unhopeful.”

Prechtel grew up on a Pueblo reservation and apprenticed for a time with a Tzutujil Mayan shaman in Guatemala before returning to New Mexico and founding Bolad’s Kitchen, a school immersed in Indigenous and natural wisdom. “If you’re going to have hope, you have to ... understand that you’re part of something bigger than your own self,” he said. “That you work for a time that you will never, ever see. ... That way, you will become an ancestor worth descending from.”

I agreed with the nature philosophers that rebuilding our connection to the natural world is a vital precondition to any long-term rescue of the climate. But nations have only nine years to cut emissions by nearly 50 percent. I wondered about the prospects for hope driving action on a much shorter time frame.

So I turned to climate activists and nature defenders who take the “burning house” approach that Greta Thunberg described at the World Economic Forum. They share some of Thunberg’s skepticism, even quoting her searing command back to me: I don’t want your hope. I want your panic. But the activists I spoke with aren’t hopeless. They just have a different definition of hope, grounded in a clear-eyed appreciation of all the reasons for panic.

“The biggest mistake we all make is in trying to jam hope down each other’s throats without giving the space and time for us to feel the full embodied response of what is happening,” says Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the four-year-old juggernaut of young people organized in 400 hubs across the country to protest the fossil fuel economy and push for the Green New Deal. The first step for her, Prakash says, is to pause, to “notice what’s going on in my body” and to allow those feelings of stress, or “the sense of shame that we haven’t been able to do enough, or the sense of failure, or whatever it is,” to flow. Then, “the hope honestly comes from the action that I both see myself and those around me taking on a daily basis,” Prakash continues. “Hope lies in action. ... If I were just sitting at home doing nothing all day and then reading the barrage of news and being on social media, I think I would be extremely depressed and extremely anxious and in constant fear.”

When hope is redefined as action, it can be uncoupled from the need for a guarantee of success.

In this formulation, hope does not propel action: Hope is action. Sunrise’s activism is focused on spurring systemic changes embodied in the Green New Deal, a set of proposals whose aims include rapidly shifting power sources to 100 percent clean and renewable energy and supporting workers and communities in the transition from fossil fuel industries.

When hope is redefined as action, I realized, it can be uncoupled from the need for a guarantee of success. The doing is its own justification and reward — and it just might lead to success. In the meantime, we will be less deterred by temporary setbacks and bleak headlines. I think of a line by the late Czech dissident and former president Václav Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

“I don’t know if I will see [the Green New Deal] in my lifetime, but I hope I will, and I know we need it, so I’m going to fight for it,” Prakash explains. “I don’t like to indulge too much in either doomsday or sort of utopian” scenarios, she says; instead, she focuses on the best she can do right now.

The grizzly bear advocate and wildlife writer Doug Peacock leans closer to the doom side of the equation. Now is “the direst point in human history,” he says. “There’s buckets of [bad news] every day, enough to send you out to the brink of the glacier.” But he’s not deterred, because he doesn’t need a promise of hope to motivate him. “I’m wary of people who claim you’ve got to be optimistic in order to do the work of the world,” he says. “I don’t know if we’re going to turn a corner or not, [but] it doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to do the same thing.”

I count Peacock as both an activist and a nature philosopher. He’s a key figure in the movement to keep the Yellowstone National Park-area grizzly population from being removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act, and he co-founded Round River Conservation Studies, which has helped protect millions of acres of wild habitat in North America and elsewhere. His crusade for the grizzly and for wild places began after he came home from Vietnam emotionally shattered from the war. He took long, therapeutic sojourns in grizzly country, where he experienced a kind of communion with the bears. “The biggest schism is that man is not a part of nature. That’s created all of our worst problems. And in the case of the grizzly bear, you’re not only, you know, brothers, but you’re just another flavor of meat. I’ve always found that a very healthy relationship.”

I had reached Peacock at his home near Emigrant, Mont., about 35 miles north of Yellowstone. As we spoke, he spied 100 or 150 magnificent elk stepping elegantly across the grassland. “If you wanted to look for an iota of hope: these elk,” he said. “I can tell, looking at ’em through binoculars, they’re down on the flat today. When it snows, they come down. But these guys are nervous today, and they’re looking up at the mountains. And for me, that means the possibility of a fragmented wolf pack up there. And I like that very much.”

Nature is not the pasture, the mountain, the elk or the wolf, he explained. It is their delicate and complicated relationships that bring the land to life. Reading it all in a single glance reminds him why he keeps fighting. “Even I don’t think it’s hopeless, I guess,” he said. “If it’s just an iota of a passage through this darkness, I’d take the same route no matter what.”

In the end, we can’t talk about hope without acknowledging its opposite: despair. I thought of the scientists scrupulously calling out the climate damage already done while simultaneously insisting on scientific reasons for hope. The nature philosophers diagnosing the need for a transformation of our relationship with nature to recover our awe at the miracle of a bowl of greens. The activists finding hope in action and continuing to act, even when they feel their hope flagging.

These are all strategies for keeping hope real. It’s hard-earned: hope with scars. But what if the opposite of hope is not a dark truth to be defeated? What if its opposite is the secret source of the possibility for hope in the first place?

Over the course of my conversations, I discovered the podcast “Facing It” by Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington at Bothell. It’s an intimate, haunting and inspiring meditation on the emotional toll of the climate crisis, what she calls “this invisible layer of despair that we’ve been keeping in the shadows ... the damage to our internal landscape.”

Our culture doesn’t normally recognize grief and mourning as appropriate reactions to the loss of nature — the disappearance of snow and ice from childhood sled hills and skate ponds, the incineration of 3 billion animals’ habitats. Acceptance is the preferred response. Or a coolly rational appraisal of what policies should be implemented to do better next time.

Atkinson experienced the connection between climate despair and traditional forms of human grief in recent years, when her professional work on eco-anxiety coincided with her father dying of cancer and wildfires burning to ashes the area where she grew up, outside Paso Robles, Calif. (Coincidentally, in a separate incident, she was visiting family in Santa Barbara in 2017 and had to evacuate the Thomas Fire that my brother’s family also evacuated, before they were caught in the succeeding mudslide.) “What the grieving process allows you to do is confront and accept that the world you knew will never be what it was,” she told me. “But you can still find meaning and purpose in some new reality. In fact, the experience of loss itself can now clarify and intensify what matters most and really refocus how we want to invest our efforts going forward.”

Climate change denialism doesn’t just refer to people who reject the science, she realized. It can also characterize those who accept the facts rationally but shut themselves off from feeling their implications, much as some people try to wall off the pain of losing a loved one. Atkinson’s explorations of the emotional territory of the climate crisis led her to create a course around eco-anxiety and climate grief in 2017. At first she thought the seminar would cure her own distress, and some students took the class for the same reason. “But what we got was something much better, once we really committed ourselves to just embracing those painful emotions,” she told me.

What they got was hope. “Grief is one of the great unacknowledged paths to hope and compassion,” she says in her podcast. “Some argue that it may be our greatest ally in the age of climate crisis.”

Grief is the form love takes when we lose someone dear: My grief for my brother reminds me how much he meant to me. If we grieve for the human and natural victims of climate change, it is because we love them. And if we understand our feelings as love — not something more abstract, intellectual or detached — we will do anything we can to prevent future losses. “Grief ultimately leads us to action,” Atkinson told me. “And hope in action is the only kind of hope that will save us now.”

Atkinson crystallized something for me that I realized the other thinkers had been saying, too: When I set out in search of hope to conquer my despair at our seeming inability to head off a climate catastrophe, I’d had it backward. True hope is not an opiate whose purpose is to make us feel better. And despair is not something to be explained away by science, or dulled by communing with nature, or vanquished by action. Hope takes root in suffering and sadness. To move beyond despair, we need to fully feel it, admit it to a place deep inside, and then it becomes our superpower.

So if you feel defeated or disheartened about the climate, I say: Good. Embrace your despair. And then step into the hope of your next move.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. He will discuss this story with articles editor Whitney Joiner on April 22 at 11 a.m. Sign up here:

Torkil Gudnason is a New York-based fashion photographer. Floral styling by Jessica Tan Gudnason. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Clare Ramirez.

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