ECOS 39(6): The root of optimism

ECOS 39(6)

Buenas noticias para el planeta’ display in Valencia, Spain.

Photo: Hello Valencia

We can be forgiven for being pessimistic in the face of the litany of environmental bad news, but pessimism is not a good springboard for effective action. To act well, we need somehow to be optimistic – but where do we find optimism from?

Seeing the good news

A photographic display entitled ‘Buenas noticias para el planeta’ (Good news for the planet) caught my eye as I dropped my backpack on a bench in Granada, on my way to the snows of Sierra Nevada. Intrigued, I walked up to it: a collection of 58 photographs and accompanying text that celebrated success stories in environmentalism. Acting on the realisation that environmental journalism is often dominated by a barrage of bad news (from species extinctions to ice cap melt; from soil erosion to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events), the display sought to emphasise that some battles are being won, and that environmentalists have grounds for believing that our work can pay off. The display’s aim was brave; it’s effect on me, heart-lifting.

My fondness of this collection of images quickly went beyond its hopeful nature. I particularly liked the fact that after the first few cases, which unsurprisingly focused on the recovery of a few charismatic species (typically carnivores), stories moved on to the recovery of whole landscapes, and to successes in safeguarding sustainability and enhancing human wellbeing. This was more in keeping with the title ‘Good news for the planet’, and not just nature or biodiversity.

Happily, ‘Buenas noticias para el planeta’ is part of a more widespread trend. In fact, last year marked the arising of a global movement with the hashtag #EarthOptimism, in which environmental good news are presented both as an antidote to pessimism and as guidance for what works in conservation. I participated in the Cambridge Earth Optimism event, which hosted talks by leading figures in environmentalism, as well as more involved activities such as a fair that explored a range of solutions to common environmental problems. I left feeling energised and positively inspired.

It has been eighteen months since then, and here in the David Attenborough Building we are preparing the next Earth Optimism summit, which will take place on 22nd April 2020. Before that, in September 2019, Oxford will be hosting a related, multi-day event under the title Conservation Optimism. Meanwhile, the Twitter #EarthOptimism feed regularly receives multiple new tweets every day, from all over the world, spreading good news from all over the planet. The movement is gathering powerful momentum.

Pessimism does not work

There is little secrecy around the motivations behind such calls for optimism and celebrations of success. Constantly palpable as an implicit truth and occasionally stated explicitly, the reality that spurs ‘Buenas noticias para el planeta’ and Earth Optimism is that pessimism does not work. And although the futility of pessimism is almost always presented as an intuition – the kind of thing that you would expect to find only anecdotal evidence for – it is actually a well-researched and empirically-proven hypothesis. Theory and experimental evidence show that we react to pessimistic news in a variety of ways, but that none of them leads to meaningful action.

In an illuminating article about the Anthropocene (1), Robert Macfarlane argues that we mostly respond to the ongoing environmental crisis with ‘stuplimity’, the combination of astonishment and boredom. News about the global decline of species populations, the destruction of wild habitats and the depletion of natural resources are shocking enough, but we experience these shocks in such relentless succession that they result in fatigue. Shock and boredom may at first look like an unlikely couple, but they have a key thing in common: they both induce paralysis rather than stir action.

Overwhelmingly negative news often also trigger defence mechanisms which ultimately hinder environmental action. Susanne Moser claims that the litany of bad news about the environment generates numbness, because numbness is easier to cope with than guilt or despair (2). This has elsewhere been referred to as ‘the myth of apathy’: fear and extreme concern disguised as carefreeness (3).

There is also splitting, the psychological process by which, upon being presented with a painful stimulus, the subject severs the emotional from the cognitive components of their reaction (3,4). David Kidner argues that this is largely the case in environmentalism: that the ecological realities of our time would be too painful for us to fully experience, so we instead engage in this self-protecting strategy (5). Splitting thereby allows us to engage with reality in vague and detached ways, whilst protecting us from much of the emotional strain which would result from opening up to environmental degradation with our hearts as well as our brains.

The problem is that, as a range of empirical studies demonstrates, meaningful emotions are a pre-requisite for significant action (2,6-8). Without affective energies – to borrow Jane Bennett’s words (9) – such as hope and joyous attachment, ethical codes tend not to translate into action. If codes are the compass that guides environmental action, then affective energies are its fuel. Pessimism yields either weak fuels (guilt, despair) or numbness and paralysis, which are no fuel at all.

Searching for optimism

So pessimism is not our ally. But where can we derive optimism from? This is a question worth dwelling upon. The defence mechanisms and overall heavy-heartedness outlined above are not just isolated hurdles to get rid of: they are understandable reactions to the biggest challenges of our time.

I have been researching and presenting these ideas for some time now, and I have on occasion been asked why I am optimistic about our planet. After giving it some thought, I have realised that my optimism largely stems from an unexpected root: ignorance, in the best sense of the word. It is a well-known rule that the more one knows about something, the more one realises how little one knows. I frankly do not think that anyone can tell for certain what the future holds for the planet – the political, economic, societal and natural uncertainties are too numerous and complex (10).

But – and here is the thing – this does not matter. The question is not ‘Are things going well?’, nor ‘Will things go well in the future?’, but ‘Can they go well?’. Optimism then comes not from an assessment of current trends and prediction of future events, but from a measure of our own potential and volition.

In his closing speech at Earth Optimism Cambridge, Steven Pinker cited economist Paul Romer to draw the distinction between complacent optimism and conditional optimism (11). A complacent optimist sits back and thinks ‘Everything will be OK’, while a conditional optimist uses what is available to them in the belief that they can improve the current states of affairs.

In the absence of the knowledge that things will go badly, let us be conditional optimists.

References

1. Macfarlane, R. Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever. The Guardian (2016).

2. Moser, S. More bad news: the risk of neglecting emotional responses to climate change information. in Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (eds. Moser, S. & Dilling, L.) 64–80 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3. Lertzman, R. The myth of apathy. The Ecologist (2008). Available at: /2008/jun/19/myth-apathy. (Accessed: 20th November 2018)

4. de Mijolla-Mellor, S. Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence. in International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (ed. de Mijolla, A.) 1647–1648 (Thompson Gale, 2005).

5. Kidner, D. Depression and the natural world: towards a critical ecology of psychological distress. Crit. Psychol. 123–146 (2007).

6. Maiteny, P. T. Mind in the Gap: Summary of research exploring ‘inner’ influences on pro-sustainability learning and behaviour. Environ. Educ. Res. 8, 299–306 (2002).

7. Chawla, L. Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity. J. Environ. Educ. 29, 11–21 (1998).

8. Kollmuss, A. & Agyeman, J. Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environ. Educ. Res. 8, 239–260 (2002).

9. Bennett, J. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. (Princeton University Press, 2001).

10. Solnit, R. Don’t despair: the climate fight is only over if you think it is | Rebecca Solnit. The Guardian (2018).

11. Conditional Optimism about Progress and Climate – Paul Romer. Available at: https://paulromer.net/conditional-optimism-about-progress-and-climate/index.html. (Accessed: 20th November 2018)

ROGELIO LUQUE-LORA

Rogelio Luque-Lora is a Research Assistant at the University of Edinburgh, and Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, mostly interested in the social, cultural and ethical aspects of conservation.  This article is also available in Spanish, as ‘La razón de ser del optimismo’, Quercus 389, pp. 64-5

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