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Hope for Life
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In the teeth of climate emergency, hope has to remain possible, because life insists on it. But hope also has to be realistic. And doesn’t realism about our plight point towards despair? Don’t the timid politicians, the failed summits and the locked-in consumerism all just mean that we have left things far too late to avoid catastrophe?

There is a deeper realism of transformation which can keep life powerful within us. It comes at the price of accepting that our condition is tragic. That, in turn, calls for a harsher, more revolutionary approach to the demands of the emergency than most activists have yet been prepared to adopt.

This is a book to think with, to argue and disagree with – and to hope with.

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Massively disruptive climate change, now inevitable, is the worst tragedy which human beings have yet brought on themselves. It is tragic in the full classical sense – a disaster entailed on the protagonist (here, humanity) by destructive weaknesses inherent in crucial strengths and virtues. There is thus no way of avoiding it by picking and choosing among our values, and its effects can neither be compensated for nor mitigated by prospective gains to offset against anticipated losses. But once we have discarded a strained and wilful last-ditch optimism, and recognised that we are not in control, we will still need to find genuine hope if we are to have any chance of coming through. This requires us to embrace the transformative power of tragic experience, letting go of values which we may hitherto have regarded as sacrosanct and welcoming the creative destruction of current assumptions and expectations as an affirmation of life.

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The condition of realism, as I stated it in the Introduction, was that hope must address itself to a real chance of the hoped-for event’s coming to pass. But what counts as a real chance? Here, already, we need to embark on some conceptual clarification.

The odds are apparently about a million to one, for instance, against your being struck by lightning in any given year. Is there, nevertheless, a real chance that this will happen to you? There is a sense in which that assertion of the odds itself constitutes an affirmative answer: yes, indeed, there really is such a chance, although it is a very, very slim one because misfortunes of this nature occur extremely rarely – only about one time in a million when you are out and about, to be more precise. But then, in that sense, the condition of realism would be met by any case where what one was hoping for wasn’t something literally impossible, such as travelling back in time, however overwhelming one judged the odds against its happening to be – and that is plainly not what we intend when we recognize that hope has to be realistic to do its proper work.

Instead, we mean ‘realistic’ here in the sense in which it would be unrealistic to frame one’s New Year resolutions, holiday arrangements and so forth on the basis that one might on any day in the coming twelve months be taken out by lightning – just as it would be still less realistic to erect such life-plans on the firm assumption that one will this year win millions on the Lottery.

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The realism of empirical plausibility represents, as I said in the Introduction, our taking the parameters for what is count as thinking realistically from a certain underlying conception of, or set of unquestioned assumptions about, what is fundamentally real. Central to this at least tacitly operative metaphysic is the belief that in the nature of reality, true general laws instantiated by what has happened are determinative of what can happen, and attention to them is always strongly predictive of what will happen. This is so because the basically real is thought of as a world of objects and forces located in space-time, a world which holds together wholly impersonally and not just as seen or grasped from some unifying perspective, and which therefore must be organized exclusively and exhaustively by causal connections. For impersonally and objectively – that is, removed from any notion of an informing intention or shaping will – the only possible reason for anything’s happening is that something else caused it to happen. These assumptions, coupled culturally with growing technical capacity and declining religious belief, provided the underpinning for the scientific world view as it has been articulated and developed over the past three centuries. They are also (and of course, relatedly) the grounding for our deeply held common-sense conviction that you can’t ultimately buck the odds – that it is unrealistic (it ignores how things really work) to expect more from the future than you are licensed to expect by the pattern of probabilities derived from scrupulously careful observation of the past.

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I have been exploring a particular kind of hope, specifically called forth by our current climate and ecological plight. That hope is addressed to ways in which the life-threatening scenario now looming for humanity and the biosphere might nevertheless still be prevented from unfolding at its most drastic. In the course of the discussion so far I have characterized it in two different ways – as life-hope in the Introduction and first chapter, and as counter-empirical hope in the second. Each of these terms represents a distinct perspective on the nature of this literally vital force.

Life-hope characterizes the hope which we need from the perspective of its natural relation to the instinctual drive of life-energy in human beings. Thought of in this way, such hope is an expression of that drive as it comes to consciousness in a reflective creature endowed with language and reason and aware both of its individual future, and of its involvement in species-continuity through the lives of its descendants. It arises unprompted in the ordinarily robust, healthy individual. As such, it can manifest itself – as frequently in art – in the form simply of an eager openness to the vibrancy of ongoing life, taking no intentional object. But, as brought to bear on the actualities of our present plight, it spontaneously invests itself in the indefinite sustainability of a sufficiently flourishing human life.

When such hope is characterized as counter-empirical, however, that is to attend to it from an epistemic perspective. We thereby foreground its ultimate independence of whatever we might have learnt from experience about the scope and tenacity of the obstacles which it confronts and the possibilities of adequate action to remove or circumvent them.

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We ended the previous chapter by concluding that the difference which no one is too small to make must be a matter of helping to dislodge the assumption of self-interested action which underpins the collective-action dilemma. Unfortunately, appealing from self-interest to moral responsibility fails to escape the essence of this dilemma. The trouble is that the disparity between action and climate effect remains in force to prevent morality from getting any real grip here.

At first blush that seems counter-intuitive – surely the moral issues in this area are starkly clear? Whatever sense it makes in general to attach moral predicates to a collective entity (unsurprisingly, a contested point in social philosophy), it must be taken for the purposes of this book as perfectly intelligible to say that Western-style civilization, in persisting with its high-carbon ways of living while knowing what it ought by now to know about their consequences for climate and biosphere, is acting with gross irresponsibility. Indeed, attributions of climate irresponsibility to anything other than a large enough collective entity would be unintelligible, since only of such a collective does the claim that its actions are jeopardizing the climate even make sense. Again, however contested might be the issue of irresponsibility towards what – the question of whether an extensionist environmental ethics which talks about duties to threatened species or to the biosphere itself makes sense – it surely cannot be denied that future people, at least, are being thereby treated irresponsibly, nor moreover (as emphasized in the Introduction) that some of those who will suffer serious future adversity from such dealings are already alive.

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So the realism of transformation is ambitious. If hope informed by it can envisage a rapid and dramatic shift in the perception by individuals of their agency and motivations, in relation to their whole Earth-systemic context, that shift could also by extension transform the pressures shaping action by groups and collectives all the way up to the nation state and the international order. This means we are to hope for nothing less than a new kind of movement for change, establishing itself with astonishing speed through all the new forms of connectivity now available – a movement of deliberate and emphatic individual acceptance of responsibility for the wider biospheric life which is now threatened. How such a movement might be brought sufficiently swiftly into being, through what activities of consciousness-raising and mobilization coupled with the impacts of which unignorably climate-driven disasters, is an open-ended matter. So are the expressive forms which it might take, and the drastic political changes which it will demand. Empirically, none of that is remotely credible. Practically, we have no option left but to hope against hope that it could yet happen. That means believing what the previous chapters have tried to set out the warrant for believing: that the hope which we must invest counter-empirically in bringing transformation about can genuinely create the possibility of our becoming the life-responsible agents of its happening.

Counter-empirical hope, however, remains hope: desire for a valued outcome under the sign of contingency.

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