Hope in the Anthropocene Age
by Ryan LaMothe
Most of the graduate students I teach are preparing to work in the Catholic Church. Many of them think, without question, that hope is always a good thing. This is understandable, given that they, like Christians from other denominations, believe that hope is a virtue and despair a vice. I remember chatting with a student about this during a break. At one point I said, “There are some situations in ministry where there is no hope.” A student who overheard the conversation piped in from across the room, with some degree of categorical annoyance, “There is always hope.” I am fairly confident that the student who responded would find it difficult to care for people who are in despair. In speaking with students, my intention is to problematize hope, as well as to acknowledge the emotional challenges of sitting with people in their hopelessness “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”—that is, without defending against their own feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that are evoked by the situation. The danger is that students will project their particular hopes onto others. When students ask, “What do we do when there is no hope?” they are implying at some level that caring is necessarily contingent on hope. This too is a problem.
Outside the walls of academia, the problems of hope are evident in the public-political realm, especially when situated against the backdrop of the current and looming disasters linked to the climate emergency. Before identifying some problems with hope, it is necessary to say a bit about what comprises it. Briefly, hope consists of desires or needs, visions, motivations, and actions that are largely shaped by the ethos (e.g., narratives and practices) of the society in which one resides. A person’s present desire is linked to a vision that is shaped by the collective narratives of their society. Joined to this ethos is the means/action that a person employs to realize the vision. It is important to point out that in daily life we often confuse hope and wishful thinking because both contain desire and vision. Yet the vision for wishful thinking comprises unrealistic and unattainable illusions. In addition, unlike hope, wishing usually lacks any realistic actions or means for attaining the vision.
When it comes to climate change, there are various hopes and a good deal of wishful thinking at play. Both are problematic, yet hoping is at least as dangerous as idle wishing for a magical engineering fix to the problems we face. When it comes to hope and climate change, we need to ask whose desires, needs, and visions are being enacted: Who benefits from these actions and visions? What means are being employed to reach the vision(s)? Are the desires, visions, and means of hope contributors to climate destruction, or are they obstacles to effective climate action? In my view, they are three major hegemons that shape and distort hope in the Anthropocene Age1, namely capitalism, nationalism, and a new imperialism.
Capitalism, which has its roots in sixteenth-century England, has become a global phenomenon that is responsible for structuring societies around the world. It is a hegemonic ethos, despite the wildly diverse cultures that are now in its grip. For centuries, capitalism has shaped the hopes of many. The desire for wealth or well-being became associated primarily with profit, and endless profit became the vision. The means of attaining wealth/profit are fundamentally instrumental, though they vary in destructiveness and levels of exploitation. The brutal exploitation of slaves to realize the hopes (for wealth) of white plantation owners is only one example of violent instrumental means of securing profit. Today there are more “acceptable” means of exploitation, which entail distributing wealth toward the top 10 percent. Still, human beings are not alone in their suffering as a result of the hopes of those who embrace the visions and means of capitalism. Other species and the earth itself have fallen victim to the instrumental means of capitalist exploitation. Mountaintop removal, fracking, animal experimentation, and factory farms are just a few examples of the damage that has been and is being done to other species and the earth to achieve anthropocentric aims of profit.
Capitalism and its apparatuses create a normative unconscious vis-à-vis exploitation and illusions of control and superiority. In other words, a capitalistic-inflected hope splits off the needs, desires, and sufferings of the objects of exploitation, whether they are human beings or other species. This said, despite centuries of destruction and exploitation, some economists continue to believe that capitalism is our only hope for reducing the effects of climate change. This is wishful thinking and perhaps an unconscious attempt to maintain the privileges of capitalist classes while denying or disavowing capitalism’s long, bloody, and destructive history. Clearly, to place our hopes in capitalism is a problem and a distortion not only because capitalism is a major contributor to climate change but also because it is a key obstacle to climate action.
Capitalism should not get all the blame. The ethos of nationalism structures the hopes of numerous citizens in most countries. The desire, in part, is for a shared identity, which is fundamentally exclusionary, not only concerning othered human beings but also othered species. Linking one’s identity to a collective national identity is joined to an unconscious desire for a sense of going-on-being even in the face of existential threats. Thus, though an individual citizen will die, the nation will continue to exist. Nationalism, in terms of shared identity, is usually accompanied by the illusion of superiority. We believe “our nation is more exceptional than your nation.” None of this is benign, because the rise of nation-states depended on political violence, and here we see the means of enacting nationalistic hopes comprise varied iterations of violence, which occur between and within nation-states. Hope with regard to the apparatuses that establish and maintain nationalisms is deeply flawed when one faces the realities of climate change. All nations, all peoples depend on a biodiverse earth. We are all residents of the earth. Yet nationalism obstructs this view and impedes, along with the apparatuses of capitalism, cooperation toward achieving a habitable earth. If we place our hopes in nationalism, we will continue to rely on violence and exclusion, while denying the existential truth that all life depends on a viable earth.
The third of this unholy trinity of hope is a new imperialism that is evident in the machinations of the United States, China, and Russia. Imperialism is tied to nationalism, though it is a pernicious form of nationalism because it seeks to dominate other nations, whether through political-economic threats or outright violence. The three major culprits share, in part, a desire and vision to maintain and extend political, economic, and military control over other states. Collectively, these three nations promote exceptionalism that is exclusionary to outsiders. Those who place their hopes in imperialistic visions correspondingly disavow the destruction done in the name of one’s imperium—destruction to other human beings, other species, and the earth.
These three systems intersect in myriad ways and, at their base, promote anthropocentrism, which is a collective type of narcissism. The core problems are that the visions that determine hope are restrictive to select groups of human beings—excluding othered human beings, other species, and the earth—and that the varied means of attaining the visions are violent. To rely on these three systems in offering hope in the Anthropocene Age represents a hope that, in the long run, is tragically doomed.
The above is not necessarily a counsel of despair. A remedy exists. Erik Erikson posited that hope emerges from the struggle of trust-mistrust between parent and baby. Central to this struggle are the parents’ consistent caring actions, which give rise to children’s presymbolic organizations of anticipation or hope. Care precedes and is the foundation of hope, but care is not contingent on hope. There are numerous examples throughout history of people caring for one another amid hopelessness. It is not radical hope we must seek but a kind of radical care that is not dependent on hope. Martin Luther, I suspect, was thinking of radical care when he said, “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today.” To plant a tree in the face of the end of the world is an act of radical care, which depends on courage—the courage to care without hope. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Courage is required because in politics the primary care is never for life itself but always for the world.” The remedy is radical care for other human beings, other species, and the earth, and this remedy requires a collective courage.
- Ryan LaMothe is a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Southern Indiana. He has published in the areas of political philosophy/theology, psychoanalysis, and psychology of religion. His most recent work is A Radical Political Theology for the Anthropocene Era (Cascade Press, 2021), and he is currently working on a monograph for Routledge Press titled A Political Psychoanalysis for the Anthropocene Era: The Fierce Urgency of Now.
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