To stay filled with hope, one must act with hope. If we go crazy with despair, we simply add to the craziness of the world.
For many of us, the endless stream of media reports about environmental ruin leaves us with feelings of fatigue that can seriously cripple our ability to do anything about these dire problems.
Moreover, the magnitude of the issues, combined with feelings of their distance from our everyday lives, can lead us to feel a “disconnect” to the events happening all around us.
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy (2012) is an antidote to fatigue and disconnect. It outlines an empowerment approach to dealing with the disturbing realities of climate change that strengthens our capacity to cope so that we can respond with resilience.
They envision the changes needed to build a life-sustaining society as occurring as a journey that takes the shape of a four-staged spiral.
First, we must always begin with gratitude. This means something more substantial than merely counting our blessings. To deeply acknowledge our dependence on the web of life can nourish our sense of the sacredness of the tasks confronting us.
Second, by honoring our pain for the world we draw upon our experience of anguish about climate ruin as a starting point to muster the determination to make a difference. To “process” the disturbing realities of our time, we must allow space to come to grips with its full significance. Like an addict “hitting bottom,” the realization of the magnitude of our problems motivates us to make fundamental life changes and to become involved.
People can access courage and resilience by reframing the pains of the world as welcome messengers bearing much-needed information. Our emotional reactions to distressing events can be wake-up calls for action. If we carry on with a business-as-usual approach, we end up just wrecking the world more.
Third, in seeing with new eyes we open up to our rootedness in larger systems of life. Moving beyond the base individualism that characterizes much of modern life, we become aware of the deeper levels of our identity.
Related to our sense of who we are are our beliefs about what we are capable of doing. Here we embrace the notion of “power-with” in contrast to a notion of “power-over.” Our cooperative capacities and participatory possibilities are central to dispelling feelings of futility engendered by the massive scale of our planetary crisis.
We also embrace our embeddedness in community. Our journey on this planet is shared with millions of people throughout the world. And not just people. Our survival is linked to non-human species and to the planet.
Imagining our place in “Deep Time,” we step out of our personal lifespan and see ourselves as living in an extended timespan, which includes the thread of life stretching back billions of years.
And not just backwards. We become able to imagine how future generations depend upon our actions today. Shifting our consciousness of time gives us a renewed sense of solidarity with all life. Finally, in going forth we discover our unique contribution to bringing healing to the planet. We discern our gifts and the role we might play in bringing about a sustainability revolution.
We must alter our sense of what is possible and come to believe that our actions can make a difference. We find the support we need to stay committed.
Moreover, we must practice a form of activism that keeps renewal and relationship as sources for fresh inspiration.
Macy and Johnstone observe: “We live at a time when the living body of our Earth is under attack and when the attacker is not an alien force but our own industrial-growth society.”
To live in active hope one must see things clearly, decide which direction one wants to move in, and take concrete steps to change things.
Our planet is facing a crisis point. How we respond is crucial. We can help to bring about Macy calls “the Great Turning ”— the epochal transition from an industrial society centered on economic growth to a life-sustaining society dedicated to healing our world.
The commitment to act for the sake of the Earth is beginning to catch on. In his book Blessed Unrest (2007), Paul Hawken calls this “the largest social movement in history” and estimates that more than 1 million organizations are working toward sustainability and social justice.
Macy and Johnstone’s Active Hope is an outstanding resource for our troubled times. It can help to move beyond disconnect and despair to take actions to save our planet.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).