Act: Inspiration

Unconventional Optimism: Lessons from Climate Change Scholars and Activists

May 1, 2020

How do you feel, dear reader, about the future of our planet in this present moment?  Perhaps as an environmental activist, a scientist, or just a person who cares about the well-being of others – how do you feel about the possibility for the success of our movements for transformation, ecological well-being, and a freer, fairer world?

If the answer is that you feel a tremendous faith that everything is working out just as you’d like – this article may not be for you.  In fact, I’d love to hear more about your views in hopes that I might come closer to sharing them!  But for the rest of us – those who struggle with our sense of where the future will take us, and what that means for our efforts in the present, I hope to offer something of use.

As a life-long participant in movements for social justice, liberation, and ecological well-being, and as a sociologist who studies the role of our imagined futures in the social world, I am deeply concerned with the role of expectations, predictions, and resilience in our lives.  Over the past year, I’ve been engaged in a research project exploring how our orientation toward the future impacts our beliefs and efforts in regard to climate change and movements for climate justice.  In this article, I try to take stock of the present moment of coronavirus lockdown and what that has meant for our sense of the environmental future.  I’ll also present some highlights from my research about ways that climate change scholars and activists relate to their sense of the future and continue to find meaning in their work – with particular attention to the sorts of unconventional optimism that may be of crucial importance to hard-headed realists who nonetheless strive for a better world.

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

Perhaps desperate to see a bright spot through the storm clouds of our present moment, people around the world have excitedly circulated stories reflecting environmental rejuvenation amidst the pandemic shutdown.  Some real, like the massive reduction in air pollution in the notoriously smoggy skies of L.A.  Some false, like the tales of dolphins in the now-clear canals of Venice, or stories of elephants swilling corn-wine and adorably falling asleep in the tea-fields.  Real or false, these rapidly spreading (dare I say viral) stories reflect a widely popular desire for non-human ecosystems to thrive once again, and quite possibly a longing for there to be some kind of reward for the current suffering so many are enduring.  These are attractive ideas to those of us who have long put our energy and imagination in the service of protecting our shared ecology and preventing the worst harms of climate change.

I have long held the possibility of rapid natural rejuvenation in the absence of economic plundering to be a personal wellspring of hope.  Explanations of the possibility of rapid reforestation or replenished fish populations expounded on in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us give me a faith that, if and when we can release non-human ecosystems from the pressures of our current extractivist economy, many things will be able to rebound with stunning speed.  However, as many scientists and writers are now pointing out, a sober look at our current quarantine situation does as much to highlight the deeply entrenched systemic nature of our environmental crises as it does to show real possibilities of rapid positive change.

Take for example Simon Evans’ report at, which highlights both the massive initial localized reductions in carbon emissions in places like Wuhan Province, China as well as the unprecedented 5% drop in global carbon emissions we now observe.  Evans points out the limitation of this emissions drop:  That even this record reduction is not enough to stop the ever-growing annual increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.  As Grist reporter Shannon Osaka points out, a 5% drop in emissions is a reminder that even with massive global reductions in consumption and travel, 95% of emissions continue to be generated.  Even as so many of us remain locked down at home, the global infrastructure of fossil-fuel based electricity production, cattle farming, and other planet-warming economic activity churns on.  Reacting to the assumption that, as a climate scientist, she must be happy about the global shutdown, Kate Marvel channels her anger into a moving analysis of the systemic nature of the problem:

“[M]ore than anything else, I’m angry at the implication that “we” are at fault…. There is an entrenched system that extracts CO2 from the ground and pumps it into the atmosphere, one that results not from inherent human badness but from the choices of a few humans with power. Confronting that system will take work. We need to build things: wind turbines, solar panels, public transportation, denser cities, fairer societies. We don’t need purification. We don’t need absolution. We need to get to work.”

So if the present moment of shutdown, isolation and uncertainty does not fill you with optimism, o seeker of climate justice, you’re not alone.  Many would agree that there isn’t much in this present moment that assures them that everything is somehow magically falling into place for a just and liveable future for all.  As Dr. Marvel put it, that future isn’t going to be handed to us in return for more suffering.  It’s going to come through a systemic transformation – one that we must work for, today.

Pessimism, Optimism, and Finding the Spirit to Act

So we must work.  But the problem of motivation in the face of uncertainty or even pessimism is a real one.  People don’t often take action without some kind of hope of success.  To act, we need a reason to feel that our action is worthwhile.  What, though, must these reasons be composed of?  What sort of reason is sufficient, and which ones work better?  Is optimism required to keep up one’s motivation to do the talking, thinking, campaigning, and blockading that must be done in pursuit of a just and thriving planet?  And if you look squarely at the problems we face, evaluate the probabilities of success, and don’t feel particularly optimistic about the course the future will take – what then?

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My work, and my personal experience, lead me to believe that you don’t need to have total faith in a rosy vision of the future to feel the spirit that carries you to act.  Some of the moments in history that most inspire me are those when people chose to fight for justice and liberation in the bleakest and most dire of conditions.  I’m not going to try to convince you that everything is going to work out well.  Instead, I hope to share some strategies that help us continue finding resilience and meaning in the fight for climate justice, despite some degree of pessimism – in hopes that these strategies help you, too.

Over the past year, I have conducted 22 interviews with social and environmental scientists around the United States as part of a larger research project investigating the imagined future of climate change in America.  These 22 interviews compose a comparison group to contrast with my survey of the general public:  A group of people whose professional lives focus on writing and talking about climate change, and who are required to be well-informed about climate change from a variety of perspectives.  It is by no means a representative sample of scholars in America – in fact, it’s a unique group pulled from my professional connections and academic associations – and so it is not my intention to draw any grand general conclusions about the ways academics conceive of climate change.  Rather, they are a unique group in that their daily commitments to social progress on climate change, combined with the requirement that they understand these problems in a systemic sense and with scientific criticality, have meant that they’ve developed worldviews and strategies that may help all of us grapple with these problems honestly.

Two major features I observed in the people I interviewed – one expected, and one surprising – provoked this question.  The first (and expected) feature of this group is that these climate change scholars are tirelessly active in their efforts to address climate change in many different aspects of their lives.  Most of them are, of course, addressing climate change through their research and through their teaching, but many also report being active in political campaigning, public policy advising, community organizing, and social movement work.

The other major feature is that most – nearly all – of those I interviewed are not particularly optimistic about the probability of humanity solving climate change in the near future – at least not optimistic in a conventional sense (and later on I’ll explain what it might mean to be optimistic in an unconventional sense).  When asked about their conceptions of what future is most likely, most felt that the trajectory of current change (and particularly under the current administration in the United States) is not in line with their ideal vision, or even with the bare minimum changes pledged in the accords of the Paris Agreement, and that there was no strong indication that these trend lines would change any time soon.  And yet – they act, with consistency, and with determination.

This observation provided me with my own renewed sense of solidarity and connection as I conducted these interviews.  It was good to talk to others who found meaning in engaging in this work for a better world despite lacking the usual sort of optimism one might think would be required.  I found several unique ways that my interview participants relate to the future that may provide clues for an orientation toward the future that sustains our efforts without requiring an immediate sense that everything is surely getting better.  It may be possible that adopting some, or all, of these framings could aid all of us in sustaining our motivation to do the work for a better world even in times when cause for optimism appears slim.  I call these framing strategies “unconventional optimism” – forms of optimism that are not grounded in a firm belief that victory is nigh or even highly likely, but that emphasize aspects of the future or the present that are nonetheless motivating.

Unconventional Optimism Example 1:  Focusing on what can be won, not on what can’t

One way that we can feel a loss of motivation is through an excessive focus on what we aren’t capable of achieving.  It can be disempowering and paralyzing to think too much about everything that is really beyond our power and control, especially if we don’t also cultivate a real sense of what we are capable of changing.  In the context of social and environmental justice, this could come in the form of a too-strong focus on the ways our visions of a better world appear to be unreachable, rather than focusing on our agency to make progress toward a better world on some scale.  In my analysis I found that a number of the scholars I spoke with highlighted the importance of focusing on their own agency, on the real power they have to change things, however small that change might be.

One interviewee, a scholar of environmental law, explained that no matter what situation we face, we are always confronted with the possibility of a better or worse future.  This framing casts the fight for a better world not as a binary opposition between success or failure, but as a perpetual opportunity to choose a better path:

“As long as we’ve got that chance and regardless of where we end up, there are always going to be better and worse futures…. I think there are dramatic differences between a four degree future, a six degree future, and an eight degree future.  Those are still worth fighting for.  We’re dealing with degrees of worseness.”

In this view, there is never a point at which despair makes sense, so bleak possibilities or political obstacles cannot present the sort of paralysis that we often fear when our goals seem out of reach.  It is indeed unconventional to cast “it could always get worse” as an optimistic framing, but it is also apparent that this way of understanding the problem provides a more sustainable foundation of reason to act than one which asks us to evaluate chances of success or failure and act only if success is likely.

Another approach in this family is to re-scale expectations.  Several of those I interviewed choose to focus their mental energy on local possibilities and local activism as a way of making positive futures more tangible.  As one sociologist who studies climate justice movements put it, “I just like to focus on a more local regional level and think about how I can help make a better future on scales that seem more manageable.”  Her approach makes apparent that we all make a choice about what scale to focus on, in terms of geography but also in terms of temporality and depth of change.  Whatever change we hope to make, we know it must have geographic limits and that it can only last for so long.  Her approach makes clear that choosing a scale of change that feels within reach can be a way to feel less overwhelmed.

Another scholar, a political scientist studying climate policy, expressed a view that challenged the sense of paralysis that some people feel when confronted with a degree of pessimism.  He explained that his pessimism, a belief that maintaining our current climate and preventing great change is at this point impossible, is not in any way an excuse not to act:

“The risk is that people feel that action is futile where the sort of political action and policy action won’t make a difference. That’s never the case. Any action we take today makes a difference. Any action we take in 15 years makes a difference. It makes the difference between whether we’re going to experience 95% loss of the things that we value in the world against 25% loss.”

Again, this framing rejects a binary opposition between success and failure, instead focusing on preventing the greatest degree of loss possible.  In this view, a sense of futility is never justified.  This view would be described by many as pessimistic.  Embracing the reality that some degree of loss is inevitable at this point may be seen by some as bleak, but it’s also important to see how this framing can be motivating.  Acceptance of loss and change is also more compatible with the nature of the world and all of our social problems.  There will always be loss.  So rather than seeing futility in our efforts, we could see the ever-present opportunity to prevent whatever degree of loss and suffering it is in our power to prevent.

Unconventional Optimism Example 2:  Finding hope in uncertainty

We’re living in highly uncertain times, and uncertainty can be frightening.  While the present moment feels more uncertain than ever, the fact of uncertainty was no less true before the spread of coronavirus.  Acceptance of uncertainty is a key element of many spiritual practices precisely because of the ever-present nature of uncertainty and the great challenge that dealing with uncertainty can pose for our lives.  Ways of approaching uncertainty that provide us motivation and meaning are key elements of a resilient approach to life.

Two of the scholars I spoke with emphasized an approach to uncertainty that provides room for hope rather than simply room for doubt.  After all, uncertainty is a requirement of freedom and a precondition for new possibilities.  One scholar, a physicist in California and a very involved climate justice activist, put it like this:

“Who knows what will happen?   In my view as a scientist, the likelihood [of addressing climate change adequately] is small but it’s not zero.  That’s what I’m hanging on to for hope and working to help people face it and prepare activists to continue their work.  ‘’I’ve been thinking about that for years and in some ways I’m less pessimistic than I was before.”

One important facet of this view is that elevating the non-zero chance of success is presented as scientific – and this demonstrates a creative employment of scientific rationality.  While many people would think that a scientific evaluation would mean focusing on the outcome with the greatest probability, this respondent accurately argues that it is also scientific to highlight that any non-zero possibility is indeed still a possibility.  This framing doesn’t require one to have an optimistic view of success, but instead simply to cultivate an attitude that sees even a small chance of success as enough motivation to act.  As another scholar put it, “[Adequately addressing climate change] is unlikely but if people who care give up, it’s not going to happen period.”  Again we see a rejection of a view that sees the unlikeliness of an action as reason not to engage in that action, and instead posits any possibility of success as enough justification to act.  The simple fact that we don’t know what will happen does not have to be demotivating.  We may find inspiration to act in recognizing that uncertainty always means possibility.

Unconventional Optimism Example 3:  Rejection of predictions

Another form of unconventional optimism rejects the evaluation of future possibilities entirely.  Similar to the previous example, this form accepts the reality of uncertainty, but rather than trying to focus on a small chance of success, this approach lets go of an attachment to any predicted outcome.  This approach might be captured in the words of Star Wars smuggler Han Solo when he replies “Never tell me the odds!” to the robot warning him of the risk he’s about to take.  This framing is demonstrated in the words of a marine biologist I interviewed who studies infectious disease.  When I asked him if he thought it was likely that we would adequately address climate change, he replied “What I learned from 2016 is not to make any predictions, but to move from my natural personality of optimism.”  Refusing to judge the likelihood of future possibilities, he instead just chooses optimism as a baseline from which to act.  This framing was also rooted in his life experience.  He described being in New Orleans at the dawn of the civil rights movement and seeing impressive change despite great hardship.  This story seemed to support the idea that great positive change can come no matter what the odds may be.

Another approach that refuses to engage with the probability of success instead focuses on cultivating what is good in the work for justice itself – on the process rather than on a predicted result.  As one environmental justice scholar put it:

“I’m hopeful because we’re going to be forced to do better, to change things.  I want to remember that and embrace that regardless of whether we’re hurtling toward an untimely end, or whether we’re pushing toward a space where relationships of consent, trust, reciprocity and respect will be upheld and honored.”

In this view, we take comfort in the fact that we are required to work for justice at all.  The work is its own justification.  Whether the currents of history are carrying us toward a better world or not, they are requiring us to work for change and to work for a better world, and this in itself becomes a source of hope.  This view is reflective of a concept important in my own spiritual practice, the concept of tikkun olam in Judaism.  Tikkun olam means to repair the world – it is the call from the creator to bring the world closer to the whole and harmonious state intended for it.  This concept values the acts themselves, and places no emphasis on the probability or timeline of ultimate success.  If we can embrace this view, it has the potential to be an endless font of reason to act.

Unconventional Optimism Example 4:  Nurturing visions of best-possible futures

One final practice in unconventional optimism is to nurture a vision of best-case scenarios – to start from imagining the best world imaginable, and to work backwards to see what achievable actions we can take today lead, in some way and in some time, toward this world.  Like other approaches, this one places little emphasis on an evaluation of the probability of success.  It is therefore, of course, not a form of optimism in the traditional sense of belief that a particular positive outcome is likely.  Instead of evaluating what is likely, in this approach we just focus on what we want, and find meaning in working toward it.

One scholar, a sociologist in my own department, says “I don’t spend my time trying to work through all the scenarios.  I spend my time trying to work toward the best possible outcomes I can imagine.”  Another sociologist says that when she feels she’s having emotional difficulty thinking about climate change, she focuses her imagination on a future that she chooses to believe in.  This framing makes it clear that this belief is not a question of objective fact or scientific evaluation, but a choice, a sort of act of faith or conscious placement of focus, on an ideal future.  “It’s this future,” she says, “where we achieve climate justice and where we have decentralized community ownership of everything and I end up trying to figure out what that future would look like and what features it would have.”  In my own life, I have found the imagined creation of utopia, and the exploration of others’ imagined utopias, to be a powerful source of motivation in any number of my social and political pursuits.  Rather than feeling discouraged by the distance between here and utopia, I have felt hope simply in the possibility of imagining that it might lie somewhere in the future.

Conclusions:  Sustaining ourselves as we seek to sustain the world

The practices described here are examples of the ways that well-informed people who feel conventionally pessimistic – that is, who do not assign a high degree of probability to the success of their broad environmental justice goals within the near future – orient themselves toward that work and sustain themselves in it nonetheless.  These orientations toward the future may or may not be choices, and any given person may or may not be able to embrace them, but my hope is that they present possibilities for navigating pessimistic evaluations that still grant ourselves the sense of meaning and fulfillment that is the food our souls require to take action in the world.  It is notable that the concept of tikkun olam raised previously does not only emphasize acts that apply to the world at large, but acts at any scale that help sustain even a small part of the world – even ourselves.  In this sense, trying out different imagined orientations toward the future may be part of this mission, if one or another of these approaches is helpful in motivating our continued pursuit of justice and sustainable societies.

It is important to note that these orientations are neither entirely novel, nor entirely holistic answers to how we ought to approach the future.  Readers will likely see parallels in these unconventional forms of optimism and the teachings of any number of spiritual traditions or philosophies.  They are not entirely holistic in that while they may provide a sense of meaning and motivation, they also contain limitations that must be addressed.  For instance, if we reject the evaluation of probabilities, embrace the possibility inherent in uncertainty, or simply re-scale our focus either to the broad utopian horizons or the tangible and the local, we run the risk of abandoning strategic planning.  While these practices offer starting points, we cannot afford to let go of a sustained, critical, and systemic evaluation of social problems that aims to understand not only how large-scale systems must change, but the most realistic and efficient paths to changing them.  While we must hold on to strategic thinking in order to fulfill our responsibility to meaningfully seek good changes in the world, what these practices may add is a stronger and more sustainable sense of meaning in that pursuit even when, with the best strategies we can imagine, the chances of success appear slim.  No matter the odds, a better world is, indeed, possible.  Every day we have the choice to do what we can to move all of us toward it.

Zachary King

Zachary King is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change activism, hope