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‘Hopeless’: some questions about hope and modernity

February 27, 2024

You’ve got to have hope

When I have talked publicly about climate and ecological collapse, and the scary trajectories we seem to be on, one of the common challenges from audiences is along the lines of, ‘You have to give people hope; you cannot leave people without hope; without hope yours is just a counsel of despair.’

It’s entirely understandable and I often find myself trying to explain exactly how – if not hope – then resilience, love, joy, survive this bad news. Part of my answer is that we need to go through dread and grief if we are to emerge into something stronger, something liberating. And part is to ask, what do we mean by hope in our modern culture? Like the word ‘sustainability’, hope sounds positive, but if it is just the hope that we can maintain (‘sustain’) our privileged western lifestyle, how positive is that? What kind of hope is based on ignoring evidence of collapse, or on fearing to consider its possibility?

Recently the insistence on hope seems to be getting political. That beautiful word now seems to have a shadow, a doppelganger and I have started to wonder why. There is something not quite right about the optimisim and positivity espoused by business and political leaders; something almost coercive. And likewise there seems to be a new level of vehemence around insisting we must have hope.

In the last couple of years, we have seen concern for the climate politicised in culture wars. Where there was once a consensus over the need for action over greenhouse gas emissions, albeit one that failed to translate into meaningful action, there is now a withdrawal, a ‘greenlash’ as it has been called.[1] We have seen the rise of #climatehoax and #climatescam while climate action has been painted as part of an authoritarian plot to steal our liberties. We have seen protests based on legitimate fears of the future demonised as eco-terrorism and outlawed by new anti-protest legislation around the world. The voices of distraction, of ‘Nothing to worry about here: move along; it’ll all be fine’ have become more insistent.  Their’s is a message most of us in the west long to believe is true.

At the same time as the poly-crisis multiplies and cascades, our culture is becoming more and more enamoured of the idea of the heroic figure of the problem-solver or the change-maker.  There is a small industry now busy seeking and announcing ‘solutions’, on keeping the wheels in motion. There is not a management consultant in the world who will conclude a report they have been commissioned to write, ‘there is no way to manage this.’ Instead there is always a solution: a strategy or a programme or a plan to fix things. Technological or green solutions are offered for everything from polluted air to to dying soils, from international travel to the disappearance of pollinators.

And, maybe not unconnected, we are seeing the rise of ‘strong man’ political leaders with their simple answers to everything: maybe there is a continuum from the corporate optimism of management consultants and tech to authoritarianism. In glossy CGI visions of the future, we are still being told we can have it all.

‘Hope’ has been recruited into the cause of keeping things rolling along for as long as possible.   Whether as part of a consumerist paradigm based on endless credit and endless growth, or the  political paradigm of a brighter future, we are being enjoined, increasingly forcefully, to be hopeful, to trust in our structures and systems, the dreams of endless progress our parents bequeathed to us.

Have we?

And if we decline the invitation and instead explore the possibility that, for example, there is insufficient political will seriously to address the incremental growth in global temperatures or the unfolding of uncontrollable climate feedback loops or even the ecocidal effects of farming and land-use policies, we are told that we are failing to have faith in humanity.[2]

Gruff Rhys, lead singer with the Super Furry Animals was recently doing some promotion of his new solo album, ‘Sadness Sets Me Free.’  When asked by a bemused interviewer what he meant by the title, he replied, ‘We live in sobering times…. if hope and joy are becoming imperialist constructs, part of the narrative to make us cope with bad times, maybe sadness can empower us in sobering moments to get on with the nitty gritty without the distraction of false hope.’[3]

The link between the kind of hope I have been describing – corporate, capitalist, regressive – and imperialism (Rhys is a Welshman) is resonant. Imperialism is based on – or maybe productive of – narratives of progress, of dominion, of manifest destiny (US or British for example); and what Rhys calls false hope is part of the same nexus. The hope that things will continue as they are, that we can sustain this way of life, the project of modernity, damages not only the privileged who wish to retain what they have but also the majority who are already losing what they had.

Hope, sickness and death

The violence of positivity is also being forcibly internalised by our culture. In a brilliant short piece for BBC Radio, the writer and actress Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre described her experience of cancer and set out the case against what she called “the tyranny of positivity”. She described a culture of “performative wellness”, in which a sick person has an obligation to fight as if illness is a matter of personal success or failure and concluded that this type of coercion is a “poison to society”.[4]

Ejiwunmi-Le Berre’s experience hints at a connection between the demand to be positive and a culture which has been called death-avoidant or death-averse.[5] It may be worth exploring this a little further. Modernity, the dominant global culture of US-led west and the global north, discourages us from considering our own mortality and that of our loved ones. For modern Europeans and North Americans, what was once something central has become something marginal; what was once mystical has become something transactional; what was once intensely personal has been farmed out to professionals. As the visionary undertaker Rupert Callender has said, for most of us ‘death and what we have to learn from it has disappeared’ from our lives.[6]  Being death-aware is not good for business; it is the ultimate rebuttal of consumerism. The market will do everything it can to keep death out of the room so that we can continue to be buyers as long as possible.

But here in the west, to let death into our lives is what we urgently need to do. We need to let in the profound uncertainty of our hold on life; keep in focus our own precarity and vulnerability and that of all life on this wonderful planet. That is not a counsel of despair; that is not a signal that life is meaningless;  it is the opposite.

‘Hope dies: action begins’

This was one of the early slogans of Extinction Rebellion – later abandoned. I really liked it. It chimed with my mood in 2018 when I’d read about and absorbed the potential scale of the unfolding catastrophe. It captured that magnitude: there was a kind of what-have-you-got-to-lose sense of freedom about the XR call to rebel, get arrested, go to prison. XR co-founder, Claire Farrell, glossed the slogan, ‘Hope for me feels like the opposite of admitting that you have to do it. “I hope someone else will fix it.” That’s a disaster. Hope dies and action begins.’[7]

In 2021 I was one of a group put on trial for criminal damage to the Shell Building in London in April 2019. After a two-week trial, a jury found us not guilty despite the fact that we did not dispute what we had done by way of breaking windows and spray-painting the walls.[8]

One of many lessons from the trial for me was what one of our group, Ian Bray, a Quaker, referred to as surrender; that is, each of us telling our story as clearly and honestly as we could, but then having no attachment to a particular outcome or, in this case, verdict. We put ourselves in the hands of the twelve jurors and shared our uncertainty with them. It was, I came to realise, a beautiful model of acting well but without hope.

The very idea of being without hope sounds depressing. It is hard to view or hear the word ‘hopeless’ without a wash of sadness coming over you. But maybe there is greater meaning in acting well when it is without an expectation of a desired outcome or reward. Maybe forgoing the idea that our action will have a causal link to that outcome, is a lesson in humility which paradoxically makes us feel better. Maybe to act without hope is also to act without fear; a kind of liberation.

Four kinds of ‘hope’

The word hope is complicated. In our culture it carries a huge and confusing baggage of meanings and investment. I am going to have a go at unpacking some of that.

When someone says in response to my summary of the trajectories of climate and ecological change, that we need hope, it often comes from a profoundly humane viewpoint, a resistance to the political project enacted by politicians and mainstream-media to reduce  populations to a feeling of impotence: you can’t change anything, they’re all the same, whatever we say they’ll do what they want. In that sense, I agree ‘hopelessness’ is dire, is soul-destroying.

But equally destructive is the ‘hope’ peddled by our leaders that we can have it all; the hope that our western lifestyle with its unheeding privileges and  recklessly unfair distribution of resources can be sustained forever. We need to confront, to be allowed to confront, the sociopathic agenda this kind of hope is serving: I would characterise ‘hope’ like this as toxic.

Third, we need to have some humility about action. The reason we act is because we feel we have to; we act because we feel it is the right thing to do. Any theory-of-change that a particular action will produce a particular result may well be mistaken, given the complex, dendritic nature of societal relations. We learn painfully that all too often there is no mechanistic causal link between an action and a hoped-for result. This kind of hope is part of the paradigm of modernity and its hubristic belief in dominion and control. This kind of hope we also need to be wary of.

But there is another deeper wellspring for action than hope for a particular outcome and that is love, grief and compassion. In its circles of wellbeing and support, Extinction Rebellion taught us the power of allowing grief to overwhelm us; and that grief is the measure of love. If we draw on rage and fear, they will consume us; if we draw on love, we are regenerated by every action. This is what Satish Kumar meant when he wrote recently, ‘I would like the environment movement in Britain to learn from the Gandhian movement so it is more positive. Not just no, no, no. But also yes, yes, yes.’[9]

Moreover, to act with love is by definition to expect nothing in return; an act of love is not transactional; it is not dependent on the expectation of a desired outcome. Love is not dependent on hope.

My friend Sid Saunders described very beautifully the kind of hope with which he has embarked on protests and acts of civil disobedience. He compared it to the butterfly effect of chaos theory fame, which suggests that small actions can cause large effects. Sid then went further to say we cannot always predict the positive effects of our actions. He described his vision of how effects ripple, flutter away from an action in myriad directions, tiny twinkling particles, carried on currents who knows where.

We act not because we are certain that A will produce B; but because we know that A is an act of love and that acting with love will have positive effects even if we are not certain how. That is the hope we need to hold on to and nurture.

Living without hope

I apologise for the sub-heading here which may exasperate some people. I trust it’s clear that I do not mean living with despair. On the contrary I mean living with a full and loving sense of the beauty of the world and of humanity; with a focus on the precious here and now; and with an urgent sense of how to live as well as we can in the time we have. What does it mean to be a good citizen in what Joanna Macy calls ‘the great unravelling’?[10]   How do we respond to Bayo Akomolafe’s prognosis for our modern western society, ‘we are coming down to earth and we will not survive intact.’[11]

Maybe part of that is forgoing the dangerous, mendacious hope which tells us not to worry, that everything will be okay; put your trust in others and you will be safe. Hope in this sense, is what Vanessa Machado de Oliveira calls an‘investment in a dying system’. In her 2021 book,  Hospicing Modernity, she asks, ‘how might desires to “fix” and “solve” limit what global social change might be imagined as possible?’[12] In this sense, hope tethers us to the lethal paradigms of modernity.

Instead, maybe we need to acknowledge the limits of our agency over the forces that are now shaking us to our core. We need to see the wisdom of Bayo Akomolafe’s words, and consider whether maybe the way we see the problem is part of the problem.[13] Or as Dougald Hine puts it, we need to recognise that what we have in climate and ecological collapse is not a problem at all but a predicament: not something outside us, coolly to analyse and then fix so that we can then continue on our way, but rather, something we are in and which is within us: something in which we are  entangled.[14]

While we need to do everything we can to slow those trajectories and give more time to us all for adaptation, maybe here in the west we also need to stress-test what mean by hope and what we might be investing in that word, and then discard the stuff that isn’t really very positive after all. There is a lot to be hopeful about, just not the stuff we are being told to be hopeful about



[2] Jem Bendell, ‘Laughing off the Apocalypse’, 2024,

[3]Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 29 January 2024 at 18:30

[4] ‘Four Thought,’ BBC Radio 4, 28 July 2021,


[6] Claire & Rupert Callender, ‘Death, grief, ritual and radical funerals’, 2015




[10] Joanna Macy, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy Paperback ,  Novato: New World Library, 2012,p.17.

[11] Bayo Akomolafe, ‘Is there a Solution for Climate Change’, 2020, 17:32

[12] Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity: facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism, London: Penguin, 2021, pp.101-02.

[13] ‘Hope, Questioning, and Getting Lost with Bayo Akomolafe,’ 2021, , 9:16; 12:40

[14] Dougald Hine, At Work in the Ruins, London: Chelsea Green, 2023, pp.30-31.

David Lambert

David Lambert is an historian who was previously deeply involved with XR and was one of six activists acquitted by a jury of criminal damage at Shell’s London HQ in April 2019.