The mendacity of hope

Every serious discussion of climate change is haunted by the idea of hope. In the Greek myth, Pandora ignored Zeus's warning to keep the lid on her box.91 All the evils of mankind escaped, except for one item that remained—hope. Explanations conflict; some see hope as the consolation, for in the face of all evils we can always rely on it (although not if it remains locked in the box). For others, what remains in Pandora's Box is another evil, false hope which deludes us with dreams of being saved, intensifying the torment of the evils that escaped.92

Nevertheless, the need to remain hopeful seems axiomatic. Environment organisations insist that campaigning must always hold out hope, believing the alternative to be capitulation to despair and apathy. While usually understood as the absence of feeling, apathy can reflect a suppression of feeling that may serve a useful psychological function. Renée Lertzman argues that inaction does not mean the absence of caring, but may be a strategy to defend ourselves from the anxiety and distress that follow from allowing ourselves to care too much.93 If I don't care, I won't feel bad. The temptation to practise apathy is particularly strong in the case of global warming because of the feelings of helplessness that grow as we find out more about the nature and scale of the threat. Nevertheless, it is a maladaptive strategy, not least because the refusal to feel can exact a heavy emotional toll.94

In many countries the need to be optimistic is a powerful emotional norm. Norgaard quotes a Norwegian teacher who felt that his own doubts and feelings of powerlessness about global warming must be suppressed so as to give his charges a sense of hope.95 Optimism as a social norm is particularly strong in the United States, where the culture of self-help and self-improvement reigns.96 Programs teach primary school children how to be more optimistic. Optimism is closely tied to the norm of individualism, because it is believed that hopes are realised through personal accomplishments.97 Although a caricature, it is sometimes said that in the United States a homeless person is just a millionaire temporarily down on his luck.

Although we generally think of a willingness to face up to reality as a sign of mental health, a strong case can be made that the normal human mind interprets events in ways that promote 'benign fictions' about oneself, the world and the future. This is the argument of psychologist Shelley Taylor in her important book Positive Illusions.98 'The ability of the mind to construe benefit from tragedy and to prevent a person from becoming overwhelmed by the stress and pain of life is a remarkable achievement.'99 Cultivating these benign fictions is in fact an adaptive response to an often unfriendly world in which one's self-belief is constantly at risk of a battering, as many young people discover when they enter talent shows and as academics learn when they receive devastating referees' reports on papers submitted for publication. Self-aggrandising fictions help us maintain control over our situations. Feeling that we have control over events in our lives has been shown repeatedly to be essential to effective functioning. It is well-established that holding a positive view of the future enhances mental health, and that chronic pessimism is associated with anxiety and depression. One study concluded that resignation can indeed induce passivity, including a reluctance to engage in pro-environmental behaviour.100 Another study found that those who belong to fundamentalist religious groups (such as hard-line Calvinists, some Muslims and Orthodox Jews), who have a surer view of the world and their place in it, are more optimistic than those who belong to moderate religions, and the moderates are in turn more optimistic than members of the most liberal religious communities (such as Unitarians, Reformed Jews and members of the Uniting Church).101

Taylor defines 'unrealistic optimism' as a proclivity that leads us to predict what we would prefer to see happen rather than what is objectively most likely.102 Surveys show that most people believe their life at present is an improvement on the past and that the future will be better still.103 While they have a rosy view of their own future they may simultaneously believe that the state of the world is in decline. Although it causes us to filter out or downplay incoming evidence that could contradict our expectations, the truth is that unrealistic optimism has been shown to be associated with 'higher motivation, greater persistence at tasks, more effective performance, and, ultimately, greater success'.104 So while pessimism, especially if it morphs into depression, is likely to lead to passivity and brooding, optimism is more likely to lead to action. Indeed, one of the simplest and most effective treatments for depression is to turn this around so that instead of mood determining behaviour, behaviour determines mood. Acting in response to depression works from the 'outside-in'.105

Yet within the phenomenon of unrealistic optimism it is vital to distinguish between illusion and delusion. Illusions respond and adapt to reality as it forces itself on us, while delusions are held despite the evidence of the outside world. 'Delusions are false beliefs that persist despite the facts', writes Taylor. 'Illusions accommodate them, though perhaps reluctantly.'106 Martin Seligman, the guru of 'learned optimism' and 'learned helplessness', also recognises that cultivating optimism is helpful only when the future can be changed by positive thinking; when that is not the case 'we must have the courage to endure pessimism',107 although after a period of feeling pessimistic it is usual for buoyancy built on a new understanding of the world to return.

In this book I am arguing that the evidence that large-scale climate change is unavoidable has now become so strong that healthy illusion is becoming unhealthy delusion. Hoping that a major disruption to the Earth's climate can be avoided is a delusion. Optimism sustained against the facts, including unfounded beliefs in the power of consumer action or in technological rescue, risks turning hopes into fantasies. Sooner or later the constant striving to control events must come up against the reality. How long will it be before well-meaning people who have accepted the message of green consumerism—that we can all make a difference by changing our personal behaviour—begin to say to themselves, 'I have been doing the right thing for years, but the news about global warming just keeps getting worse'? How long before our political leaders allow their enormous emotional investment in carbon capture and storage to be confronted by the fact that, even if it proves technically and economically feasible, it will not be deployed until after it is too late?

Unthinking optimism about the ability of humanity to avoid climate change is misplaced. But once we have faced up to the reality of a world under global warming, with all of its horrors, we can perhaps begin to make plans and take actions built on the new reality (a theme I will return to in the last chapter). It is true that this is a judgment call and that maintaining the fiction that it is not too late to prevent dangerous global warming may improve the chances that strong action will be taken in the next few years, thereby at least postponing the inevitable. Yet it seems to me that the observations of climate change have taken such an alarming turn in the last few years, and global action remains so inadequate, that maintaining optimism seems more and more like a disconnection from reality. This is the only explanation for the launch of the bizarre campaign to 'rebrand' the 2009 Copenhagen Conference 'Hopenhagen', a concept developed by some of the world's biggest advertising agencies and centred on creating a 'popular movement' that will 'empower global citizens' who can, through the website, send 'messages of hope to UN delegates'.108 The advertising corporations behind the Hopenhagen campaign included Ogilvy & Mather which, when not saving the planet from climate change, is persuading us to buy more petrol from BP and cars from Ford. They are joined by Colle + McVoy, which promotes petrochemicals for DuPont, and Ketchum, which wants us to fly more on Delta Airlines. Like Lisa Simpson's Ignorital, 'Hopenhagen' functions as an emotional tranquilliser. Enforced optimism becomes a means of disengaging from a reality that contradicts our deeply held belief that everything will work out in the end.

Chapter 5

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