As an artist making work about the climate and the environment, the most frequent question I get asked in interviews is, ‘Where’s the hope?’ Usually it comes at the end of the interview - after diving into a thicket of scary and intense stories about the changing planet, the interviewer takes a breath, and in a lighter tone of voice says, ‘So what can we be optimistic about?’ or ‘Are there signs of hope?’
I appreciate the impulse to end in an upbeat way. It’s a staple of the climate communications genre that you end on a positive note, with a call to action. There’s a broad agreement among climate scientists that hope is more motivating than fear.
This belief has held steady over the last few decades, despite a lack of conclusive evidence for it. In fact, a paper in Nature in 2017 entitled ‘Reassessing Emotion in Climate Change Communication’ (Chapman et al) found that there’s no single best way to talk about the crisis - depending on your audience, fear and alarm can be just as motivating as hope. (Or as David Wallace-Wells has it, ‘Any story that sticks is a good one.’)
Nevertheless, in any science lecture, theatre show, documentary, essay or interview about the climate, we expect to be told the bad news, and then to close out with a cautiously optimistic finale, offering some suggestions for how we might turn things around. I should be used to it by now.
But still, I never know what to say.
Sometimes I say, I feel optimistic when I focus my attention on the small and the local. Hope for me emerges when I work on a project that’s local, that’s close-to-hand, that involves a community, where I can see real and tangible change.
It can be helpful to take your eye off the big picture and get to grips with what’s in front of you. We’re mentally better equipped to think and operate at small scales - less so to think about the entire world. It can be psychologically healthier for us to focus on what’s near to hand than to be continually plugged into global news.
That doesn’t mean that the big picture isn’t grim. It is. But purely focusing on the bad news in the world (of which there is and always will be plenty) will overwhelm you with hopelessness. And despair is a kind of nihilism that we have no time for.
Sometimes I talk about the fact that, because the problems are intersectional, the solutions are too. Climate and global change cuts across every facet of our lives. The damage we’re doing to the biosphere stems from the way we eat, the way we travel, the way we work, the inequalities of class, race and gender, and so on. But because the problems are everywhere, that means that the solutions are everywhere too. It’s all one connected struggle, and therefore there’s no wrong place to start.
As Ben Yeoh argues, the best way to get involved is to do what feels authentic to you. Maybe that means volunteering for a food bank, or donating to a charity teaching girls to read, or researching renewable energy solutions, or supporting Indigenous land rights, or agitating for your workplace to improve its carbon footprint. Just begin, and there are so many opportunities to go deeper.
Sometimes I discuss the fact that the changes we’ve been waiting for are coming, often faster than we realise. Popular opinion has shifted drastically in the last few years. Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, the School Strikes, all emerged in the last 36 months. 30% of the European Covid stimulus passed this year is earmarked for climate initiatives. Joe Biden’s 2020 climate plan is far more ambitious than the most speculative US climate plan even four years ago. In October, China made an ambitious declaration to be completely carbon neutral by 2060.
We will address the problem. It’s a question of when, not if - and of course, critically, how much damage will be done in the meantime, and to who. Politicians, as always, are the last group to accept change to the status quo - and when we keep our eyes on the depressing spectacle of politics, we miss how much the ground has changed under our feet. So if even the solutions so far put forward are inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem, our global society is beginning the massive transformation that will be the story of this century.
The problem is not that that I don’t have optimistic things to discuss or reasons to be hopeful. There’s no shortage of ways to help, or signs of progress in the struggle. The problem is that when people ask ‘where’s the hope’ or ‘where’s the call to action’ in these conversations, it doesn’t seem to me that they’re asking for a way to help. It seems like they’re asking for something to make them feel better.
Which is fair enough. The ongoing destruction of our planet’s life support systems is frightening and disorienting. We shouldn’t have to feel dread and anxiety about the future of our world. We have every right to whatever comfort and solace we can find.
But the truth is: no-one can make you feel better about the crisis except you. No-one can give you hope. You have to find it yourself. And the way to find it - I believe - is to start helping. If you begin taking action - of any kind, of any scale - then you’ll start to feel better.
Jordan Prosser makes the distinction between being hopeful and being useful. The first follows the second. Feeling hopeful without having done something meaningful to earn it is a transient feeling at best.
So when I’m doing an interview and my interlocutor asks the inevitable last question, I find myself wanting to not play along. To refuse to offer that glimmer of hope. Not because we don’t need or deserve it, but because it’s not real if someone else gives it to you.
And maybe if we can stop ending every piece of climate communications with that token gesture to hope, we’ll all be forced to search for it ourselves.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
This week, my play 44 Sex Acts In One Week is having a production at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney as a ‘live sex gig’, courtesy of Rebecca Massey and Sheridan Harbridge (aka Moonshine and Tits) - which is very exciting.
Clickbait blogger Celina Valderrama has just been given the assignment from hell: do and review every item in a new book entitled 'The 44 Sex Acts That Will Change Your Life'. By Friday. With no other partner available, Celina is forced to turn to her nemesis, brooding animal activist Alab Delusa.
As these two mortal enemies set out on a highspeed journey through the wild landscapes of kink, will the friction between them become... something more?
I won’t do a full 2020 wrap-up, but in the spirit of December, I wanted to share some of the books I’ve enjoyed most this year.
Tyson Yunkaporta - Sand Talk
An absolutely extraordinary book that Yunkaporta describes as ’20 years of yarns, conversations, and then two years of carving those conversations and knowledge on traditional objects’. It’s rich and clever and funny and I loved it.
Richard Seymour - The Twittering Machine
One of the best books I’ve ever read on the collective social experiment that is the internet and the ‘social industry’.
Billy Griffiths - Deep Time Dreaming
A fascinating and sensitive history of Australian archaeology over the last century, which of course is a history of the evolving relationship between researchers and Indigenous Australians.
Rebecca Giggs - Fathoms: The World in the Whale
Of course this beautiful book, which if you haven’t read you must read immediately.
And music, I’ve been listening to:
Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders
Lush and moody atmospheres, soundtracking me everywhere this week.
Frasey Ford - U Kin B The Sun
Just the most mellow soul record and exactly what I needed this year.
Loraine James - For You and I
I caught Loraine James playing a gig at Cafe Oto in the brief interval between UK lockdowns the other month, and I didn’t know how much I needed to see some technically stunning, fiercely energetic IDM bouncing off the walls of a small concrete room. Live music is life! I’d almost forgotten!
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.