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Hope Against Hope: A Necessary Madness?

8 Dec 2017

William Temple Scholar Matthew Stemp writes on the climate crisis and the psychology of a politics of hope.

It’s a difficult time to be an environmentalist. During the recent UN meeting on climate change, COP23, a timely report was released with the news that CO2 emissions increased by 2% in 2017. The report dashed hopes that after three years of emissions levelling off, they might soon begin to decrease. Despite the urgent need for a rapid, international response, wealthy nations like the UK continue to perpetuate a collective “soft denial” of the climate crisis. This was underscored in the latest Budget, in which the Treasury quietly published a document stating that there would be no new subsidies for renewable energy until at least 2025.

This state of cognitive dissonance set the context for Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley’s recent Annual Lecture for the William Temple Foundation. Entitled “Engaging a Politics of Hope”, the lecture powerfully explored a wide range of policy areas, presenting nothing less than a Green paradigm shift made necessary by the interconnected crises of environment, economics, immigration, education and health. As both a Green Party activist and an Anglican – clearly I have a fanatical sense of commitment to struggling institutions – I resonated deeply with his call for the Church to get worked up about these critical issues of our time, rather than being offended by misplaced pastry.

Yet “hope” is a word that I have struggled with as I have begun to research the strange psychology of our response to issues like climate change. As Bruno Latour puts it in his book Facing Gaia, there is something about the climate crisis in particular that “drives people crazy”. There is of course the insanity of outright denial, represented out of all proportion by the media on both sides of the Atlantic. But the danger of focussing on the madness of the “climate change deniers” is that it normalises our own often equally “mad” responses. Latour suggests there are at least four other forms of commonplace madness:

  • The “low-level” madness of quietism, a lack of political action generated by the assured hope that some transcendent Other (be it God or Nature) will swoop in to save the day;
  • The frenetic madness of hyper-modernity that places its hope in geoengineering: radical technologies such as “solar radiation management” and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) that provide the illusion of control;
  • The hope-filled madness of those who believe that our existing political institutions – especially our governments – will surely act rationally when the situation calls them to do so;
  • Finally, the hopeless madness of those who despair at the urgency of the situation and yet our collective inaction – a phenomenon the social scientist Renee Lertzman has dubbed “environmental melancholia”, which may be far more widespread than appearances betray.

“There is no cure for the condition of belonging to the world,” says Latour. If we are living in a mad world – a situation the novelist Amitav Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement” – then perhaps there is no alternative to madness. In which case, we can only choose which form of madness we will embrace.

We can perhaps do no better than the form of madness proposed by LSE anthropologist Jason Hickel: the necessary madness of imagination. At the end of The Divide, a critique of the project of developmentalism in the light of global inequality, Hickel invites us to imagine a world in which every nation has achieved economic and social prosperity as we typically understand it today. But such a future, as Hickel points out, would also lead to inevitable environmental catastrophe, as the planet’s resources are irrevocably plundered and fossil fuel emissions continue to spiral out of control. As the heterodox economist Kate Raworth has argued so persuasively in her book Doughnut Economics, we need an alternative economic vision that places social need at the centre within the wider context of our planetary limits.

Jonathan Bartley’s “Politics of Hope” provides just such a vision of economics-beyond-growth. It’s a vision that seems mad both to the Right and the Left of mainstream politics: a universal basic income; measuring progress (of our schools, hospitals, society as a whole) in terms of well-being rather than GDP; a vision of common life based on shared meaning rather than consumption, made practically possible by a shorter working week. These proposals have been the staple of the Green Party’s agenda for many years, but perhaps they are needed now more than ever to re-engage an increasingly disenfranchised public.

This madness of Green imagination also has the potential to energise what John Caputo has called “hope against hope” amongst environmentalists. This is a paradoxical kind of hope, a hope that does not depend up foolish appeals to theological, technological or political guarantors of success, but a hope nonetheless for a seemingly-impossible future. It rests upon an openness to the obligation of the future calling upon us in the present, awakening us to shared responsibility, creativity and endurance. I cannot sum up this mad hope any better than the way Jonathan Bartley concluded his lecture with a call to courageous, hopeful action:

“Friends the challenges are huge. There are no easy answers. But what is at stake is nothing less than our collective future. And so the solutions must involve our collective endeavour.”


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