By Shaun Koopman
Many of us find it increasingly difficult to remain hopeful in the face of multiplying threats to our planet’s systems and societies. What is hope and why should we care about it? How do we cultivate and inspire hope in ourselves and others in these challenging times? Delve into this fascinating interview with Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of Commanding hope: The power we have to renew a world in peril and founding director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. Interviewer Shaun Koopman had an opportunity to explore the dimensions of hope with Dr. Homer-Dixon, who argues that hope, a powerful and motivating emotion, can be an energizing force for change.
Shaun Koopman: Given all the terrible things in the world such as war, loss of biodiversity, rising inequality and increasing disasters – how can we have hope?
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to your question, especially for people who are at the front lines of these challenges. There’s no set of boxes that can be checked. I ended up writing a whole book about it, because I was struggling with this question myself. People can be on the front lines in many different ways; in fact, most people are on the front lines in one way or another. But first responders and people who work in hazard fields really are at the bleeding edge of the challenges we’re facing, such as the fires, the floods, and the health crisis, and for them it’s particularly hard.
As an academic and a writer, I am up to my eyebrows in scientific literature about climate change, and it’s harrowing to read this stuff. It’s deeply distressing. I have two children, 17 and 14, who are becoming quite aware of what’s going on. The other day my son, who’d just finished a climate change segment in his geography class, came home and said “I just want to vandalize stuff.” And he’s a mild mannered kid! This is a terrible world for young people to grow up in. The consequences in terms of mental health for people, especially young people, are absolutely staggering. It’s something that the Cascade Institute is investigating more deeply. We have a tidal wave of despair derived from mental health challenges coming down the pipe towards us, and we aren’t at all prepared. There is no easy answer, but there are a few things that I can say:
1. Get your diagnosis right
We set up the Cascade Institute partly because our diagnosis isn’t right. We tend to silo these problems: we look at them in isolation from each other. Only now are we starting to see things in terms of their systemic interconnections. There’s probably a reason for why everything seems to be going haywire simultaneously. Not just with the climate and pandemics, but social dislocations, polarization, and war. There are connections between these things that our experts don’t yet understand; the systems in question are maybe even synchronizing. We’ve been hit by so many shocks in British Columbia over the last couple of years that our province has become a poster child around the world for a region on the front lines of crises. But there is nothing particularly unusual about BC. It’s going to happen to other places in the world. It’s not a coincidence that all the crises we’re seeing are happening at the same time.
So it’s about getting the diagnosis right. We need to determine what is going on in our world that is causing all the screws to pop simultaneously . In the middle part of Commanding hope: The power we have to renew a world in peril, I spend quite a bit of time unpacking this question. Some people never make it past the middle because they become depressed and stop reading. But you have to get the diagnosis right.
The first step is establishing the basis for what I call ‘Honest Hope’: one needs to be really clear-eyed about what the situation is, get the diagnosis right, and accept it. It’s similar to having a potentially terminal illness. I would want the medical specialist to tell me exactly what is going on, give me the probabilities, and then tell me how I can bend those probabilities. If it’s bad news, I need to know.
Yet until now we’ve largely been lying to ourselves. We’ve allowed politicians and other leaders to lie to us for a long time about climate change. I’ve been screaming about climate change since the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, I was regarded as a bit of a wingnut. But it’s all there in the written record of my books. I kept hammering away at the issue. I’d go to Alberta and speak to oil executives about climate change, and they’d all cross their arms at the same time because they didn’t want to hear about it. After one talk I did in Indianapolis, I was practically thrown out of the room. People were really angry. There was an objection afterwards by some people in the audience as to why I’d been invited.
That doesn’t happen anymore, but the fact that we’ve lied to ourselves for three decades has put us in a real crisis, because it has delayed our response to the climate problem. So the critical first thing we need to do is stop lying to ourselves.
Our hope has to be grounded in an honest appreciation of the best scientific understanding we have of the problems we face. I think when people realize they are in a really challenging situation, most people can accept odds that are against them, and still have hope. This is something about hope that’s misunderstood: You don’t have to be confident in a positive outcome. You just need to know that there is a possibility of a positive outcome. And if the stakes are high, as they are for us right now—in fact, the stakes are truly existential for our societies and species—you can have hope, even if the probability of a positive outcome is quite small.
When I speak to audiences of young people, and they ask “So what’s the chance we are going to get out of this reasonably intact in the next century or so?” I might say something like “20%.” They say “OK, 20%: We can work with that.”
You need to have something to shoot at, something to go for. If you were to ask most of the people fighting for their country in the Ukraine right now what the odds are for success, they would say, “Less than 20%,” but they are still fighting. If you give someone a 10% chance of living through a terminal illness like cancer, they’ll fight for it. They’ll hope for the 10%, because some people will make it into that window, and if you give up, you’re certainly going to be in the 90% that dies. If you fight for it you still have the possibility of being in the 10%. You might even bend the 10% to 15%. That’s the situation we are in.
2. Have a clear sense of where you want to go
Know what’s possible, and within that envelope of possibility, identify what would be a positive outcome, a vision of the future, or what I call an “object” of your hope. Specialists call hope that’s oriented towards an object “intentional hope.” Hope needs to be more than simply the passive idea that “I hope that something good will come to pass.” Our hope needs to be guided by the positive assertion that “I’m going to be an active agent to make my positive vision happen.” But first one needs to have that vision, a sense of what the positive possibility is. It’s like creating a world in one’s mind. It then becomes the object of our hope and the basis of what I call ‘Powerful Hope’—hope that’s imbued with a sense of personal agency.
3. Astute hope: Charting a pathway
Once you have a sense of where you want to go and you’re honest about the seriousness of the situation, how do you chart a pathway to get there? You need to be smart about finding that best path. You need to be strategic. You need to acknowledge all the obstacles in the way—including individuals and groups that may not want to go along with you—and then figure out how to work with them or maybe even bring them over to your side. If you can’t, how will you bypass them? And if it comes to an outright fight of some kind, political or otherwise, how will you defeat them to get to the future you want?
So my notion of hope is actually quite assertive, even aggressive. That’s why the book title, Commanding Hope, has a slightly martial implication. There’s a Latin dedication in the book, Nobis non desistendum est, which means “We must not give up.” I chose Latin, because Rome was a martial culture. Romans built an empire and a civilization, a substantial part of which was based on their military prowess and their ability to command their social power to achieve certain ends.
There was a famous declaration in Rome’s Senate by Cato the Elder that went Cartago delenda est, which meant “Carthage must be destroyed.” There’s a forcefulness in such Latin declarations that we can’t communicate as adequately now in English. They convey a sense, in my reading, that the stated outcome can’t be challenged; it simply must come to pass.
That’s part of what I’m trying to communicate with my book’s title, Commanding Hope, it’s an intentional double entendre. First, we can make hope do our bidding: we can command hope, by turning it into a muscular and powerful notion that’s not passive but active, visionary, and motivating. At the same time, this kind of hope can command us: it can capture or command our attention and give us the forceful resolve to reach the future we envision. When I feel crummy about the state of the world, it’s this underlying philosophy of hope, these principles, that I fall back on.
It’s easy to think that it’s all going to hell. But we must remember that we don’t know enough about the state of the world to know whether our situation is truly hopeless. We’re living within highly complex systems with all kinds of non-linear responses and breakout possibilities.
Here’s a story I tell to make this point clear: A friend and I trekked across South Africa in 1983. Everybody we talked to during those months—and we met, and even stayed with, people from every racial group in the country—told us that apartheid was coming to an end. But they also said the end would be accompanied by a bloodbath. If at the time somebody had said that President de Klerk was going to release Nelson Mandela and that they’d together find a path to a peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy, almost all South Africans would have thought they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened. If prior to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, someone had said that the invasion would pull the democracies of the world together to defend democratic freedom, most people would have said that was crazy too. We just don’t know how the complex systems are going to behave, and that constant possibility of a positive outcome keeps me going.
Maintaining hope at home
Shaun Koopman: On a personal note, how do you spend your time immersed in such tragic events and still go home for quality time with your family? How else do you maintain hope as well as a healthy family?
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon: It’s really hard. I’m thoroughly immersed in all this stuff, so I have less chance than most people to get away from it. And I can’t say that it doesn’t take its toll. The Cascade Institute is an important part of my coping strategy. I gave up my career in a tenured research position at a leading Canadian university to set up the Cascade Institute, because I felt that it’s now or never. I wanted to try to make change happen far faster by working with people who are experts in complex social systems, and who know how to trigger cascading changes in those systems.
Another part of my response, though, is that I actually find these problems really interesting. There’s an emotional vividness and an intellectual complexity that makes humanity’s situation exciting. Our future really does hinge on what we do on this planet right now. We all matter in this critical time, no matter what we’re doing in our lives and no matter what our professional or personal expertise. It’s an enormously daunting situation, in some respects, but it also makes everything one does feel very meaningful and real.
The hardest part is figuring out how to ease the burden on my children. This is a hell of a world to grow up in. I know lots of people are deciding not to have children, given the challenges the world faces. But it’s so important that we continue to invest in children around the world, because they provide our most intimate connection to the future. Most of us only really care about the future as it impacts the next generation, whether that generation is represented by their own children, their extended family, or their close community members.
I dedicated the book to my kids Ben and Kate. When the first copies arrived at our house, I gave them each a signed copy and suggested they might want to read it sometime. They haven’t yet, except by going to the index to find the pages that tell stories about them personally. They’d cleared those sections with me before the book was published; we sat down and talked about whether or not they were comfortable with them, and I made some changes they suggested.
Both Ben and Kate are trying to find their equilibriums in this frightening world of climate crisis, war, and increasing anger and hate. They’re both astute and aware people. Although Sarah and I intentionally don’t spend a lot of time talking about these things at home, both our kids are picking up bits and pieces of the news, because it’s everywhere—on their social-media feeds and in classroom conversations, and the like.
Recently, after we’d had a tough dinner-table conversation about what the future might hold, I recognized that a practical implementation of my ideas about hope involves pursuing three mutually supporting goals in life:
- Engagement: Engage with the world’s challenges, so that you feel like you’re doing something about them. This will help ensure your life has meaning in this terrible time. You could be engaged as an activist, as a scientist, or as someone dealing with hazards at the front line activities. It’s vital to feel like you’re playing a part in making the world a better place rather than a worse place.
- Experience: Make sure you carve out enough time to really appreciate life, that you experience joy as often as possible. If life is going to be very tough in the future, you’ll want to know that you’ve made the best of the good times when they were available.
- Survival: Prepare yourself with the skills and the mindset that will help you be flexible and resilient in a time of crisis. Unfortunately, we’re training our young people today to fit into narrow economic niches, which means they aren’t remotely ready for what’s coming. Preparation can involve everything from learning how to grow food or to learning how to fix an engine or construct a building. This is a practical manifestation of the kind of hope I advocate, where you ask yourself:
- What are the problems I will face?
- What do I want to be in order to best deal with these problems?
- What do I need to know to get there?
- How am I going to be strategically smart about getting there?
This approach involves leaning into our problems. If we lean in well, we’ll be able to see our way through the coming crisis, while everybody else is running around yelling “What are we going to do?” People who adopt these three goals will do better than others, because the world is going to be in constant upheaval as we advance further into this century. Also, dividing one’s life into parts that explicitly pursue these three goals is a good “portfolio” approach: it means one is spreading investments across different contingencies and psychological needs, which raises the probability of surviving well.
I’m still convinced that we can see very rapid change on this planet in a positive direction. In Commanding Hope, I talk about many realities that we’re going to have to accept in the future, and a lot of them aren’t great. We’re losing the planet’s coral reefs, a lot of its forests, and much of its biodiversity. Many bad outcomes we can’t avoid at this point. But within that envelope of more-or-less inevitable future realities, there’s still a vast range of possible pathways in front of us, from those that take us to “horrible” places to those that take us to “not too bad” places.
Looking farther into the future, even centuries, I think that humankind could aspire to rebuild nature and let it flourish once more on this planet. I’ve just finished reading Dune. A key underlying them in the book is the restoration of nature. Frank Herbert envisions a planet where nature has been destroyed, but where a civilization emerges around the idea of recreating a space for abundant nature. Herbert creates, in a way that’s very similar to Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, an entire fictional world of ecology, social history, and myth. It’s interesting that both epic novels have stories that involve medieval tropes of chivalry, honour, noble hierarchies, and great battles with swords and knives. The civilization in Dune is advanced but medieval at the same time. But in the end the book is really about environmentalism and nature.
There was an interesting commentary in the New York Times recently on how Herbert was influenced by Indigenous cultures, from Oregon in particular. We need the kind of aspiration he expresses—a “hero project” around which the species can pull together. There’s a probability that humanity is going to slide into a terrible place of mass violence and social disintegration, but I don’t think this future is inevitable. In this century, the human species is either going to grow up or destroy itself.
Finding hope in a seemingly hopeless system
Shaun Koopman: How do you encourage first responders and emergency managers to keep finding hope in what they are doing when bureaucratic systems consistently let them down?
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon: It’s a very important question. The answer in part, I think, is that they need to remind themselves they’re at the forward battleline in a worldwide struggle with a series of interconnected challenges. Societies are facing these challenges all over the planet simultaneously; it’s a collective systemic crisis. It’s not just the local court system that is failing, not just the local community that is suffering from the opioid crisis or the local hillside that is burning in a wildfire after a six-month drought. Similar things are happening all over the planet. First responders and emergency managers are on the front lines of the battle for humanity’s future. They’re placed in positions where that battle is extremely visible, and if they fail, then everything will surely disintegrate around us. To the extent that they can keep things patched together, the rest of us have a little more time to put things on a better pathway.
For the most part, when someone decides to become a first responder, I don’t think they recognize they’re part of a larger cause. But all first responders are now inexorably in situations where they are part of a larger cause. Indeed, we all are, whether we understand it or not. But human beings do incredibly well in crisis; it’s when we learn the fastest and perform the best. So who knows what creativity and positive change is going to emerge from this current crisis?
A framework for hope
Shaun Koopman: Why is hope important? What does hope mean to us?
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon: I set up my framework for hope in the first third of the book. In the last chapter of that section, I take on the critics of hope directly. By that point I’ve built my own theory of hope, and I can use my theory to respond to them.
Critics like Paul Kingsnorth and Derek Jensen suggest one can live without hope; basically, they dismiss it as a pathetic emotion. But I don’t think these individuals could get up every day and do anything constructive without some kind of hope in their minds. It’s an absolutely foundational, central emotion. Without something positive to hold onto, we’re only left with a route to depression and paralysis.
Hope is widely thought to be a passive, pathetic, naïve emotion but it’s not. It’s very powerful—an essential and foundational human emotion. When our kids look into the abyss of the world’s problems, how do we respond as parents? We immediately tell them the situation isn’t hopeless, that there are things that they (and we) can do. That’s the very first thing we say. It isn’t grown-up to jettison hope; it’s capitulation.
Even in the worst set of circumstances such as the labour and extermination camps during the Nazi Holocaust, people persevered because they had hope. They didn’t know if or when the Allies were going to arrive and liberate them, but they always thought it was possible, so they persevered as best they could. And in the end, some of them were liberated.
I’m very critical of folks who give up on hope. And many of those who do endorse the value of hope suggest that it can only be sustained with good news stories. This is what I call the “It’s not so bad” approach to hope. Mine is very different: real, honest hope requires that we look the bad news squarely in the face and figure out what we’re going to do. It’s a radically different starting point.
Shaun Koopman: What advice would you have for people who are aspiring to join the first responders and emergency management field?
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon: You are dedicating your life to engagement. You’re going to do something that’s enormously meaningful and vitally important to holding things together in the future. During the pandemic, we all learned that front-line workers were essential for keeping society glued together. But while these are vital and important roles, make sure you open space for those other two goals—experience and survival—to maintain your psychological balance. The good news is that you’ll never think your job is meaningless. I would be thrilled if my kids went into these professions, because they’d always have work and would always play a central role in society.
Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon researches threats to global security in the 21st century, including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity. He also studies how people, organizations, and societies can better resolve their conflicts and innovate in response to complex problems. He is the founder and director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC, and the author of Commanding hope: The power we have to renew a world in peril.
For the past six years Shaun has been blessed to work as the Protective Services Coordinator following the completion of his Masters in Disaster Management. He was drawn into this world through his family ties in Haiti following their devastating earthquake in 2010. When he’s not with his wife and two dogs at dog agility, you can find him surfing, yogaing, hiking or headbanging to California groove metal.
Homer-Dixon, T. F. (2020). Commanding hope: The power we have to renew a world in peril. Alfred A. Knopf Canada.