Hope May Be Harmful to the Environment


Photo: Gene Hunt via Flickr

Imagine that you are on a rocket ship that might be headed into the sun. One of the leading scientists on board tells everyone that the ship is going to become trapped in the sun's gravitational pull within ten years. The scientist shows everyone a picture of the rocket ship's trajectory into the sun. He uses evenly spaced dashes to denote flight path. There is also some hard math to go along with the pictures. After revealing this evidence, the scientist spends the next few years throwing up his arms in defeat and shouting, "Doomed! Doomed!" even at parties.

Now, let's imagine that another leading scientist comes in and says, "Yeah. We might hit the sun, but we can avoid this tragedy by making a few simple lifestyle changes. Enacting these changes will give us enough fuel to get out of the sun's gravitational pull. The important thing is not to worry." (End ham-fisted metaphor.)

Which one of these scientists is more helpful? According to a couple of Michigan researchers, neither scientist is very helpful. Abandon Hope
John Vucetich, assistant professor of animal ecology at Michigan Technological University, and Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University, penned an essay titled "Abandon Hope." Their goal wasn't to denounce positivity. Their aim was to challenge the belief that hope can motivate folks to overcome looming environmental problems. They claim that people should be motivated by the intrinsic value of "doing the right thing."

The Competing Messages of Hope and Despair
Vucetich and Nelson have heard much doom-speak from environmental groups over last few decades. "The ozone layer is gone!" "We're running out of monkeys!" "Clean water is a thing of the past." "Abandon all hope ye who emit carbon here!"

Environmental messages are unceasingly woeful. Many environmentalists have taken to focusing on the positive to motivate others and to undermine the ever-growing piles of bad, bad news.

However, accentuating the positive may not eliminate the negative. Instead, it sends two contradictory messages to the general public.

Contradictory Messages Elicit Mistrust
From Michigan Technical University

1.Scientists present evidence that profound environmental disaster is imminent.
2.It is urgent to live up to an extremely high standard of sustainable living.
3.The reason to live sustainably is that doing so gives hope for averting disaster.
4.Yet disaster is inevitable.

"Given a predisposition to mistrust authorities, such contradictions justifiably elicit mistrust," say Vucetich and Nelson.

A Place Between Hope and Despair?
If we can't live in hopeful, doe-like naiveté or lie prostrate, despair-ridden and doom-saddled as we wait for the world to end, how should we live? Vucetich and Nelson suggest that we begin equating sustainable living with basic virtues, such as being kind, sharing and social responsibility.

Instead of hope, we need to provide young people with reasons to live sustainably that are rational and effective," they say. "We need to lift up examples of sustainable living motivated by virtue more than by a dubious belief that such actions will avert environmental disaster.

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