Hope and Paradox in the Age of Climate Change

by Katie Poore

While waiting, shivering and jetlagged, for a train home from the Paris airport this week, I alternately stared into space and checked the train timetables. My train was an hour late. I later learned, thanks to the friendliness of a fellow traingoer, that the train had hit a deer.

Waiting on the platform, I happened upon an article in The Atlantic. The author’s name was Jedediah Britton-Purdy. I clicked the Instagram link with immediate fascination, not because of the notability of that name—it strikes me as so quintessentially American—but because I spent days and weeks with his book After Nature last year, slogging through an undergraduate thesis centered on the intersection of the environment and literature.

Purdy’s article is called “The Concession to Climate Change I Will Not Make.” In it, he explains his rationale for maintaining hope in a world that seems to be, quite literally, burning down around us. To him, this hope means, at least in part, continuing to have children.

This struck a chord with me, perhaps because it was eerily similar to a conversation I had with my mother over the holidays, where I professed a sense of hopelessness about the world and its seemingly impending expiration date. Sometimes it made me terrified to have children, I told her. Thinking about what they might inherit felt almost cruel.

Purdy responds directly to doubt-riddled, deterministic attitudes like mine. He seizes that form of existential despair—so dangerously close to the sensations of powerlessness, myopia, and cynicism that tilt and tumble easily into apathy—and asks that we seriously consider the utility of such attitudes.

Our world is burning, he says. That’s true. But what will hopelessness accomplish that is any better than what hopefulness can?

This is a question that has always been up for debate—we tend to moralize when it comes to cynicism and hopelessness, reworking it into something virtuous by calling it realism. Persistent, actionable hope—the kind that inspires and is sometimes catalyzed by action—is, conversely, idealism, which has somehow become a denigrating term, one we are supposed to wear with self-deprecating humility rather than pride.

But I like the questions Purdy stirs in his insistence on hope and wonder, on the necessity of loving a world even if it will inevitably lead to losing, opening ourselves to tremendous pain if only so we can feel, and fight, and recognize the preciousness and sacredness of what we have been given.

“What does it mean to teach a child to live in a time of perennial crisis, always in the shadow of loss? I think about trying to teach him love and wonder first, before he inevitably learns fear…When the thought of climate doom arrives, I hope it will arrive in a mind already prepared by curiosity and pleasure to know why this world is worth fighting to preserve,” he says.

This is a tall order for most of us: to insist on a goodness that can easily seem so much smaller than the fear and violence that rear their many heads with startling force. The Facebook videos of a dog running on its new prosthetic leg, or outrageously cute babies, or fathers and their toddler daughters lip syncing to Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” feel good in the moment, but they inevitably drown beneath a tidal wave of what feels like relentless tragedy. The bad in the always world feels bigger.

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the role that grand, sometimes cosmic narratives play in our lives. They are a potent force: think of the narratives of various religions, or the stories we cling to in defining our countries and our histories. We tend, I think, toward broad strokes, toward those frameworks strong enough to make this world feel at least somewhat cohesive. Sometimes this works to cultivate hope and peace. But just as often, if not more so, it serves as erasure, as it has for centuries in the United States’ continual perpetuation of the myth of colonization’s benevolent and peaceful bent. Narratives of good and evil inevitably leave out the grey area that constitutes most of our lives.

There is an agonizing paradox in being alive: that often the things we love most are those things that will inevitably cause us the most pain in our losing them. That tremendous beauty and tremendous grief coexist with an infuriating and inextricable constancy. That our best and happiest moments can take place against a larger global backdrop of violence and injustice and climate change.

Purdy insists that we live within this paradox, and that we teach our children to live within it, too. He asks us to set aside our grand narratives and general understandings of the world—many of which, like mine, err toward the conclusion that we are, to put it bluntly, completely screwed. He is seeking hope and modeling wonder, that inestimable posture toward the world that commits to rejoicing in what the world does well and what it renders beautiful.

Climate change feels like a problem too inevitable and too terrifying to reverse, and I often find myself clawing my way out of futility, resignation, and fear in the face of something so grand, on such an incomprehensible scale. But I’ve never thought of this struggle toward hope as a means of protecting the children who will follow in our burdened footsteps, or as a means of cultivating a generation (or generations) with the toolkit of idealism necessary to believe we can make something better out of the fractured world we’ve created. Our world is crumbling, but it always has been. It probably always will be. But as Purdy says: “This ever more broken world is the only route to a better one.”

A few months ago I took a trip to Chamonix, France. One day, my friends and I went to La Mer de Glace, a famous glacier nestled between several peaks of the French Alps. The sight of that glacier felt devastating: it is a shadow of its former grandeur, a slowly-melting symbol of climate change’s active and awful reality. As beautiful as it was, I could only think of what it should have been.

But as we hiked away from the glacier and further into the mountains, we were met with the sort of breath-stealing views that make one wonder how we ever deserved a world as beautiful as this one. The bright-yellow autumn leaves stood starkly against the rocky, snow-capped peaks, and the vast expanse of grass and shrub permitted an endless view. Far below, low-hanging clouds snaked along the contours of the mountains, rendering Chamonix lost beneath a sea of soft white. They looked like some sort of ethereal river, frozen in time.

This view looked different millennia ago. Now it’s a landscape of loss: thin layers of snow where there once were feet of it, a handful of flora that cannot hold a candle to the biodiversity that once flourished throughout this region. But it’s beautiful, too: wild and boundless and broken and grand.

And if that’s not worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.