Commanding Hope (review)

(This review written in exchange for a free e-version of the book, provided by NetGalley.)

*113th climate book*

Climate activists tend to obsess over a small number of theoretical subjects:

  1. Is capitalism the devil, or our saviour?
  2. Is climate change its own separate issue, or the end result of colonialist patriarchal white supremacy? and
  3. Do you get better communication results by scaring the pants off people with the truth or giving them a boost of slightly deceitful hope?

Commanding Hope falls solidly in category three, though with occasional flourishes in 1 and 2 (short version: capitalism is not the devil, but climate change is an end result of colonialist patriarchal white supremacy).

What Commanding Hope offers to the (what one might assume is the) over-saturated hope-vs-fear marketplace is a detailed theoretical and philosophical discussion of the kind of hope climate activists should be aiming for, and how to operationalize it. Hope, he argues, should not be conceived of in a passive “hope that” way (eg. “I hope that it doesn’t rain tomorrow”) but in an active “hope to” sense (eg. “I hope to run a marathon one day”), where we look all of the dispiriting facts in the face and fully acknowledge how dire the situation is, but find a path to agency through acknowledging the remaining uncertainties and how many of them depend on human action.

In this sense, it’s not particularly new; Christiana Figueres argued much the same in The Future We Choose from earlier this year (and repeats the message in her podcast, Outrage and Optimism), and Rebecca Solnit beats the same drum in almost everything she writes: we need to hope, we need hope to function (and functioning is so important given our circumstances that it’s worth some internal state manipulation to get there), but the hope needs to inspire action.

Where Commanding Hope differs is in the several chapters analyzing positive psychology, philosophy, history, complexity science, Tolkein, Mad Max, and group psychology to analyze how we might best leverage the influence we have. The readers learns about WITs (Worldviews, Institutions and Technologies) and their combined ability to maintain the status quo; Donella Meadows’ leverage points, which argues that switching worldviews is incredibly effective and extremely difficult; Terror Management Theory and Immortality Projects; and the impact that fear and anxiety have on anger, polarization, and authoritarianism. He shares some tools he and his colleagues at UW have developed, including mindscapes, ideological state-spaces, and other tools to analyze and present worldviews to find points of convergence and agreement that can build a sense of “we” on our deeply fractured planet. In other words, it’s not just rhetoric (though there’s plenty of that); it’s academic analysis and tactics.

You may or may not appreciate academic analysis and tactics. But if you want them, this is where you’ll find them.

He also fully acknowledges how much of our success or failure on climate rests on our ability to tackle systemic social inequalities of all kinds (of course, no mention of disability; that docked a star). If fear drives anger and polarization, and if a positive future for all means being able to convince the vast majority of humans that the future contains more abundance than scarcity, then increasing economic inequality and insecurity and discrimination of all kinds must end. That is a mighty tall order. It is probably harder to end all forms of discrimination in the next 30 years than it is to fuel-switch our homes to electric heat pumps and our cars to batteries. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong–he’s not wrong–but these fights have in some cases been going on for centuries and have barely budged, and a bunch of you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about when I say “ableism.”

If Eric Holthaus’s recent book The Future Earth showed a positive path forward for humanity with few nuts and bolts about how to make that happen, Homer-Dixon’s book writes a plausible version of that path. However, “plausible” here doesn’t mean likely or even probable. He makes it clear throughout that the path to a viable and desirable future for our children is no better than 1/5 and likely less. Not that this lets us off the hook. On the contrary. If your child were to be diagnosed tomorrow with a fatal cancer, for which there was one treatment with a 20% chance of success, you would move heaven and earth to get that treatment for your child. Why so many parents wash their hands of climate advocacy I will never understand. (Homer-Dixon argues that the desire of parents to protect their children is actually a universal bedrock value we can depend on to help unite us to act on climate; I wish I could be as optimistic on this point. A) abusive parents; they exist; I had some. B) many parents are apparently fully willing to expose their beloved children to unimaginable future harm so long as they can go on being able to fly to Spain on a whim indefinitely. So.)

One other issue I had, and it’s not just with this book, is the repeated statement that most people are good, or at least see themselves that way, so it’s best to take a generous approach to difficult conversations. And that’s not wrong, precisely. It’s just highly vulnerable. Let’s say 99% of the time it’s absolutely correct, and you’re talking to people who genuinely believe that the outright pursuit of maximum wealth is a social good and that government is evil. Sure, try to find common ground and work from there. That makes sense.

But some people are actually evil, and unless you have a base threshold for where that is and how to engage with those people, you can be sucked endlessly into debates on fundamentals with them that absolutely stall all action and even hope for action for all time. See: Exxon. They will never see themselves as evil, but Hitler also didn’t see himself as evil. That can’t be the standard. At what point do we draw a line and say that actively facilitating worldwide ecocide is evil and a punishable crime?

At any rate, and in an effort to conclude this review on a less wrist-slashing note: He’s not wrong in his general thesis. People do need to believe there is something to hope for, it needs to be something they can be involved in, and he has a great deal of knowledge and analysis to offer on how we might thread the 21st-century camel through the eye of the climate-collapse-and-Mad-Max needle. If you are looking to structure your climate action in a strategic and scientifically defensible way that is broadly compatible with social justice and works from the premise that very few people are actually evil, Commanding Hope is a great place to start.

8 thoughts on “Commanding Hope (review)

  1. Thank you for the review. Our book club is doing all climate change this year and while the choice is large, a lot of what we are finding is not too useful. This looks good.

  2. You have a budget for personal visits to a bookstore? Last time I was in Queen Books (my ‘hood) was to pick a special order. 30 minutes later, I had five new books, all novels, and the special order.

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