Salzburg, Austria, with a view to Bavaria (Source: Kristy Henderson)
By Kristy Henderson
“Cope not hope” wrote one participant in the chat of a recent online seminar on planetary health. Rather than passively hoping — one might say waiting — for change, we must adapt to the reality: floods, fires, pandemics, and more. It is resilience — our ability to cope — that will sustain our hopes through the ongoing lockdowns and re-openings, ever-evolving contagious variants, and ever-changing colour typology of safe travel destinations.
Whether it be the challenges of home-schooling, home office, or retaining basic social connections, the pandemic has brought to light the vulnerabilities and strengths of our governments, economies, communities, workplaces, and most critically of our ourselves. As it wears on, some of us may even be enthusiastic about the ushering in of a ‘new normal’ — might some things actually improve? Will the welfare state make a comeback after decades of neoliberal reforms, austerity measures, and privatisation? Will the cost of flying come to reflect its true environmental impact? Will we finally be able to apply for our dream job all the while living in our dream location?
And then, of course, there are also those who would wish to believe the virus is a conspiracy that won’t ever affect them, an incredible number for whom it is already tragically too late, and then those who may simply ponder what belonging to an ‘at risk group’ actually means — is it worth self-isolating for so many months on end? Has life still got any purpose? Will I survive the next pandemic?
How we individually respond to our personal circumstances during the pandemic — whether it be with wishful thinking, anxiety, or stoicism — reflects something about how we relate to crises over which we largely have no control, but which through our everyday actions we may nevertheless have some influence. In this way, our responses might be compared with how we respond to environmental crises and the existential questions they urge us to ask of ourselves, our governments, our economic systems, and our visions of the ‘good life.’
It is perhaps no surprise that leaders of the World Health Organization and the United Nations have linked the ongoing destruction of nature to the spread of the pandemic. Covid‐19 “is a SOS signal for the human enterprise,” Professor Partha Dasgupta and the UN’s Inger Andersen wrote to mark 2020’s World Environment Day, another reminder of our intricate dependence on the more-than-human world, which the indomitable Greta Thunberg brought to global attention by simply stating the frightening truth — “our house is on fire.”
Despite this apocalyptic reality, it’s hard to ignore that for as long as scientists have warned of the dangers of climate change, alternative visions of a sustainable future have been with us, slowly and subtly influencing the choices we make — everything from sustainable rooftop gardens to cycling super highways reflect how collective values have changed as a result of increasing environmental awareness. Put another way, environmental activists — and even sometimes scientists — have simultaneously been doomsayers and drivers of hopefulness, which have enabled visions of a sustainable future to endure, motivating others and making those futures just a little bit more likely.
Philosophically speaking, Václav Havel’s idealist description of hope as a ‘state of mind’ and not a ‘state of the world,’ as an orientation of the spirit rather than a prognostication about how things might turn out, gestures to the type of belief required to weather the tide of a never-ending cycle of bad news. For Havel, our hopes are the coils that give life its spring and momentum, warding off nihilism in times of crisis. “In the face of absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope,” he writes.
Our hopes are also a source of agency; they make us participate in the world. Whether it be growing more home-grown vegetables, cutting down on meat consumption, or taking public transport, the visions we have of the future shape our everyday choices and actions, implicitly transforming our understanding of what is possible. In the face of climate catastrophe, it might simply be that we act too late, and we are left with the false choice of coping or not surviving. There is much to be said for the importance of adapting in times of crisis and of acting now to develop the networks, technologies, and skills to survive a climate-changed planet susceptible to wild weather and food and energy shortages, among other things. But while coping may develop resilience, it won’t necessarily lead to flourishing and thriving. For this, hope is part of the elixir of change and of a change of vision.
And what the pandemic has shown is that our hopes for our individual health and the health of our societies are no longer separable from the health of planet Earth. The collision of human vulnerability with human-induced planetary change shows that our hopes and visions for the future will be played out on a planetary stage with more than human actors as protagonists, among them a host of novel viruses. This might be reason to lack hope given the lack of control we as individuals have over deep planetary processes such as climate tipping points or the flow of the Gulf Stream, for example. However, if Havel is right and our capacity for hope is an existential condition, it cannot be found anywhere else than within ourselves, which is at least to say our hopes are always-already reflected in how we respond to ideas, projects, and opportunities that represent a vision of how we’d like to see things work out. Hope is not something we can wish for; it is rather something that we have the capacity to live — and even live for.
Living in Germany, my hopes for a more socially just future have been re-awakened. This might seem like a strange hope given the unequal toll the pandemic has had on many of the world’s poor living without access to medical facilities that in wealthier countries have saved lives. However, in Germany, as well as in my homeland, Australia, the pandemic has exposed the state’s capacity, however reluctant and intermittent, to act according to the principle of solidarity in both national and international fora.
Indeed, just as lockdowns and inter-European border closures were almost inconceivable before the pandemic, so was large-scale government support for furloughed staff. Admittedly, covid-19 has changed our appreciation of the possible in both good and bad ways. And, of course, those bad ways — mass graves where there were previously bustling cities and communities, children out of school for months on end, and the hidden and spiralling cost to our collective mental health as a result of measures designed to keep the virus at bay — could take generations to repair.
But the pandemic could — if we were guided by the vision of a flourishing post-pandemic world order — also lead to acknowledgement of the fundamental necessity of well-funded, socially accessible public healthcare systems, of the social and ecological value of green spaces in urban environments, and of well-designed, health-giving housing that would help people avoid getting sick should there be another pandemic. More fundamentally, the pandemic may well mark a critical moment in which a new social contract is born and in which the nonhuman world is the founding stakeholder and arbiter of human interests.
As I look out into the courtyard that was my window into the outside world throughout Europe’s long winter (2020–2021), my arm aching and head throbbing from a recent vaccination, my hopes are indeed mixed. There is no way back to the world that was before March 2020, if indeed anyone really thought that world was the best we could do, but neither is the path ahead as simple as two or more jabs (if you can get them!). What lies ahead is rather the possibility that the insights gained from this global crisis — the interwoven vulnerabilities it has laid bare — will be harnessed, and that the hopes that have taken us this far will take us farther still, as our personal fortunes and those of the planet are recognised as being one and the same.