Cultivating hope and managing despair

John Sharry

Societies are struggling to come to terms with the nature and extent of the changes facing them both now and in the future. Modern psychological models of motivation and change, and of how people deal with threat and loss, suggest strategies that can be used to help individuals change and to galvanise communities into collective action.

In the last few years there has been a growing public awareness of the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil/resource depletion. The popular awareness has been championed by figures such as Al Gore and many other environmentalists and scientists. In their presentation of the message, many scientists and educators try to delicately balance the prediction of catastrophe with a focus on the positive action that people can take, whether this is recycling, using efficient light bulbs or more actively lobbying government. Most presenters try to be upbeat, presenting a positive vision of the future with a clear call to action. A common message communicated is the idea that we have ‘ten years left to act’ in order to curtail climate change and save the planet.

Despite this positive focus in public, many scientists are much more gloomy in private. Chris Goodall [1] calls this ‘the second glass effect’. After his hopeful presentations about the different technologies that could save the planet, during the post-lecture wine reception he may begin to share his pessimism as to whether collectively we have left it too late to adopt these technologies or whether the will or political capital exists to introduce them. Indeed, many scientists think the news is far worse than what is publicly broadcast; they believe that we have already bypassed many of the tipping points to avoid dangerous climate change, that catastrophe cannot now be averted and that future generations will suffer on a scale we cannot fully comprehend.

For fear of sending their audience into despair or alienating them and being written off as a ‘doom and gloom’ merchant, many scientists and environmentalists filter the message through a more optimistic lens than reality suggests. If scientists are guilty of this, politicians and government officials are even more so. Focused solely on re-election in a year or two, the last thing a politician wants to do is to talk about the reality of challenges for fear of making people despairing and fearful or, worse, vote not to re-elect them.

Of course the public audience is complicit in this arrangement. Despite the emerging evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of people are happy to live in denial about the severity of problems or imagine that ‘easy’ solutions will be found. The general public belief is that we can more or less continue our current lifestyles as they are. Okay, we might turn down the heating a degree, but the most common belief is that we can continue our current lifestyle and at the same time save the planet. The scale of the impending catastrophe simply hasn’t sunk in, nor has the scale of action needed for humanity just to survive. Even with the current economic crisis, most people simply hope that we can ‘restart the party’ and return to the unsustainable economic growth cycle that caused the problems in the first place. To consider radical changes is too scary at the moment and invites just too much despair.

Addiction, denial and fear

The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain
RD Laing

One way to understand the enduring widespread denial of the consequences of our lifestyles and actions is to consider it in terms of an addiction. We are addicted to the comfortable life that cheap oil has afforded us and are so terrified of being without it that we will deny for as long as possible all evidence of harm. Fear underpins most addictions and causes addicts to refuse to think long term and to keep living day to day, chasing the next fix. This is why advertising campaigns that try to scare the public with the effects of smoking, drinking or drugs rarely work with addicts. The fear that they won’t get their drug today is far greater than a vague fear of long-term consequences. As a result, confrontational and fear-based therapeutic approaches to treating addictions have largely been discredited.

More successful therapeutic approaches focus on removing the fear that underpins the addiction and helping the recovering addict envision a positive, drug-free life that is far more attractive and appealing than what the drug has to offer. In a similar way, many of the innovative movements within the environmental field have focused not just on warning about the dangerous consequences of our current trajectory, but also tried to ‘sell’ the benefits of a low-carbon future: closely connected, sustainable communities that are far happier than the disconnected modern world in which we currently live.

While this positive approach has been successful to a degree and led to many people understanding and taking on board these aspirations, sadly it has led to very little actual behavioural change in terms of sustainable lifestyles (even among those who are zealots of the environmental movement) and we are as dependent as we ever were. The reason for this lack of change is the absence of the second important factor necessary to create the conditions for addicts to change: consequences. People with serious addictions are unlikely to change unless they experience directly the negative consequences of their addiction. Given the strength of our enjoyment of and dependency on our Western lifestyle, the threat of consequences somewhere down the line is simply not enough to make us change. It is far easier, in fact, to listen to the many dissenting voices and vested interests that deny that any actual harm is being incurred.

That resource depletion and climate change remain, for many people, only a vague threat, means that these people will simply not change until they have to. Even though early change or adaptation is far preferable to emergency change and forced adaptation, it’s likely that our collective denial will only be punctured when our addicted society is beset by an unending set of crises and catastrophes. Once this happens, it will of course be a very perilous time. People who have been hitherto in comfortable denial will become fearful and desperate and may engage in desperate actions, leading to social unrest, war and societal breakdown. Preparing to manage these social difficulties in the future is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.

Managing despair

The greatest challenge now facing our leaders is to manage the nation’s mood as much as it is to manage its economy.

The famous psychologist Kubler Ross [2] proposed a five-stage model of how an individual responds to bereavement or pending loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Once denial is passed, a person may experience great anger at their loss, which is often accompanied by seeking to apportion blame and even seek retribution. This can be followed by bargaining or engaging in wishful thinking or unhelpful strategies to mitigate the loss and then by depression and grief as the impact of the loss finally comes to bear. Kubler Ross argues that once this grief work is done, the person can reach some level of acceptance and integration. Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘peak oil moment’ when they realise that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This is often followed by a period of despair and, finally, by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action and hope.

Such a grief model may also suggest the stages we will collectively go through as the denial about the unsustainability of our current lifestyles is punctured and we are beset by crises and consequences. If the first half of the age of oil has been characterised by exuberance, ever-increasing expansion, and an almost manic consumption of the world’s resources, the second half will be characterised by contraction, scarcity and depression. Once the denial falls away and it becomes clear that the decline of our Western industrialisation is chronic and long term, collective anger is likely to be widespread. People will seek to blame someone for the situation they are in, and many will look for easy answers or scapegoats. It is at these times that people can choose radical and extreme political views. Just as the economic turmoil and the great depression of the 1930s led to the rise of dictatorships and totalitarian states in Europe, so these times will be fraught by similar dangers. In addition to anger, there is also likely to be widespread depression and despair. This is just as dangerous and has the potential to make people feel helpless in the face of negative forces within society, disabling them from taking action and missing the positive opportunities in their midst.

Just as it’s important to prepare for the economic challenges ahead, so it is also important to prepare for the associated psychological, community and societal problems that will emerge. Once the crises occur, community and society leaders will have a particular responsibility to manage the public anger and despair that will emerge in order to avoid the destructive paths of social disorder. The twin challenge will be to help people channel their anger into constructive rather than negative courses of action and to present a vision that inspires hope in the face of widespread difficult circumstances. Such plans will be as crucial as economic and technological ones in helping people survive the transition.

Cultivating hope

It is in the deepest despair that is born the greatest hope
Miguel de Unamuno

While the Kubler-Ross model provides a useful understanding of the stages of dealing with loss, critics often say that it misses a final step of hopeful and constructive action. Many people who experience loss move beyond acceptance, try to make meaning out of their experience, and channel their energy into constructive action. Many people who have lost a loved one to an illness will put their efforts into supporting others with the same illness, or dedicate themselves to educating others so they can avoid the loss they experienced. In addition, many people report that despite the pain and suffering, the experience of a trauma in the long term can actually have some benefits and help them reorient their life for the better. Many people in the environmental movement describe a similar process after they have been through the initial despair following their ‘peak oil realisation moment’. They move beyond acceptance of the facts and commit themselves to constructive action, whether in terms of educating others or building sustainable communities. Many report their life as being better, more integrated and even more hopeful once they became aware of the coming crises.

A second criticism of the five-stage grief model is that it is too simple and linear and that, in fact, people dealing with the prospect of a serious loss oscillate between positive and negative emotions. At times people can be in denial and at other times feel acceptance; they can alternate between anger and despair at their predicament and other times feel hope about what will come to pass. The family therapist Carmel Flaskis [3] talks about the co-existence of hope and hopelessness in working with people dealing with trauma and loss. People can move from great sadness, pain, despair and injustice to, at other times, great hope, courage, forgiveness and resilience. The key is to achieve some sort of balance between the two and to learn to cultivate hope in the face of despair. Helping people cope with trauma is about helping them express, understand and manage their despair, as well as helping them cultivate hope and new meaning beyond the original experience. Good therapeutic work is characterised by compassion (accepting the person whatever feelings they have and wherever they are on the grief process) reflection (highlighting to the person that they have choices in how they respond to the trauma they are affecting them) and empowerment (helping the person channel their energy into constructive courses of action).

Such approaches can be applied to whole communities dealing with actual or potential trauma. The Buddhist Joanna Macy [4] leads ‘despair and empowerment’ workshops designed to help groups express and process the feelings of grief at the destruction of the people and the planet, with a view to helping them overcome helplessness and hopelessness and reach a more empowered, constructive position. Such work may prove to be more important in the future when the consequences of climate change and resource depletion begin to bite and community despair is more widespread.

Building resilience

Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger
Frederick Nietzsche

In my work as a mental-health professional I have been struck at how differently various people cope with adversity or challenging life events. Some people become traumatised and damaged by what has happened to them and can become embittered or angry even for years after the original events. Other people are able to move on from the trauma and not let it damage them in the same way; in some cases they’re able to learn from it and even turn it into a positive force in their life. Modern psychologists are very interested in the concept of resilience; they want to understand what qualities and protective factors allow an individual to cope with trauma and adversity. Many different things seem to make a difference, but the ability to be flexible in challenging circumstances is crucial. Whether a person can think constructively (making the best of the situation as it is) or take an active rather than a passive coping stance (such as taking action to make life better or combat the negative effects), and whether they have access to good-quality support at the time of the trauma and afterwards, can all contribute to better coping and survival.

In his great work Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Victor Frankl [5] describes his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and shares his observations of how differently people coped there. Some were overwhelmed and descended into despair; others were better able to survive, depending on how they responded to circumstances imposed upon them. For Frankl, the crucial factor was finding meaning in the experience and making positive choices no matter how much the person’s freedom was curtailed. After the war, he went on to develop his therapeutic method on finding meaning in all forms of existence, no matter how traumatic or difficult. It is this meaning that provides the person with a positive reason to continue living. In the future, how we cope with the new conditions of contracting resources and curtailed freedom will depend not only on our collective resilience and adaptability but also on our ability to make sense of and find meaning in our new circumstances.

A community of hope

Hope is something you create together
Kaethe Weingarten

Recent psychological research has highlighted the importance of hope as an essential precondition to human happiness, particularly in the face of difficult change and adversity. Charles Snyder [6], one of the leading researchers in the field, has defined hope as born out of having a clear goal/vision and the sense of the means to make progress towards it. While hope is often considered an individual human trait or feeling, Kaethe Weingarten [7] has conceived it as a shared creation between people. When people are overwhelmed by adversity and feel hopelessness or despair, it is their contact with other caring people that lifts them or creates the conditions for renewed hope. For this reason she argues that people in despair should resist isolation and seek connection, and people who possess some hope should resist indifference and reach out and support others. This is the basis of a resourceful, and resilient, community.

One of the most innovative movements that is meeting the challenge of the coming crises is the Transition Towns movement [8] By bringing people together around shared concerns, building collective vision and common meaning, and focusing people on constructive action, the movement does much to create hope in individuals and communities in the face of despair. Furthermore, the movement not only builds resilience in local economies by reducing dependence on fossil fuels etc., but it also builds resilience in communities that will be havens for the many people who will feel despair and loss as the future crises deepen. Critics of the movement who argue that many of the local actions are not sufficient for dealing with what are global problems miss the point completely. While the current actions may not be the ones to solve the problems (indeed no-one knows exactly the correct actions needed), over time the movement creates a resourceful community that will be best placed to adapt to future challenges and thus preserve hope for future generations.


‘Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out’
Vaclav Havel

‘Hope is the process of arriving at a goal — no matter how much it has shifted — and making sense of the journey there.
Kaethe Weingarten

We are facing very uncertain and difficult times. In addition to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change and the resultant economic and societal problems, we face very deep challenges to our collective psyche and spirit as people. When we consider the scale of the problems we face, it is easy to retreat into denial or wishful thinking or feel despair, helpless or hopeless about change.

How we cope will depend largely on how resourceful we are and whether we can build communities that nurture hope rather than despair, keep people together rather than apart and cultivate creative adaptation in the face of adversity rather than destructive action. This is the best chance for our children.

When despair threatens to overwhelm us, rather than being lured towards anger or hatred, we can remember the words of Kaethe Weingarten, who said ‘you can do hope without feeling hope’. Creating hope is largely a choice about taking constructive action and you don’t have to wait until you feel hopeful to take this action. I think this is what Shaun Chamberlain [9] means when he speaks of the ‘pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’. While we may doubt that our actions may work, we still act in the best faith we can. Furthermore, when we take collective, concrete and constructive action, in the process we generate hope and a sense of movement and possibility. We also counterbalance the cynicism, despair and inaction that could hobble the next generation. In this way, we can give them the freedom and encouragement to embrace their future. Now that is something to be hopeful about.


  1. Chris Goddall (2008), Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, London: Green Profile
  2. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (2005), On Grief and Grieving, London: Simon and Schuster
  3. Carmel Flaskas (2007), “The Balance of Hope and Hopelessness”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  4. As cited in Richard Heinberg (2007), Peak Everything, London: Clairview
  5. Victor Frankl (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston: Simon and Schuster
  6. Snyder, C. R. (2000) Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. New York: Academic Press.
  7. Kaethe Weingarten (2007), “Hope in a Time of Global Despair”, in C. Flaskas, I. McCarthy, J.Sheehan (Eds) Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy East Sussex: Routledge
  8. Rob Hopkins (2008), The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience,
    Devon: Green Books
  9. Shaun Chamberlin (2009), The Transition Timeline, Devon: Green Books

Featured image: Stones in water and reflection of the sun in the water. Author: photoshu. Source: