Radical Hope: Inspiring Sustainability Transformations through Our Past

Conference Report (Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany, 3–4 July 2017)

By Erika Bsumek and John Barry

Hope by Vaclav Havel

Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

In early July 2017, the Rachel Carson Center, together with University of Austin, Texas hosted a two-day workshop on “Radical Hope.” It brought together 21 people from a variety of continents and disciplinary perspectives to explore and exchange ideas on that renewable and essential resource: hope. A resource that is often sadly and noticeably lacking in academic and popular conversations on the dominant framing of the Anthropocene in terms of ecological “crisis,” pragmatic pessimism, and scientific “realism.”

hope_2The conference covered a wide array of topics that ranged from discussions of post nuclear Japanese utopian literature (Lisette Gerbhardt) to the recuperative potential in the “colonial gaze” of early twentieth-century German photographs of east Africa (Chris Conte); the ecological and social remediation of Hemp and walking in Italy (Monica Seger); art and the aesthetic; the role of the imaginative in the age of the Anthropocene (Patrick Reed); and even poetry (John Barry) and about the role of institutions (like NATO) who aim to help design resilience and perhaps initiate hopeful responses during times of ecological crises (Allan Shearer).

Kieko Matteson’s decision to change the title and focus of her talk (initially one on discussing the need for a “New Manifesto to Environmental Mobilization” to one that focused on the practical and place-based environmental activism of what might be called three “ecological pioneers”) in many respects captured one of the prevailing themes of the workshop.

This could be outlined as “celebrating the small stuff”—or to adapt Antonio Gramsci’s famous phrase, to see hope and hopeful signs of sustainability, resilience, and restoration in balancing the inevitable “pessimism of the intellect” (a particular vice of intellectuals as was discussed in the workshop) with an “optimism of the will and the practical.” This theme was also echoed in Tania Katzschner’s contribution, which reminded the workshop participants of the wisdom in the African saying, “The times are urgent, we must slow down.”


“Slow and local” were certainly two, perhaps surprising, points of agreement that arose from a workshop on environmental issues, from which one might have expected calls for “global and urgent” policy responses. Here, Christof Mauch’s provocative call for “slow hope” found a receptive audience. Related to this, and echoed in many contributions and subsequent discussions, was a clear sense of the need to cast hope in terms of coping mechanisms (including cultivating character traits and virtues perhaps) rather than definitive solutions to social-environmental problems. As Monica Seger perceptively put it, we must learn to “stay with the trouble,” as one way to “prepare for the contingent future,” in Kieko Mattison’s words. Chris Conte introduced the group to the proverb, “drop by drop, you fill the water container,” which encapsulated the idea of slowing things down, to see and experience change occurring.

Simon Werrett’s discussion of “thrifty and shifty” science in the nineteenth century, where a pragmatic and household-based “make do and mend” attitude prevailed when practicing science and innovation, provided an example of greater democratization of science and technological development. This stands in stark contrast to modern professionalized and bureaucratized “big science.” Damian White and Elin Kelsey’s invigorating and positive contributions stressed innovation, experimentation, and excitement in making “hopeful futures.” Moving beyond the small and local, Allan Shearer’s work demonstrated that big institutions have turned to urban planners to help them in times of crisis, illustrating that manifestations of hope can take dramatically different forms but hope remains an inherently future-oriented concept.


White offered a wide-ranging and normatively informed menu of urban and design-based examples of “hope on the ground,” of how we can see, live in, and experience sustainable hope. He also asked participants to consider why apocalyptic views of global environmental issues are so White and Eurocentric.  Kelsey took the workshop from the city and the urban to the oceans and the wild, as she outlined how digital connectivity can not only identify pollution in our seas but also crowd-source hope for sustainability, resilience, and practical action. She reminded us that while humanity might be fretting about hope and adaption to a climate-changed world, the more than human world is already adapting. Both conference participants echoed one of the themes of the workshop’s keynote speaker Hunter Lovins, who in her prerecorded contribution quoted William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Forgiveness, redemption, and love also featured throughout the workshop, often arising from troubling stories and histories of places and peoples who experienced colonialism, dispossession, and its attendant violence. Kara Thompson gave an eloquent and grounded account of the redemptive power of love in the context of settler colonial exploitation around Standing Rock in the USA. She made a powerful point about the need for love without property and possession, if peace is to be cultivated in colonized places and for peoples who inhabit these complex storied inhabitations. Not least for those who, fairly or unjustly—and perhaps self-consciously, —occupy positions of privilege and use them for positive political purposes: to redeem past misdeeds by working for a hopeful and sustainable future.  Carsten Wergin’s presentation echoed this reconciliatory focus of healing and protecting colonized peoples and places. He examined the power and importance of respectfully listening to the other, of the ability to hold to the “truths” of the myth/storytelling of contested dwelling in place and the scientific/objective facts of the matter. Wergin and Thompson’s papers sparked discussions of not only of how specific groups value culturally significant environments. Furthermore, they showed how settler societies can learn from discussions of environmental sustainability and reorient them away from the dominant cultural, gendered, scientific, and market-oriented actions and narratives.

Images, humor, and storytelling were also prominent themes. Amy Hay’s presentation provided an analysis of the provocative, humorous, and visually arresting communication strategies of environmental campaigners from the 1950s onwards. Daniel Barber’s paper resurrected the dreams and plans for a sustainable, low carbon future envisaged by architects and designers in America and Brazil in the postwar period. The playfulness and improvising that is perhaps necessary—or at least desirable—in creating hopeful futures from looking at our past, was also prominent in Kostas Latoufis’ socio-technical history of the grassroots and pioneering DIY culture of wind energy development, innovation, and improvisation in Scotland. These papers echoed and offered a more recent historical example of Simon Werrett’s “thrifty, shifty” science and innovation from which there is much to be learned. Hal Crimmel’s reflections on local environmental activism helped participants think about how individuals or groups can use hope as an effective political strategy to achieve environmental change. Crimmel’s contribution on the politics and ethics of air pollution in the state of Utah also underscored how hard and soft infrastructures are not mutually exclusive, but perhaps mutually constitutive.

Of the many threads of the workshop, all could be woven into what Erika Bsumek described as a tentative and provisional “infrastructure of hope.”  Though questions and disagreements remain about whether this is a “soft” or “hard” infrastructure of hope—that is, a values based, education based, ethically based, or identity and virtue based infrastructure, for example, versus one based around institutions, politics, policy and protest, as Allan Shearer’s presentation on the ingredients for socio-economic resilience to deal with shocks and disturbances stressed), some infrastructure of hope is surely what we need. Sophie Kalantzakos’ presentation on the resilience of people in Nepal after the recent earthquakes helped conference attendees discuss what we have to, in terms of the emerging themes of hard and soft infrastructures of hope, redirect our vision and, potentially, build on in the future.

As this workshop demonstrated, there is hope, if we only look closely and slowly enough. Or as T. S. Elliott beautifully put it in his poem “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

What if we are the people we are waiting for? We have all the technology, policies, and resources we need to create a more hopeful, sustainable future. Our history shows us to be a resilient, innovative species—capable of great harm, certainly, but also with the capacity for great and positive evolution and achievements. Christof Mauch asked the group a crucial question: Can we educate for hope? Doing so pushed the group to think about ways to move forward with their own work and sparked the idea of the forthcoming “Radical Hope” syllabus.

Perhaps it is in activism, in political, local, or pragmatic everyday and unnoticed forms of making peace with people, place, and planet that the realization and creation of an infrastructure of hope begins. Heads, hands, and hearts are the elements—each as important as the other—we need to create the infrastructures of radical hope in these turbulent yet also exciting times. After all, “Better to light a candle than curse the dark.”

3 Comments on “Radical Hope: Inspiring Sustainability Transformations through Our Past

  1. Pingback: The Radical Hope Syllabus 2018

  2. Pingback: Applied Zooetics « Cultural Ecology

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