In the summer of 2005, I sat across a table in a restaurant with my friend. We had just heard that Canada, where we both lived, had legalized gay marriage. My friend had marched, petitioned, lobbied for many years, though he insisted he never planned to marry. “We worked so long for this,” he said. “And then …” He shook his head. “It’s like it happened overnight.”
I think of that exchange often when I join those working so hard to address the climate crisis. We march, we petition, we lobby. And then … one day, we hear that Harvard has agreed to divest from fossil fuels. That a species is off the endangered list. That renewables are powering entire countries. And though they might seem like small victories, they point to the possible. They point toward a future that we can’t yet see, can scarcely imagine.
The philosopher Jonathan Lear calls this “radical hope.” Radical hope requires that we summon the ability to imagine solutions, despite what’s happening around us. Radical hope is not to be confused with more passive optimism. As Lear puts it, “Radical hope anticipates a good,” although we may not yet be able to conceive of how that hope will take shape. Radical hope is not the stuff of pithy phrases or bromides, rather it asks us to exhibit courage and flexibility and a creativity to respond to challenges. To see radical hope in action, look no further than Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, Indigenous water protectors, and so many others who refuse to give in.
Radical hope is not about ignoring the grief and fear I and, perhaps, you feel as we absorb the magnitude of the climate crisis. But I take courage in the work being done by these activists, young and old — those who, in Lear’s words, “facilitate a creative and appropriate response to the world’s challenges.” Feeling both the fear and the promise is what radical hope is. It reminds us that our world continues to hold surprises. Victories that are small until, suddenly, they are big.