Hope Beyond Progress

Photo by Christos Barbalis via StockSnap.io.

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in a mini-series on hope and environmental history. To read the series’s other posts, click here.

Scarcely a day passes without a major headline declaring humanity’s dire environmental predicament. For many environmental historians, the litany of contemporary dispiriting events is just the most recent chapter in a centuries-long process where humanity has systemically degraded the natural world. As Tina Loo and Tina Adcock argue, this disposition has made environmental scholars particularly reluctant to focus on hopeful narratives. So how should we navigate the idea of hope? How might environmental scholars tilt against declensionist narratives while being honest about collapsing ecosystems and human overshoot? Or should we move beyond hope altogether?[1]

One of the clearest upshots from our ASEH roundtable, to my mind, is the distinction between hope and other related, but far more progress-oriented ideas—optimism and expectation. In her presentation, Dorothee Schreiber invoked Ivan Illich’s differentiation between “hope” and “expectation.” Hope, Illich explained, was a “trusting faith in the goodness of nature,” while expectation “looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim.”[2] Dorothee argued that settler colonial notions of hope (what Illich called “expectation”) relied upon the powerful idea of “progress” for its spirit and orientation.

John Gast, American Progress, 1873, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
John Gast, American Progress, 1873, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The most influential contemporary critic of the idea of progress was the historian Christopher Lasch. His environmental criticism has been neglected by scholars, and this oversight is especially unfortunate in light of the search for hope. Lasch offered a rebuke of progress-oriented economic narratives, in the process distinguishing between hope and what he called “optimism.” Lasch rejected “fatuous optimism,” which he defined as “the state of mind encouraged by a belief in progress … a kind of cheerful fatalism, which assumes that we are carried along on an irresistible flood of innovation.” He instead upheld the idea of “hope” as “trust in life itself, an underlying disposition to see the promised land … as a present reality.”[3] Only through “defeat and despair” and even “tragedy,” Lasch believed, could humans find the “hope and wonder” of life.[4]

Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”[5]

The distinctions between hope and optimism/expectation are crucial since, as Tina Loo argued, ideas do real political work. Lasch and Illich’s distinctions share at least two important characteristics. First, both emphasized the operative concept of environmental history—the idea of limits. These thinkers believed that being hopeful required disabusing oneself of the Promethean illusion of transcending nature. Second, in their eyes, hope demands a focus on the present or the past, rather than some utopian future. This is a counter-intuitive, even provocative conjecture, since hope is typically offered as a future-directed orientation. This temporal focus is all the more appropriate for historians: it reflects the discipline’s interest in time, and admonishes us not to project the past into the future.

With several ideas of hope more clearly articulated, I want to move onto Tina Adcock’s call for “critical hopeful environmental histories.”[6] Adcock enjoined environmental scholars to look beyond declensionist narratives without jettisoning our criticism. She implicitly suggests that we find a middle ground between blithe optimism and debilitating pessimism.

Such a call made me wonder: who are we writing these “critical hopeful” histories for? It’s natural to assume our students and the broader public are the intended audience. Critical but hopeful narratives might contain the seeds of action—a whisper that suggests that we can still influence our destinies, despite limits to our power. But, if we’re being completely honest, I think this concept of critical hopeful environmental histories is most aimed at ourselves—environmental scholars wrestling with what it means to be living amid the Sixth Extinction.[7]

Adcock’s push for “critical hopeful” histories enjoins us to remain honest and earnest, but also to take a deep breath and accentuate the awe in the past and present. In searching for examples of such a disposition, she highlighted Brett Walker’s conclusion in Toxic Archipelago, where he embraces “moments of selfless compassion and transcendent beauty … even as the environment collapses under the feet of Homo sapiens industrialis….”[8] Adcock’s utilization of Toxic Archipelago is instructive since it implicitly utilizes our roundtable’s chastened definition of hope.

Photo by Christos Barbalis via StockSnap.io.
Photo by Christos Barbalis via StockSnap.io.

This iteration of hope is evocative of the Japanese artistic concept of Wabi-Sabi, which might be defined as the beauty of impermanent and withered nature. “Emerging in the 15th century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials,” Robyn Griggs Lawrence explains, “wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all.”[9]

In many ways, Wabi-Sabi offers an aesthetic parallel to our roundtable’s conclusions. It encourages us to imagine new environmental narratives and new ways of understanding humanity’s place in nature. It might seem strange to conclude by connecting this chastened hope to a Japanese aesthetic sensibility. But as evinced by Dorothee Schreiber’s and Tina Loo’s discussions of First Peoples, we need to expand the idea of hope beyond Western conceptions of progress and modernity. Art, like the stories we historians weave, inspires the search for meaning and purpose in the world—not merely in spite of, but more appropriately because of the tremendous adversity humanity faces.


[1] Derrick Jenson, “Beyond Hope,” Orion Magazine, https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/.

[2] Ivan Illich, DeSchooling Society, Chapter VII, “Rebirth of Epimethean Man”, http://olivier.hammam.free.fr/imports/auteurs/illich/deschool7.htm.

[3] “The Idea of Progress in Our Time”, speech at SUNY New Platz, April 1987, Christopher Lasch Papers, University of Rochester.

[4] Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Limits (New York City: W.W. Norton, 1991), 16.

[5] E.F. Schumacher, Good Work (New York: Harper Collins, 1980), 80.

[6] Tina Adcock, “Declining Declensionism: Toward a Critical Hopeful Environmental History”, The Otter~La Loutre (blog), 5 June 2017, http://niche-canada.org/2017/06/05/declining-declensionism-toward-a-critical-hopeful-environmental-history/.

[7] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

[8] Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2011), 224.

[9] Robyn Griggs Lawrence, “Wabi-Sabi: The Art of Imperfection,” September-October 2001, http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi?pageid=1#PageContent1.

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I'm a Rose and Irving Crown Fellow and History PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. I study global histories of energy and the environment, with a focus on pipelines, energy infrastructures, and climate change. My dissertation is tentatively-titled “Arctic Artery: An Environmental History of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, 1945-2012”

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