Deadly wildfires in Maui and Canada. Chaotic floods at the Burning Man festival and around the world. More, and more, intense hurricanes. Hottest day on record ever, every year.
Climate crisis is all around us. In a world where billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are charging millions of dollars for private trips to space while releasing extraordinary amounts of planet-heating greenhouse gases, our individual actions, such as swapping plastic straws for metal ones or walking to work instead of driving, may seem too small. Even our individual votes may not seem to matter very much.
But small things can lead to big changes. That was one of the messages in the Greater Good Science Center’s special podcast series on Climate, Hope, and Science. Host Dacher Keltner spoke to climate scientists, activists, and writers about the data, actions, and mindsets that can help all of us move from climate anxiety and despair to hope. Here are seven ways to build hope, distilled for you from the series.
1. Mindset: One individual can create collective hope
Rebecca Solnit, coauthor of the book Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibilitytold an extraordinary story on the podcast:
In 2016, a few Native women, Lakota women from the Standing Rock reservation, took a stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It becomes the biggest gathering of Native people in the Americas maybe ever. It becomes a huge part of the climate movement. This waitress in New York gets in a station wagon with her friends and they all go out to Standing Rock that fall. What she sees there, she finds so powerful, so moving, it gives her a sense of hope and possibility. She goes back to New York and she decides ultimately to run for Congress. But most people just say, “Oh, pretty waitress, nobody’s heard of her.” Everyone’s heard of her now—her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She becomes the most visible person in Congress. The voice of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal does not pass, but it’s such a radical vision of what climate action could look like. It changes the conversation. And so Biden’s climate platform essentially starts to look a hell of a lot like the Green New Deal. Which is huge.
In this story, you can see how hope moves through a chain of individuals, from a grassroots protest to the highest levels of government. Perhaps one of the tricks of facing climate change is to decide that you want to stand in that chain.
2. Data: Small actions add up
So many of us are struggling with the magnitude of climate change. Climate scientist Patrick Gonzalez, who lives a totally car-free life, explained how something as small as walking more can actually make a difference for the planet and how we feel:
Meaningful and proven climate change solutions are all around us. Walking or biking instead of driving. Adopting a plant-rich, meat-free diet. And, like each of us, I control my own actions. So I aim to live as sustainably as I can. And keep my carbon pollution as low as I can to help reduce climate change and protect people and nature. If everyone with a car in the United States gave up their car one out of seven days, we could cut carbon pollution by 42 million tons of carbon a year. That’s equivalent to three times all of the carbon pollution of Ireland. Billions of small unsustainable actions caused the problem of climate change. So billions of sustainable actions, however small, will help solve it.
You’re probably not able to give up your car entirely, but knowing these numbers might help you to take Gonzalez’s suggestion and seize opportunities to walk or bike instead of drive. That’s not just good for the Earth—it’s good for your body, too.
3. Action: Look at the data, it’s hopeful
When it comes to slowing climate change, there is a lot of progress to consider. The world has quadrupled renewable energy capacity globally. On the podcast, Gonzalez shared how in the U.S., renewable energy exceeded coal in 2019 for the first time since the 1800s:
The U.S. cut carbon pollution 13%. We did this by becoming more efficient, cutting carbon pollution per person. Life cycle costs for solar and wind energy are now lower than coal, gas, and nuclear. These data provide me with optimism, a science-based optimism, and this progress offers hope for the future. It’s the real progress we’ve made in cutting carbon pollution that provides hope. That hope sustains our will to advance progress. In this way, progress and hope create a self-reinforcing feedback for positive change.
Positive numbers don’t erase the urgency of climate change, but they do help us to understand that progress isn’t just possible—it’s happening. And when you hear about something good, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it on social media or in person with the people you know.
4. Action: Surround yourself with community that believes in sustainability
If we keep up with the news or we doom-scroll climate change events on our phones, we’re more likely to feel hopeless. But if we seek out community and people who stop to smell the roses, walk around with an eco-friendly water bottle, and organize around climate action, we will probably feel supported, motivated, and hopeful.
© CC BY 2.0 / Chris Boland
“The solution is community, being a part of a community, finding a community, supporting community, recognizing community,” says Solnit. “Capitalism wants us to be consumers, not citizens. A citizen is part of something bigger. A citizen is a participant in public life.”
Indigenous scientist Yuria Celidwen, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, believes bringing the voices of Indigenous wisdoms could seriously affect and benefit the way that we all relate to the planet.
“This constant dynamic participatory aspect of relationships is very foundational in Indigenous ways of understanding the world,” she says on the podcast. “That varies very much from the Western perspectives, but bridging the different views can help all of us adapt much better to the challenges that we are facing.”
5. Action: Walk in nature and write about it
Getting our steps in isn’t just good for our well-being: Walking in nature increases our sense of connectedness with the Earth and our motivation to take climate action.
In one podcast episode, musician and activist Diana Gameros described ditching her car and walking for three days. One day, as she walked through a forest, it started raining:
All these trees—redwood trees, eucalyptus trees, the grass were just swollen with color and just filled with so much life. Who needs psychedelics when you have rain? You start to notice, flowers came in earlier or way earlier. You begin to understand the impact of climate change. It’s sort of a realization that it can be possible, that we can stay off our cars, that we can choose, and that choice, it’s not gonna make us miserable—totally the opposite.
© Erin Evans
Tomás Morín, an award-winning poet, author, and professor of creative writing at Rice University in Texas, has felt eco-anxiety since he was a kid—when he learned that there was a hole in the ozone layer. He shared how a writing practice helped him shift from anxiety to hope, by helping him slow down, think of action, and cultivate gratitude for what was working.
“I feel like we just move through the world so fast and we’ve forgotten that we’re actually speeding through it,” he said. “Speed oftentimes does equate that haste does turn into waste. Not just like physical resources, but a waste of energy, waste of thought, a waste of feeling.”
The psychologist who studied this practice, Charlotte van Oyen-Witvliet, also explained on the podcast how she tested it, and why it works: “We can avoid this overwhelming kind of helpless despair on the one hand, but also not this sort of naive optimism that leads to presumption and passivity on the other. It can keep us going, like, ‘what I do matters and what I decide not to do also matters.’”
6. Mindset: Ecological belonging fuels hope
When we explore the intersection of environmental well-being and our own well-being, we realize that taking care of ourselves and the planet are one and the same—and that feeling good is not only possible, but necessary for our survival.
Celidwen spoke deeply about how the Indigenous concepts of belonging can sustain our hope and fuel our action. “We are nature,” she said. “So it’s not apart from us, we are part of her. So once we start allowing ourselves to be welcomed by the whole of the heart of Mother Earth, we start realizing how responsive she is.”
She explained the concept of “ecological belonging,” which cultivates the awareness that we are part of a collective and responsive ecological system that then we can of course help thrive.
“It’s a way of responsibility and reverence of life. How we move forward depends on how much we connect so that we can work on this together. So it’s true that all these challenges are innumerable, but at the same time, the opportunities are infinite.”
7. Mindset: View uncertainty as possibility
We don’t always know where change will come from, but change itself is a constant, argued Solnit in her episode. “One of the reasons I think scientists are not so despondent is because they know that the Earth has been endlessly creating new forms of life and new patterns, but also old ones have fallen again and again,” she said.
You could say something similar of humanity: While we can’t know what the future will bring, we do know that just as collective human action created climate change, so we can collectively act to minimize its impact. And as we do our best, we can try to remember that nature is bigger than any of us:
No matter what happens over the next hundred years, there will be sunrises and moon rises. The Milky Way will be the Milky Way—that the non-organic world will do its thing. There will be tides and waves and not everything is gonna make it. But a lot will. There will be birds, there will be flowers, there will be trees, there will be forests.
The Science of Happiness Podcast is produced by Shuka Kalantari, executive producer; Haley Gray, producer; Jennie Cataldo, sound designer of Accompany Studios; associate producers Bria Suggs and Maarya Zafar; and editor-in-chief Jason Marsh. It is a co-production of PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where we study the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teach skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.