What Passes for Hope: 19 Writers on Finding Meaning in the Face of the Climate Crisis

“Is there still work to be done? Is there still a world to love? The answer to both of these questions is yes.”

To meet this moment of climate crisis with anything other than despair demands so much of us: motivation, imagination, and action on a global scale. We reached out to some of the writers whose work has touched this crisis to ask them where they locate hope—or what passes for it—in their day-to-day existence.

Their answers, like the climate crisis itself, are intensely personal: they call upon past generations of activism; they question the usefulness of “hope” except as an impetus to action; they recognize that community sustains and saves lives; they describe what it looks like to care for the living things that surround each of us. Above all, they argue for attention—to the damage that humans have already caused, the ways that we know we can curb it, and the people working to do just that.

–Corinne Segal, Lit Hub senior editor

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Mary Annaïse Heglar, co-host of Hot Take

I rarely look for hope, but when I need reassurance, I look to the past: the abolition of slavery, the overthrow of colonization and apartheid. Hard things have been done, and darkness has been turned to light, right here on this planet by people just like us.

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Jeff VanderMeer, author of Hummingbird Salamander

I focus past the frozenness by being attuned to the lifespans of the organisms in the yard and know that I can be of use to creatures, like opossums, for whom three years is a generation and who know nothing of the time beyond that.

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Bill McKibben, author of Falter

I’m hopeful because we’ve learned to use energy from heaven (the sun and the wind) to supplant energy from hell, and because there’s now a movement of people around the world determined to push us to that transition, even over the dead weight of the fossil fuel industry.

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Omar El Akkad, author of What Strange Paradise

I locate hope in the fact that for a new generation born in this era of ecological disaster, the smiling, fraudulent face of capitalism—the one that promises endless growth without downside—can no longer launder the reality of what this insatiable greed has done to our planet, and exposed for what it is, can finally be dismantled.

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Ben Okri, author of Every Leaf a Hallelujah

We will overcome, if we face the truth.

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Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky

I live in western New England, where the spring peepers still make a marvelous racket. When the peepers start to call, with that inimitable, high-pitched screech of theirs, it is as if life itself has been resurrected. The peepers just started calling the other day, and that—justifiably or not—gives me hope.

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Heather Houser, author of Infowhelm

I have no hope that we will avoid the 2°C maximum set by the Paris Agreement and therefore anticipate great damage for the least well off, but I have hope for mitigation and adaptation on two scales: progressive leaders and activists are working to mitigate and adapt at the local level, and financial institutions, which have long funded climate crisis, are pulling out of fossil fuel investments.

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Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising

Sometimes writing seems futile these days, but lately I’ve been thinking what if writing isn’t about communication so much as it is about agency building? Instead of just using my expertise to better communicate the impact of rising seas on frontline communities, I have been working within those communities to help them share their stories themselves. Hope for me dwells in the possibility that climate change demands that the authorship become a right, not a privilege.

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Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations

My greatest hope lies in the people who only recently rolled their eyes at the “tree-huggers” but are now beginning to care, for the only real way forward is for climate change to stop being be a divisive political issue and become universally recognized for what it already is: a question of global survival.

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Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of How Strange a Season

I train myself to find solace in beauty, even damaged beauty, and think of this quote from Allan Gurganus: “Despite our constantly poisoning this planet, who can deny it’s stayed stubbornly beautiful. Beauty gives itself so readily, if only we’re un-depressed enough to accept its latest offer.”

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Amy Brady, author of the forthcoming Ice

If not hope, then sense of purpose—that’s what the plants and animals in my own backyard inspire in me, with their scurrying and flapping and calling out with life, reminding me that there’s much we can protect and care for now at the local level, as we push for and demand global change.

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Sumanth Prabhaker, editor in chief of Orion

Every so often, when they seem no longer to speak to me, I blame my books for the world’s problems and go through a whole purge, and as I survey the remaining few, I take hope in the thought that I might one day become old and only one book will be left on the shelf and inside it will be all the answers.

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Ben Ehrenreich, author of Desert Notebooks

I don’t mean to sound glib, but hope is beside the point, as always. This world is beautiful, and worth fighting for.

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Joanna Pocock, author of Surrender

I am not sure I hold hope in my body these days. What I do hold is space and time for the people around me who are actively caring for the earth. Smack in the middle of dirty, gritty East London, where I now live, I tend two small patches of land alongside some bats, newts, foxes, and a community of dedicated locals. It is this, along with writing about the environment and spending time with fellow activists, that keeps me going. “Hope” itself feels like a placeholder word. It stands for so much.

It often makes me think of an essay Derrick Jensen wrote for Orion magazine many years ago in which he says, “You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.” This is what it boils down to for me. Getting soil under my fingernails and tending the earth—even the smallest patches of it—and loving the non-humans I live among. Truly loving them. That’s it. That is what hope looks like for me.

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Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts

I lose and regain hope several times a day, so I try to rely less on hope and more on purpose. I don’t mean that in a glib, “channel your despair into action” kind of way—our times are hard and likely to get harder, and we need to take care of ourselves and each other. What I try to remember is that both hope and despair are just guesses—what’s certain, right now, is that there’s useful work to be done. All we can do is keep doing what we’re best suited to do.

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Madeline ffitch, author of Stay and Fight

What gives me hope? It’s not a question I think about often. Hope is beside the point. If I think about it at all, I think there is no hope, there is only love. There is love and there is work. I don’t stop loving someone when they’re sick. I don’t stop working. It’s the same with the world. My questions are, is there still work to be done? Is there still a world to love? The answer to both of these questions is yes. And that will be true as long as we are alive and belong to the earth. And we do belong to the earth. And we belong to each other. I know the tradition I want to join, and it’s the tradition of those who fight despite long odds, who fight because there is no other option. You can call that a platitude. To me, it’s practical.

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Steve Edwards, author of Breaking into the Backcountry

I have been trying hard to turn my despair into a talisman for returning to the present moment. Spring peepers, passing clouds, a dandelion in a sidewalk crack—the simple awareness of such things sees me through.

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Lauren Markham, author of The Far Away Brothers

The other day, I took a walk along the beach afflicted with red tide where the sand was strewn with aquatic corpses—bloated pufferfish, nurse sharks, a regal sea turtle—their mouths and eyes pinned open as if perfectly stunned by what had befallen them. Despair is the easy way out, I’m realizing; hope is what we must muster as we honor the dead and dying, the righteous fight and those fighting it, and as we figure out, again and again and again, how to manifest our own best efforts into the world.

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Lydia Millet, author of A Children’s Bible

Hope is action and action is hope!






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