Infectious Hope

One of the things we are thinking about in my classes on social and environmental justice is whether it’s better, as an activist, to put your energies into a top-down or a bottom-up strategy.

Should we be trying to pressure governments, politicians and international organizations to do the right thing when it comes to, say, climate change policies?

Or should we be trying to ignite a whole series of grassroots, local, community-based changes?

Obviously it’s not an either-or proposition—it’s important to work at all levels.

But I notice that when I think about the big picture, I feel impotent and despairing.  Who is going to stop the massive deforestation of the planet?  How are we going to get the fat cats in corporations, governments and the United Nations to understand how critical it is to maintain forests and healthy agricultural soils so that they can function as the effective carbon sinks they are meant to be in our delicately balanced terrestrial eco-system?

It’s remarkable to note how my despair turns to hope when I turn my attention to the many local initiatives that I know are going on all over the globe.

When I think about how my hometown, Great Barrington MA, will be one of the first in the world to actually BAN PLASTIC BAGS in stores, my heart swells with pride.

Hope fills me to learn that Seattle is creating an innovative “Food Forest” in a city park, aiming to improve public health by regenerating public land into an edible forest ecosystem created using permaculture principles to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species.

And when I hear that some of the incredibly powerful billionaires on the planet are using their money to try to turn the climate change juggernaut around—for example, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson—it makes me believe that all is not lost.

Both despair and hope are highly contagious.

It is easy to pay attention to the constant stream of depressing news and believe that the game is over, so there’s no point in trying anymore.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesJust as green plants poke their way stubbornly through asphalt and even the most blighted landscapes are always striving to regenerate, our Earth always tends towards life.

Every single species alive on the planet today, from humans to microbes, has survived many cataclysms and tough times in the past.  Just as we have before, we can rise to the challenges that face us today.

It really doesn’t matter whether your preferred approach is lobbying Washington DC or starting a Transition movement in your town.

The important thing is to stay alert, stay active and engage with others who understand that the choices we make day by day can, cumulatively, have a critical impact on our planetary future.

We cannot afford to be complacent or ignorant, and neither can we afford the luxury of despair.

Put your hope into action, one day at a time.  I truly believe that the bridge of hope we build together can take us over these dangerous times, into a future bright with promise.

Leave a comment


  1. Kathy Westra

     /  February 20, 2014

    Thanks for this lovely piece, Jennifer. A year after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I attended a lecture by author Barbara Kingsolver at the Smithsonian. In response to her expressions of hope for living more sustainably, a member of the audience asked how she could be hopeful in such times. Ms. Kingsolver’s answer is one I’ve never forgotten. She said: “Hope is not an emotion. It’s a discipline. And every morning I put on hope with my shoes.” So may we all.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 20, 2014

      So must we all, Kathy! Thanks for the reminder about discipline. I also always remember something I heard Kaethe Weingarten say, although she may have been quoting someone else: Hope is a verb, it’s something we do, not something we have. And hope is best done with others. I will not give up hope–we’re not ready for that, not by a long shot! Indeed, the fight to renew and repair our relationship with the planet is just getting going! Now is the time when our disciplined hope is needed, more than ever.

  2. I too get hope from the tens of thousands of grass roots communities throughout the world that are taking the salvation of our planet, and themselves, into their own creative hands. Here is a link to a piece I wrote for New Mexico Mercury, on one such project in El Salvador:
    This amazing community is also interesting because it was founded and is run by ex revolutionaries and ex National Guardsmen working together to build a future for their children.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 21, 2014

      Thank you Margaret for sharing this–it is exactly the kind of story that gives my hope wings. Sometimes I wonder if there is a media conspiracy going on to only share all the wars, disasters and gloomy news in the world–from the BBC to NPR to CNN, that’s what the focus is way too much of the time, and it gives us a seriously skewed and depressive view of the world, leading to despair, apathy and inaction. I find that whenever I stop listening to the “official story” for a while (i.e., take a media holiday), my spirits rebound. And I try to pay attention to the few media outlets that do focus on positive stories, for instance Yes Magazine ( I am trying in my blog to hold the positive energy, while of course not losing my awareness of the urgency and seriousness of our times.

  3. Hi all,
    Wonderful comments with much to think about. I am trying also to keep hope alive. When I write about a terrible future that awaits us if we don’t take action now, I also write about the incredible privilege of being here to be part of the solution at this very moment in human history. Knowing the problems does not have to mean embracing them. We can know and we can act with hope in our hearts and our minds. Despair does not create change.
    In the sequel to my book, both futures exist – the one we will have if we don’t come together and collaborate to solve our environmental problems and the one we will have if we do.
    I believe they are both possibilities.


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