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Growing Critical Hope in the Midst of Destruction

A piece by Leila Meredith, who joined EH*V as a summer volunteer in 2020.

The world that was once mapped out for us is crumbling beneath our feet. We can either look at the crack before us as a chasm to be sucked down, lost in the destruction of the old world, or we can see the gap as a gateway to a new, fairer, kinder, greener world. The difference here is hope.

When I was considering what to write about for this article I gravitated towards my passion, the topic of learning within activist spaces. I understand that it is within these spaces of learning that we are able to cultivate the hope needed to motivate ourselves into action that is vital in transforming that chasm into a gateway; without this hope the uncertainty of the future can become overwhelming and despair can take over. The implications of this for mental health can be catastrophic, indeed, educating myself about the realities of the climate crisis has deeply intensified the anxiety that I have struggled with for all of my life and sometimes I find it intensely hard to pull myself out of hopelessness. However, at the same time it has been learning within activist spaces and creating connections that has empowered me. As I educate myself on the system driving climate breakdown, and the literature and activists that challenge this system, I recognise that it is this very system that perpetuates so many forms of oppression. Fighting this amorphous monster can feel even more unattainable and hopeless. It is important to note that the climate crisis perpetuates and exacerbates local global structures of power and oppression and therefore to fight for climate justice is to fight for social justice. I want to recognise that the impact of the climate crisis on mental health affects us all, the uncertainty of a future which once seemed constant fills me with existential dread and deep anxiety, however because of the oppressive system of which the climate crisis was born, the effects of this crisis are more harshly felt by marginalised communities. I say this in order to observe the privilege that I have as a white woman living in the global north. I wish to fight for a world that is fairer and greener and to do this it is important to recognise the privileges and inequalities embedded into the current world. I want to use this article to consider the way critical hope enables us to question this world and imagine a new one, focusing on how this enables activists globally to support ourselves, create connections, empower each other, and cultivate solidarity and hope in a time that can often feel so hopeless.

In order to look for hope it is first important to recognise the mechanisms of hopelessness that are bred in the current destructive system. The exploitative nature of this society is producing unbearable social and ecological conditions, devastating the world’s natural resources and is detrimental to human dignity (Amsler, 2015; Earl, 2018). We are enclosed into a system of ‘flood up’ economics whereby the rich become richer at the price of the poor, marginalised communities and the planet (Earl, 2018). Furthermore, within this destruction is the confinement of our imagination and the ability to conceive alternative ways of being. Sarah Amsler (2015) suggests that within a neoliberal capitalist system even when we learn of the shameful extent of economic and social inequalities, the deterioration of mental health and the magnitude of the climate and ecological crisis, the media sells us the myth that we must make do with the current system. We are called to adapt rather than actively conceive of alternatives to the destructive system. The neoliberal story strips us of our common purpose, leading to ‘a loss of belief in ourselves as a force of change’ (Monbiot, 2017, P.22). The combination of these ‘pedagogies of impossibility’ and the enclosure of common spaces of learning breeds a system built on individualism and competition instead of collaboration and collective imagination (Amsler, 2015, p.14: Monbiot, 2017). Amsler (2015) argues that this system tells us over and over again that the profit of a small elite is more important than any alternative world we might conceive of. The enclosure of imagination and collaboration acts to cultivate hopelessness, the feeling that we as one person cannot challenge a system so big and powerful.

However, as we have seen in the last decade this is a myth we have been fed to uphold the system. Grassroots movements calling for the powerful paradigmatic transformation of the current system have existed globally long before they were thrown into the mainstream media of the West. Indeed, post development theorists have long been critical of the West’s notion of development, arguing that it is unsustainable and dangerous to both human and planetary life and devalues indigenous knowledges and practices (Escobar & Esteva, 2017; Escobar, 2015). These discourses for change emerge from deep grief and anxiety over the growing ecological and social crises, using this pain to incite profound change (Escobar, 2015). I consider these movements to be examples of critical hope. So often hope is perceived as blind hope, by which in the act of hoping we are able to evade the harshness of reality and escape the burden of action. However, Maria Ojala (2017) highlights the importance of critical hope, defining this hope as grounded in an understanding of reality and recognition that there is something lacking. This leads to the longing for something different, hope beginning with disruption that displays that things can be otherwise. Ojala suggests that ‘It is by accepting the problems at hand, for instance the threat from climate change, and by facing and bearing the negative emotions related to them that a hope can be evoked that will drive engagement’ (Ojala, 2017, p.79). Critical theorist Paulo Freire suggests that without critical hope we become lost in hopelessness and lose the strength that is essential to the re-creation of the world.

‘My hope is necessary, but it is not enough. Alone it does not win. But without it my struggle will be weak and wobbly. We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water’ (Freire, 1994).

In Ojala & Freires understanding of critical hope, hope offers more than just comfort, comfort that potentially enables us to evade action. Instead critical hope is backed by an understanding that the system we live in is destructive, and an impulse to imagine an alternative world. It is in critical hope that activists can break free from the pedagogies of impossibility and instead create spaces in which to learn, unlearn and envision utopia. In this way I consider activism is grounded in education for radical change. Freire (1994) highlights that these visions of utopia are so essential to educational practices which seek to unveil dominant social lies (Freire, 1994). Post development theorists Esteva and Escobar (2017) highlight that it is often grassroots movements that provide the opportunity for individuals and communities to explore being differently.

It is through critical education within activism that critical hope can be cultivated. Critical questioning of the detrimental nature of the dominant system combined with an active imagination for utopia provides an impulse for action. Collective care and collaboration is an act of protest against a system that tell us we are alone. It is with this vision and community that hope is grown, and change begins. The chasm instead becomes a gateway through which we can create future in which we care for people and planet.


Amsler, S. (2015). The Education of Radical Democracy. Routledge.

Escobar, A. (2015). Degrowth, post-development, and transition: a preliminary

conversation. Sustainability science, 10 (3), 451-462.

Esteva, G., & Escobar, A. (2017). Post-development @ 25: on ‘being stuck’ and moving

forward, sideways, backward and otherwise. Third World Quarterly, 38(12), 2559-2572.

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed.

Bloomsbury Academic.

Monbiot, G. (2017). Out of the wreckage: A new politics for an age of crisis. Verso.

Ojala, M. (2017). Hope and anticipation in education for a sustainable future. Futures. 94, 76-84.

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