On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing threats facing the planet. One theme was the role of hope in such an era of vast challenges. Highlights from that conversation are below.
“This idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that. Humans are marvelous at treating problems, especially aggressive problems like this, quite well. That's why agricultural productivity is up. … that's why we're going to solve the climate challenge.”
“The data that we collect suggests that humans are not a burden, that we're not going to reach a carrying capacity. That our capacity for innovation actually allows humans to be ever more productive. Which is why population continues to increase, and not collapse. It's because every generation we can add more.”
“We're capable of being selfish and shortsighted and ignorant, but we're also capable of being incredibly generous and thoughtful and we have our intellect that we can exercise in amazing ways. So the question then becomes which of those are we going to choose? Which of those pathways will maybe save humankind? I believe that people, the best of people, will eventually come forward and win out.”
“Maybe it's optimism that you can have an impact, but I think it also ... That personally responsibility motivates you to be an engaged citizen, and to learn more, and to stay informed, and so forth. And I think that's another thing that we can all be doing. If everyone was more informed about the facts they would at least make a better decisions, or at least more informed decisions.”
"There is a complex multi-faceted moral call at this moment in human history that needs to draw on other cultures, other religions, other peoples and races and so on, to build what I would call a multicultural, but planetary civilization, for the future. I think we can do that."
"I think we're in this exciting moment of expansion of an ethical and moral sensibility, that's grounded in the science, that gives us that sense of the intricacy of ecosystems."
“I believe that the technology can solve some of the really urgent problems of climate change, and will have to be brought to bear urgently now. But we've even seen in the last five years how that can actually come to fruition at a global scale. So I think that there's a lot to be optimistic about, but it's going to be a pretty heavy lift for the next 50 years.”
"When we ask whether we can expect to solve problems, prospectively, we run the incidental risk of forgetting that we're already an ongoing catastrophe, for the planet, in so many dimensions. It's not as if we've succeeded so far, and we can expect to continue to succeed."
"If we look at the people who were historically responsible for many of the kinds of progress that give us the greatest sense of historical possibility now, especially reform in social life and economic life, they didn't necessarily take heroic measures because they were optimistic. It was because they felt solidarity. It was because they were in it together with other people, and that gave them enough reason to act together toward the future."
“So many of the environmental problems we're talking about will not be solved by more virtuous personal and local action. ... And so our optimism is cruel and incomplete if it doesn't include saying that one of the things people need to do is see how hard the problem is, and what kinds of changes at the level of the architecture of economic rules and power we're working within have to happen. ... These are really questions of collective power.”
"One of the things I find hopeful in the history of environmental thought and action is that it's often involved people re-imagining their place in the world. Revisiting the question: Who are you connected to? Which problems are yours? Is it in your interest to save something that you can't immediately use?"
professor of law Duke University and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene