Radical Hope

What makes hope radical?

Or what distinguishes radical hope from just hope? Hope is often polarised with despair, as generating positive attitudes to life rather than negative ones. This can be a false dichotomy as TS Eliot suggests in East Coker:

I said to my soul, be still,
and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

The wrong thing is that escapist hope which refuses to attend to the looming threat, such as when we fail to read the clear signs that a relationship is at an end, or that our culture’s obsession with escapist entertainment might be a distraction from the signs that the climate is moving into strange and dangerous patterns. This denial is at the centre of Climate Psychology, whose strapline is ‘facing into difficult truth’. This facing into the difficulty takes courage, whether it is a personal difficulty or a collective one.

Courage to adapt

In his book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear drew on the situation in late 19th century North America that faced Crow chief, Plenty Coups, to imagine the kinds of resources and ethical values that would be needed for the Crow to adapt to a new way of life after their traditional way of life had collapsed. There were many facets of this collapse, most pertinently stated by Plenty Coups as: “But when the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened” (p.2).

This is a profound poetic statement. It reflects the inability to make sense of what is happening when the very vehicles of meaning-making become defunct. Adapting required facing into the collapse, despite it going against so many of their values. This facing into the collapse is the challenge for a different kind of hope. There is a strong parallel between societies facing collapse after depleting resources and the human psyche disavowal of its own failure. More simply put: this is denial and a refusal of cultural vulnerability. Lear’s radical hope describes a cultural revolution in the Crow nation. It involved accepting a tragic destruction of their way of life as a means to imagining a new future.

What is in the shadow

This is what makes hope radical – that it involves relinquishing the old values and identifications, and embracing what has been held in their shadow. Psychologically, this means engaging what has been numbed – feeling into our helplessness, anguish, grief and destructive entitlement. Strangely, through facing into this dark shadow of our well-meaning persona, a new hope can be born that supports a resilience to our collective troubles and a capacity to engage the terrible reality that humans have produced with fresh and radical counter-cultural acts.


Elliot, T.S. (1968). East coker. Four quartets. London: Folio Society.

Lear, J. (2006). Radical hope: ethics in the face of cultural devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weintrobe, S. (Ed.) (2013). The difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change. In Weintrobe, S. (Ed.). Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

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