What is Hopeful Realism?

If you take a realistic view of any number of situations in the world today, you may find yourself hard pressed to see any of them as hopeful. Of course, that would not stop an optimist from being optimistic. From an entirely different perspective, the pessimist might say, “I told you so; these situations are hopeless.” Both can thereby excuse inaction.

Well, the assessment of just how hopeful or dismal a situation may be involves a number of other factors, some psychological, others perceptual, some unfortunately driven by the force of propaganda, and some even practical. But, true hope resides only in realistic assessments of situations and in taking the actions necessary to achieve our goals.

The Existential Predicament

The human brain works in mysterious ways. Yet, ever since Adam Smith and the economic rationalists took control of modern culture, the prevailing view of mental processes has remained rather simplistic. So called “Rational Man” was assumed (women were seen as irrational) to simply assess all the data about reality and makes decisions to act in whatever ways maximize benefit to his (she is not considered) control over the things in the world that matter: economic power and wealth creation.

Of course, the world is not nearly so simple. Eventually, even some economists recognized that many things other than economic rationality influence human decisions. This rather recent development, called “behavioral economics,” however, falls way short of addressing the existential predicament of human response to fundamentally untenable conditions of modern life.

Sure, if we hide in the industrial-consumer bubble and pretend that life is as simple as is portrayed in television sit-coms or crime shows, we can easily hold to our optimistic or pessimistic pretensions. Or, if we are politically inclined we can hold to our ideological positions and simply demonize those who hold opposing perspectives. End of story.

None of it resolves the existential predicament that we must acknowledge if we are willing to face the facts that confront us in the ‘real world.’ Those facts happen to be quite difficult. They can be summed up in the recognizable pattern of a trajectory of change that I have called “The New Great Transformation.” Karl Polanyi called the industrial revolution the “Great Transformation,” because it fundamentally transformed societies to fit the requirements of industrialization by subordinating the way people live to support the new industrial economy.

Today, as we approach the end of the industrial era, a New Great Transformation of the entire Earth System has begun because of the extensive damage that the global industrial-consumer economy has caused, wreaking havoc on the global climate and on the ecosystems that support all life, including our own.

This new situation is an existential predicament because its path of destruction is changing the conditions of life itself. This leaves us no choice but to radically change the way we live as a society or face societal collapse and possibly extinction as a species. On top of that, with little time left to act, most folks fail to recognize the depth of the predicament that confronts us.

Enter Hopeful Realism

Clearly, all hope is lost if we continue on the path of business-as-usual, which will lead to societal collapse as our “technosphere” continues to destroy the complex Earth System that sustains us. When confronted with difficult situations, humans respond in a variety of ways.

Denial is a very popular defense mechanism used to avoid facing things we do not want to have to deal with. Projection is the psychological process that allows us to blame others for what we deny is really our own problem. Both are counterproductive. Neither is optimism or pessimism; however, both provide excuses for not acting to confront a real problem.

As Bill McKibben recently described the dilemma of the powerful oil and gas corporations, “Everyone Wants to Sell the Last Barrel of Oil,” before the inevitable end of the fossil-fueled energy system that drives industrial civilization. Even those who recognize the end of an era try to squeeze that last profit out of the system before it goes down. That too is contrary to the actions necessary to transform society to save what is left of the ecosystems that sustain human life.

This is where hopeful realism begins to make sense. The situation seems hopeless when we look at it realistically. So many people and institutions continue failing to admit or do what is necessary. Yet, what are the alternatives to doing nothing out of hopeless despair? Well, the fact is that humans have always lived in an imperfect world, despite our illusions of perfection and progress. Hope resides in our willingness to take action on the best information we have.

It seems to me that as long as I continue to breath, walk, and talk, I can do something, and should. There are no guarantees. There is only hope, but only if we are realistic and take on the greatest predicament humanity has ever faced by acting instead of falling into the fatalism that underlies both optimism and pessimism. As Greta Thunberg stated in an interview, “Hope comes from action.” And action must be driven by realism and creativity in seeking goals, not by stories that no longer represent reality.


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