Quirks & Quarks

An argument for 'evidence-based hope' to help fight the environmental crisis

In a new book Elin Kelsey calls for more attention to our successes in preserving the environment, which will help motivate people to do more.

Elin Kelsey decries the emphasis on bad environmental news as demotivating and disabling

Writer and environmental studies scholar Elin Kelsey's new book is called "Hope Matters: Why changing the way we think is critical to solving the environmental crisis" (Agathe Bernard)

These are fraught and troubled times.

We have the continuing burning pandemic, anxiety over a turbulent political situation in our neighbour to the south, and for those who can spare the attention from those slow-motion trainwrecks, there are the existential environmental threats we're facing from pollution, extinctions and climate change.

And according to Elin Kelsey, it may be unhelpful to remind you of all that. Because the relentless negativity of the way we talk about things like the environmental crisis could be hamstringing our ability to do anything about it.

That's the argument in Kelsey's new book, which she calls an "evidence based" argument for hope and optimism as we engage with our real environmental challenges.  

Elin Kelsey is a science and environmental writer, and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria.  Her new book is called Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis

Here's part of her conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

You call this an evidence based argument for hope. What exactly do you mean by that? 

I think so often when people think about hope, they very quickly go to wishful thinking, and they imagine that hope is some kind of Pollyanna-ish idea of if only things were better or if we just assume that they are or pretend that they are. 

(Greystone Books)

The argument I'm making is that almost all of the environmental news that we hear about is positioned as problem identification. But because we only hear about problems, we're missing the evidence of things that are moving in a positive direction. And what that ends up doing is it causes us to feel like all of our hard work is for naught, you know, we're at the starting line. There's no hope because there's no time. It really fuels a whole collection of worries and concerns. 

You also talk about how that can lead to counterproductive behaviours in people as well. 

Medical researchers like the American Psychological Association point out that eco-anxiety, for example, is at a very high level and that when we feel those feelings of anxiety or dread or deep seated fear, that's very difficult for our mental and emotional health and well-being. 

But the other thing is that it also causes us to be less engaged with these issues that we deeply care about because we feel cynical or fatalistic or the sense that it's all too late already --  really doom feelings. And those feelings are not conducive with taking action. 

So you're saying that the problem is that bad information can be demotivating? 

Exactly. And it's not that the information is bad. You know, I really want to say I'm a super believer in evidence-based arguments and we need to know what problems there are. What we're missing is really an awareness of what things are happening and the scale at which they're happening, because that is very motivating information. 

So hope is motivating then?

Perhaps the number one thing that happens when I talk to people about hope is they almost immediately tell me the worst story they can think of. And I think that they do that because they're afraid that I'm ill informed that I don't know what's going on. 

Marine plastic is a significant environmental problem, but we Elin Kelsey suggest we should have optimism about our ability to solve the problem. (iStock/Getty Images)

There's a fear, a really deep-set fear that if we talk about hope and solutions, we'll somehow be creating a sense of complacency that will be saying to people, don't worry, it's all fine -- you don't have to make any changes. That has been a concern for environmental activists worried that it'll somehow take pressure off of politicians and the need to act.

And my point is, we will always need pressure groups to keep pressure on those who need to act. Absolutely. That's a normal part of our democratic process and very necessary for these urgent issues. But on a more personalized basis, a steady diet of hopelessness, the psychological literature shows us it actually is very demotivating. 

It causes us to shut down, to tune out, to give up, to increase our cynicism, to feel less trusting of others, to be more insular, to be less creative. It's all the things we don't need at a time when we need creative solutions collectively held. 

So how do you go about generating hope in the face of this relentless tide of bad news about the environment? 

Really trying to support and amplify examples of solutions as they're happening. And I'm very happy to say in the last decade or so, there's been this emergence of a field called 'solutions journalism,' and in solutions journalism the idea is that you look just as rigorously at solutions, just as critically as you would at problems in your reporting of them. That's just one source of being able to see solutions being reported in an evidence based fashion. 

I also created back in 2014 with some wonderful women, a hashtag called #oceanoptimism, and the idea there was to crowdsource and share examples of ocean conservation solutions and successes so that they could be made more readily available in social media.

One can look on those on a daily basis and see examples from all over the world of things that are moving in a positive direction and worth amplifying. 

Writer and environmental scholar Elin Kelsey (Agathe Bernard)

Well, you say that we should focus more on these success stories in the environment. Give me some examples of what you've seen that gives you hope. 

Just in this last year, we're seeing a lot of shifts going on in the financial markets. In October, 30 of the world's largest investors with five trillion dollars in assets set five year decarbonization targets in line with the climate change agreement. And sustainable mutual funds reached one trillion dollars in the second quarter in 2020. So that change is occurring because shareholders are demanding that investors make more climate appropriate investments. 

Many young people are very concerned about plastic pollution, as they should be. It's a huge issue, but it's helpful for them to know that, you know, a hundred and thirty eight countries around the world have in recent years put in single use plastic bans or fines or tariffs. And in fact, just in very recent weeks, there's been a lot of talk about a UN treaty on ocean plastic. 

We almost always talk about the environment as "if we did this, then maybe this good thing would happen." I like to talk about because we have been doing this, these good things are emerging and we need more of them. 

Written and produced by Jim Lebans



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